Home | Comment & Analysis    Saturday 10 October 2009

The Maasai youth cultural transition


By Peter Reat Gatkuoth

“It takes one day to destroy a house, but to build a new one will take a months; perhaps a year. If we destroy our own culture and ways of life to construct a new one, it will initially take a thousand of years (Maasai society statement).”

October 9, 2009 — The Maasai are East African people who live in Southern part of Kenya and Northern part of Tanzania; sharing border with different indigenous communities. They are well known internationally because of their strong cultural system, Powerful physical appearances, warrior reputation and their colorful traditional dresses. “Perhaps these people are known internationally because of their tall elegant muscular feature or their fierce, brave, stubborn and arrogant reputation. In some instance, they might be known because of their simple lifestyle and their distinctive appearance with ochre-covered warrior.”

In many traditional cultures, the rite of passage is a process in which an individual can easily describes their change as a passage into a new realm of living. It’s always common to most culture that the Youth transition has certain kind of expectations and rules to be met before individual declare being an adult/adolescent.

Adolescent is a time of transition from being a child to being seen as an adult, whereby the male or female undergoes a typical experience and dynamic changes to their physical, mental, emotional; spiritual and social being. Lerner (writer and professor) defined an adolescent as a “period of transition spanning the second decade of life during which a person’s biological, psychological and social characteristic undergo change in an interrelated manner and the person goes from being a childlike to an adult-like.”

This stage in life is celebrated in a variety of ways; namely feasts ceremonies and rituals. In most Kenya societies, this stage is always an exited time for the Youth as reaching this milestone in life always results in more independent, responsible and sexual maturity. Although there are many cultural similarities to my Sudanese experience as a Youth growing up in this kind of culture, The author picked up the Maasai Youth transition; and this analysis focus mainly and primarily on their cultural practices of circumcision; both sexes as an initiation rite of passage into an adulthood.

Given to the constructive criticism about this practice in our contemporary time, the Maasai tradition of females’ circumcision has generated much controversy especially in Western world where this cultural practice is seen as “barbaric” and nothing more but a mutilation to the female genitalia.

The following statements are the Maasai believe, and are gleaned from the Maasai rituals:

“It takes one day to destroy a house, but to build a new one will take a months; perhaps a year. If we destroy our own culture and ways of life to construct a new one, it will initially take a thousand of years.”

This statements in the Maasai traditional value, believe and custom means they believe that the maintenance and perpetuation of their culture is very important since their culture existed for many years. Consequently, the problem as we will see below is that the Maasai have experienced an outsider’s interference from Western Society due to the severe cultural practices of circumcision.

According to the Maasai tribal traditions, genital circumcision is often performed on both sexes as they reach the maturity ages. To the Maasai young boys, the word circumcision (emorate) sounds like a sweet erotic music loaded with promises of heroic deeds. It means the end of low -status of boyhood; and the entrance into the world of the warriors (morans) unlike the Sudanese circumcision. Culturally, this circumcision means from being hard work that enjoy a very minimal respect to the rise of the top members in society. In this way, the boys become the young, strong; courageous, protector and provider.

After the act of circumcision, both boys and girls are to assume new responsibilities in their community including the right to marry, hold land and own cattle for themselves. In some ways, they always look forward to this initiation rite as it means they can prepare to become warriors in the Maasai small world.

Generally, the Maasai male usually undergoes the rite of circumcision beginning in their early teen to late teen (similar to Sudanese Youth transition). It sometime depends on the consent of their elders. Circumcision is a removing of all part or part of the foreskin of the penis usually with the big and sharp knife to qualify a boy to be a man. In this manner, the Maasai boy sits and looks steadily at the eye of the operator without wavering.

Prior to the operation, there are many rituals a lad must partake in order to prove he is ready before the actual genital operation. Telirit Ole Saitot, in his autobiography, explained that “my father continued to tell us and every one of us keeps quite. The pain you feel is a symbolic. There is a deeper meaning. Circumcision means a break between childhoods to adulthood. For this time of your life, you are regarded as a grown up, a complete man or woman. You will be expected to give and not just to receive.”

Given to the explanation of the Telirit, there seems to be an emotional factors and fatherly expectations that motivate the kids to go through circumcision operations. It’s clearly noted that during the operation, the boy must be brave and must show no fear because being afraid will eventually results in future negative consequences for that particular boy (but wondering to what may happen to girls). One of the examples about the boys is that “no one can choose a boy who kicked a knife during the circumcision for the position of leadership.”

After the boy is circumcised and heals from his operation, he receives a gifts and gain respect from the whole tribe for his new status and courage. Circumcision heralds a whole new life, new dresses and ornamentation, new behavior and a new freedom that the youth never had when they were boys or girls (similar to Sudanese, but not girls).

In Maasai villages, the ceremonies varies among the sub-communities, but common to all of them is that the boys are shaved of hair on all part of the body and all jewelries, body ornament and other objects they had fastened to their bodies are removed. In this part, they always stripped naked and ready for the rebirth into the adult world. They are then daubed in patterns of white chalks, red ochre; black charcoal and spend the night dancing to celebrate the change that is about to happen soon while their girl friends never move away from them.

Early in the day, an ox, goats and sheep from each boy’s families is slaughtered, and therefore, everyone feasts. In preparation for the feasts, honey has been collected and also beer and traditional wine have been brewed. This is consumed in a great quantity by the elders and oldorobo circumcisers; all of whom frequently become intoxicated to the points of unconsciousness. The mothers and the fathers of the boys usually start dancing, chanting and singing the war songs all night long to celebrate the day their youngsters become men and warrior in society.

Although the other African societies considered the circumcision as a cleanliness or other purpose especially in Sudan, the Maasai people of Kenya circumcision has a great value that mean break between a childhood to an adulthood whereby an individual will be respected; and considered as a mature human with full responsibility. You will be expected to protect the whole society from the outsider or invaders. The members of society will see you as an individual capable of serving the society and not just to be protected.

Female circumcision in many part of African society has long been apart of the live of many young Muslim, Christian, Jewish and other African girls. The Maasai girls are often circumcised during the puberty as a rite of passage into adulthood. The circumcision for the girls involves the removal of all part of external female genitalia. One of the researcher and Professor of Culture illustrated that “only the girl is circumcised to be ready for marriage and usually the community shuns those who refuse the procedure” (Whiting, 2003). Unlike the boys, the girls are permitted to cry during the operation as their circumcision are seem to be more severe than that of boys.

Today, the Maasai traditional rituals of the female circumcision has generated much attention and controversy in recent time because the Western society and international community deem this practices to be “barbaric” act imposed upon the female by forces or by conditions. In the Western world, Maasai female circumcision has become known as the Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) or Female Genital Cutting (FGC). The US department of state in the last five years declared that “many non Governmental Organization (NGOs) are actively trying to eliminate the Maasai circumcision practices through education, awareness campaigns, legislative lobbying and advocacy for the alternative rite of passage to adulthood for the young girls rather than this severe practices of circumcision.

Finally, this report goes on that “the Unite State, Netherland, Austria and Germany have supported NGOs and other organizations in the campaign against the practices.” As a result of this aggressive and persistent lobbying from Western Society and other Health organizations, the Kenya Government outlawed this traditional practice of Maasai Female initiation into adulthood. However, there is a resistant from the Maasai community despite the illegality and sanction against it. Even though the Government of Kenya has banned the practices, parents are still risking jail terms and heavy fines to put their daughters through this rite of passage.

Because of the nature and the fact that the world becomes one (global village) unlike years back, modern civilization is forcing many individuals/communities to ban their own ways of live. There are community in doubt and still practices severe cultural things especially in Kenya, Sudan and other part of Africa. In Maasai land, the circumcision of boys or the passage into the manhood still remain significant steps even today using that big and sharp knife to qualify the boys for manhood.

It’s interestingly that the Western Society and wealth health organization has determined what is good and what is bad for an indigenous people without consulting the Maasai tribal leaders for their opinions on the issue. As usual, the outlawed practices go underground and performed secretly by those who maintain their cultural customs, practices and identities.

Furthermore, it’s also very admiring to note that an attempt by the Kenyan government to stamp out these practices had failed primarily because of the fact that the Maasai women are the one to defend this practice, not the men. It looks like the Maasai women of Kenya are still very proud for their cultural practices doesn’t matter how severe its. They withstand all those criticism despite an incredible pressure, but their great challenges remain ahead.

Rite of passage or Youth transition around the world differ roughly in many traditional cultures. There are people who underwent this practice through smooth transition while other cultural transitions are very severe and critical to the stage of adulthood. However; some people are still backing up their own traditional culture as an interesting transition though it’s very skeptical. Rite of passage around the world is an interesting part of life where change are even seen visible by other as a true transition to the next step in life.

The author is Sudanese living in Western Hemisphere. His next article will target and focus primarily on the Sudanese culture, mostly the Nuer. The title of the next article will be The Nuer Traditional Religion, Culture and their View of nature. If you have any suggestion or question, reach him at peterreat@yahoo.com or nyakhot@myway.com

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  • 10 October 2009 11:05, by Akol Liai Mager

    I am a follower of Culture, I love all Cultures, and for this reason I love this particular article for death.

    Good stuff Reat Gatkouth, take care and do not let yourself drawn in this waves of Hatred Tsunami.

  • 11 October 2009 01:48, by thieleling

    Reat Gatkuoth,

    Great article!! I love learning different cultures.

    Language is culture and culture or language influences people’s thought process or thinking. Transceding understanding among different cultures bring peace. Keep up the good job!! Misunderstandings could be a matter of life or death. Understanding among different cultures matters!!


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