The Maasai people live in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. They are thought to have migrated southwards along the Great Rift Valley. With the growth of the population in the 20th century they have been more closely concentrated, and their predatory activities have been limited. The Maasai-Mara national park, a major tourist attraction for its wild animals, is named after them. The Maasai are the cow-men of the African savannah, and count their wealth by the number of cattle they own.
The tribe is organised socially by age sets: boys become warriors (morans or ol-murrani) following circumcision, and morans become elders when they have circumcised children. Circumcision or Emorata is the most important event in tribal Maasai life. The cutting of the flesh turns a boy into a man, a girl (en-kerai) into a woman (en-tito). This is done when both sexes are between the ages of thirteen and eighteen. Originally the interval between major circumcision and transition ceremonies was about fourteen years, but in recent times the ceremonies are more individualised. The warriors search out good grazing and water, protect their families and cattle from wild animals, and (until prevented by British colonial power) ranged far and wide along the Great Rift Valley and onto the high ground beside it, raiding the Kikuyu and other neighbouring tribes for cattle and captives.
The Maasai are usually tall, athletic, and fine featured (as shown in the above photo, three Maasai young men, warrior grade and therefore circumcised, dancing in their typical style, which involves jumping up and down on the spot.) They are not heavily built, like the Bantu, whom they despise, not least because Bantu tribes and the Luo do not circumcise. The Maasai live largely on milk and blood drawn from a cow' s jugular vein without killing it. A Maasai homestead (manyatta) is a group of low huts made of bent branches daubed with dried mud and cow-dung surrounded by a thorn fence, with separate huts for the father, each wife and her young children, and for the morans. The Oldorobo or Il Torrobo people were the aborigines in Maasai legend who lived in a Garden of Eden with Il Parakwo, ancestors of the Maasai. Il Torrobo adopted the Maasai language and attach themselves to the Maasai as rainmakers, circumcisers and attendants of the dead. In the 19th century they were mainly forest dwellers and lived by hunting, collecting honey, and as blacksmiths making spears, swords and knives to trade with the Maasai and other neighbouring tribes, for whom they also act as expert circumcisers.
Boys and warriors
To the Maasai layonis (or ol-ayioni), young boys, the word emorata (circumcision) sounds like sweet erotic music loaded with promises of heroic deeds. It means the end of low-status boyhood and the entrance into the world of the morans. From being hard-working dogsbodies who enjoy little respect, they rise to the top of society. They become the young, strong, courageous protectors and providers of their people, and the handsome, virile heroes of the young women. In short, they become everything that every young man, wherever he lives, longs to be. The English poet William Wordsworth asked: "Who is the happy warrior, he who every man in arms would like to be?" The answer is, he is the Maasai moran!
When you meet Maasai layonis you see that they do their work as instructed, but otherwise they are like young boys everywhere, full of life and carefree laughter. Then one day when the elders decide to repair the olpiron, a fire stick which is the sign that a new round of circumcisions is coming up, the young boys embark on a mental metamorphosis. The boys are presented to the laibon (or ol-oiboni), the witchdoctor or visionary, who, if the signs are right, gives his permission to start the ngipataa, the ceremony preparatory to the day of circumcision. Ceremonies vary among clans, but common to all is the feature that the boys are shaved of hair on all parts of their bodies and that all jewellery and other objects they have fastened to their bodies are removed. Thus they are stripped naked, ready for their rebirth into the adult world. They are then daubed in patterns of white chalk, red ochre and black charcoal and spend the night dancing and celebrating. The next day an ox, goat or sheep from each boy' s family is slaughtered and everybody feasts. In preparation for the feast, honey has been collected and beer has been brewed. This is consumed in great quantities by the elders and the Oldorobo circumciser, all of whom frequently become intoxicated to the point of unconsciousness.
This account is of the circumcision of a young boy named Samuel. His Maasai name, given him at birth by his father Koyati, was Parasayip. His full Maasai name was therefore Parasayip Ole Koyati, Ole meaning ' son of' in Maasai. Maasai children get a new, most often biblical, name when they start school.
We first meet Samuel outside his father' s manyatta while he is home from school during the Christmas holidays. It is December 10, two days before the Kenyan Independence Day. Samuel is a slim athlete of 14 and fairly fluent in English. After the holidays he goes back to school. He is aiming for top grades in order to get a scholarship for further studies to become a veterinarian.
But before resuming school he is to be circumcised. Not that he wants to become a moran, he tells us; he just wants to be a man, because only then will he be respected by the Maasai.
As we talk to him I remember how another Maasai, Tepilit Ole Saitoti, recalled his father' s admonitory speech before he was circumcised: "Tepilit, circumcision means a sharp knife cutting into the skin of the most sensitive part of your body. You must not budge; don' t move a muscle or even blink. The slightest movement on your part will mean you are a coward, incompetent and unworthy to be a Maasai man. Ours has always been a proud family and we will not tolerate unnecessary embarrassment, so you had better be ready. Imagine yourself alone remaining uncircumcised like the water youth (white man). I hear they are not circumcised. Such a thing is not known in Maasailand."
After a pause, he continued: "The pain you will feel is symbolic, it has a deeper meaning. Circumcision means a break between childhood and adulthood. For the first time you will be considered a grown up, complete man. You will be expected to give and not just to receive, to protect your family and not just be protected. And your wise judgement will for the first time be taken into consideration. If you are ready for all these responsibilities, tell us now. Entering into manhood is a heavy load on your shoulders and especially a burden on your mind."
Undoubtedly Samuel has received the same admonition from his father. And he has certainly been told by the morans that the operation will be dreadfully painful, but that it will not be unbearable. Or as the Maasai say, typical of their cattle culture, "Only blood will flow, not milk." And they have asked him if he was a orkirkenyi, one who has had intercourse with a circumcised woman. And if Samuel has admitted such an experience, his father, mother and the circumciser will have taken a cow from him as punishment.
Samuel' s ordeal starts at noon in the hut of his mother. First Samuel' s father' s first wife has her hair wetted with milk and is clean-shaved. Then she does the same to Samuel' s biological mother, his father' s second wife. Finally she shaves Samuel' s head. Then all three have their heads painted with red ochre.
The first wife then takes the young boy through the gate of the manyatta and together they catch three grasshoppers which are put into a mini-calabash sealed with cow dung. After the circumcision the grasshoppers will be released into the calf pen where they will be trampled to death.
This is to symbolise that the young man' s cattle pastures will never be hit by locust swarms or famine.
Samuel is now dressed in a black goatskin toga and sent out to collect an olive sapling to be his firestick, a stick used to make fire and also symbolizing the links between generations. When he returns, his metamorphosis is striking. He no longer smiles or talks; he is alone in the crowd of his people. And they do not communicate with him either, except for occasional derogatory or abusive words, like "you coward, you stupid boy." This is their way of encouraging him, of strengthening his resolve and thus preparing him for the coming ordeal.
The Circumcision Ordeal
Very early next morning, a good hour before sunrise, Samuel leaves the manyatta in company with other newly-circumcised boys. They go to the river where Samuel chills his genitals with the intention of easing some of the pain of the forthcoming operation. This completed, they hurry back to the manyatta where the preparations are in full swing. In the middle of the manyatta among the fifty odd cattle which are just awakening, a half-circle of olive saplings has been prepared. Inside the circle stands the circumciser and an elder of his father' s age. As Samuel enters the manyatta, he grasps an ox hide and throws it down like a rug into the half-circle. For a moment he stands still, as if in a trance, while ice-cold water is poured over his head from a very special pot. This pot was the one that had contained his placenta and had been kept just outside the gate of his family' s manyatta all these years. Samuel then throws himself down on the hide and the elder supports him from behind.
Immediately the circumiser goes to work. He spreads the boy' s legs, wets his penis with milk and then sprays it with a white powder. With quick, professional hands he cuts a semicircular slit at the base of the foreskin and threads the penis head through it. Then he removed all but the ventral ' seam' of the foreskin. This ndelelia - a good inch-long flap of skin - is left to chase evil spirits out of a woman' s vagina during intercourse and to protect him against venereal diseases. Supposedly it also gives women added pleasure and so makes them prefer the morans to uncircumcised males.
During the surgery, which takes less than two minutes, Samuel does not utter a sound, twitch a muscle or make the slightest grimace which could reveal pain or weakness. From his appearance you would swear that he has been properly anaesthetized. As he is helped into his mother' s hut afterwards, he is complimented for his bravery by all the onlookers and his mother is repeatedly told what a good son she has raised.
The circumcision ceremony is not just an ordeal for the one being circumcised. Judging from their reaction, it is also an intense emotional experience for the other young men; something like a religious revival meeting. Some of the young morans become very excited and a few throw themselves on the ground as if having epileptic fits, with their bodies shaking in muscular spasms and froth appearing around their mouths. During the ceremony they drink a soup made from the bark of the kiloriti bush which is said to have an invigorating effect. Our guide, who grew up with the Maasai, has enjoyed it several times during his youth but cannot recall any special effect.
Samuel does not bleed much during the operation. The circumciser explains that Samuel ate some special red berries the day before the operation which, together with the powder used during surgery, effectively prevented bleeding. However, when the powder is tested under proper medical conditions, it proves to have no anti-bleeding effect. Thus it appears most likely that both the lack of bleeding during the surgery and the fits of the onlookers are caused by something similar to self-hypnosis. Furthermore, danger, fear and cold are known to constrict the blood vessels of the genitals through sympathetic nerve stimulation.
After the circumcision, Samuel' s mother treats his penis with warm milk, fresh cow' s urine and mildewed dung. A strong, young ox is bled and Samuel is offered the fresh blood to drink in order to regain his strength. Two days later we meet him out walking with other newly circumcised boys, mbarnotis. And of course we ask him the obvious question.
"Was it painful?"
"Yes," he replies.
"But you did not show any pain?"
For a moment, Samuel looked at us with his dark brown afro-asian eyes.
"No, I didn't." And after a silent pause, "You don't."
One would fear that the lack of cleanliness during the operation would inevitably lead to infections. However, only in rare cases do infections occur, the reason being these boys' natural resistance, together with the use of fresh urine, which is almost sterile, and of mildewed dung, which may contain anti-microbial substances.
Another Maasai ordeal
During the period of recovery from circumcision, while the cut is healing, the young Maasai man may be exposed to ordeals of another kind.
David Read narrates such a situation in his book on Maasai life in earlier times, Waters of the Sanjan: While lying in his bed recovering from circumcision, the young man was visited by a married woman to whom he had once as a layoni made improper suggestions. The woman sat down on his bed, removed her skirt and began to caress him. All the while she spoke softly to him, telling him how much she had often wanted him but had been too frightened to take him as he was still uncircumcised. It was different now, she whispered; now that he was a moran no one could stop them making love. She moved her hand down to his pubic area and when he started having an erection, she lay down at his side and purred that he should move closer.
"I cannot," he panted, "and you know it!"
"We do not have to do it all until you are properly recovered," she said, "but there is nothing to stop us caressing each other."
With that the young man's erection split open the wounds and he began to bleed. Then the woman rose and said: "You have paid for your insult as custom requires, and I shall hurt you no more. I have truly been fond of you and now that you are a moran and my husband' s olpirion (of his age-group), you will be welcome in my house and we can be asanjas (lovers)."
Of course, we don' t know if this happened to Samuel. But it might have.
Circumcision was once followed by a period when the mbarnotis prepared themselves for moranhood. Wandering around in small groups armed with only sticks and bows and arrows, they had to fend for themselves. They were to keep out of sight of the other Maasai and were not allowed to join the morans. However, at night they could visit the manyatta for shelter and food. A major occupation during this period was to adorn their halo-like headdresses with as many of the most colourful birds as possible. For this purpose they tipped their arrows with a ball of beeswax or resin so that when they hit a bird, it would be stunned without damage to feathers or skin. They grow his hair. When they emerge from the recovery they apply white face paint. For a period after the operation, the boy wears animal hides blackened with charcoal and oil. They hunt and kill birds that will be used to decorate their headdresses. If a boy remained brave during the operation he can use colourful birds such as sunbirds, Diana' s barbets and touracos, but if he cried out he may only use gray ones such as cisticola birds. Now this period is often omitted and the boys are usually given a fully adorned headdress once the circumcision is over.
Girls' circumcision and genital modification
Whilst circumcision of the young men is an act for which they volunteer so that they can show how brave they are, the circumcision of the women is not. Nditos (uncircumcised girls) are circumcised once they become pregnant or before their ninth menstruation. They are allowed to scream and kick as long as they do not kick the knife. Usually they are held by women. During the operation the clitoris and parts of the labia are removed, and the vagina is enlarged. The women' s wounds are treated in the same way as the men' s and infection is said to be rare.
The Maasai circumcision operation
The Maasai operation is quite distinctive from the techniques used by Western surgeons, although very similar to the way that boys are circumcised in the Samburu, Kikuyu, and other tribes for whom the Oldorobo also act as circumcisers. An early description of the Maasai operation is given in German by Merker (1904, p.62-3). He comments that because the operation is very painful it is done at dawn, the coolest time of the day, and to reduce their sensitivity to pain the boys soak themselves with cold water. The Dorobo operator uses a two-edged, pointed knife about the length of a finger. During the operation the boy sits on a cow-hide on the ground with his legs spread. Shifting from German into Latin for his description of the operating technique, Merker writes: "the outer skin of the penis is retracted and the internal surface is cut around with the knife directly behind the glans. The glans then lies in an elongated covering into which a cut is made from above. Through this the glans is pushed. The skin which then hangs down long from under the glans is half removed and the remainder grows together within 14 days and, when healed, looks like a uvula [Bryk translates this as a small grape.] Younger boys sometimes try to appear circumcised by daubing their glans with the juice of a Euphorbia plant called ol jugi, which makes the glans swell and prevents the prepuce slipping forward."
Bagge' s 1904 account of the Maasai operation differs in detail, but includes the ' button-hole' technique as described in Samuel' s circumcision:
"The prepuce is retracted and the operator scarifies each side of the frenum with the point of his knife, by means of which a certain amount of play is allowed. Inserting his finger between the upper surface of the glans and the prepuce he makes a transverse incision immediately below a previously placed mark indicating the level of the corona glandis. Through this opening he protrudes the glans penis and by means of a thorn so pierces the skin of the prepuce that it is unable to return to its former position. Then, if this part of the prepuce appears to be too long, he cuts off a small portion from it and throws it down. When the operation is over the circumcisor washes the blood from the penis with a mixture of milk and water."
Photographs of Samburu and Maasai youths, and early ones of Kikuyu warriors, show a sometimes quite large roll of foreskin hanging in the ' tassel' position below the glans, and often this displaced foreskin appears not to have been shortened at the tip. Koenig (1956, p.88) describes it as ' a lower, shovel-like projection ... which, so it is said, increases the sexual lust in both the man and the woman' . In his book The Kilimanjaro Expedition, H.H. Johnson describes the result as ' a soft round swelling lying under the glans and giving the penis the appearance of having a double end: among the Maasai it is enormous and is openly displayed.'
The description by Bryk (1934, p.65) of the Maasai and Kikuyu is that they are ' only half circumcised, the lower part of the foreskin not being cut away at all, but hanging atrophied for the rest of the owner' s life. The Kikuyu has two members, say neighbouring tribes. This hanging foreskin at first constitutes something of a hindrance during the sexual act. I was told that as a result of it the Kikuyu could not enter at all at first. Only after his wife has given birth is complete coition possible. His foreskin hanging down behind the glans is said to be especially arousing to the woman, whose centres of sensation have been shifted as a result of the extirpation of the clitoris' .
The operation can be termed a ' simple buttonhole method' of circumcision. When it consists only of the one transverse slit, it has the advantages that it can be done quickly, and with very little bloodshed. (This seems a more plausible explanation than the red berries or the white powder for the absence of bleeding when Samuel was circumcised.) It exposes the glans fully, and it is usually quick to heal, since the inner and outer cut surfaces of the foreskin are held in position together by the glans. It is especially suitable for the older lads on whom it is perfomed, since an erection will tighten the alignment of the two skin surfaces rather than pulling them apart. Most of these advantages are retained if the frenal area is cut first, as described by Merker. If the tip is left untrimmed, the displaced foreskin remains a tube which, in principle, could after healing be drawn back over the glans. If the tip is trimmed, the displaced foreskin may form a pouch and pose a problem of hygiene: by first dissecting away the inner skin, as Merker described, this problem is avoided.
The account of Samuel' s circumcision is based on the fascinating book by Steen and Riddervold, but has been supplemented from the following sources:
Bagge, S. (1904), ' The Circumcision Ceremony among the Naivasha Maasai' , Journal of the Anthropological Institute, 167-9.
Bryk, Felix (1934), Circumcision in Man and Woman: its history, psychology and ethnology, (New York: American Ethnological Press).
Johnson, H.H., The Kilimanjaro Expedition.
Merker, M. (1904), Die Maasai (Berlin).
Read, David, Waters of the Sanjan.
Steen, Johan B. & Esben Riddervold (1993), The Maasai People (Oslo: Riddervold Photo AS)