The Massai warriors are one of the most prominent and respected ethnic groups in Kenya. The warriors are so greatly feared, it is told that lions and cheetahs will run away or stop their pursuits of game animals if a Massai warrior is anywhere close by. As soon as a Massai warrior is initiated their spear and shield are decorated with red paint, which is symbolic of their status in society.
The central unit of the Massai society is the age-set. Although young boys are sent out with the calves and lambs as soon as they can toddle, childhood for boys is mostly playtime. Girls are responsible for chores such as cooking and milking. Every 15 years or so, a new and individually named generation of warriors will be initiated. This involves most boys between 12 and 25 who have reached puberty and are not part of the previous age-set. One rite of passage from boyhood to the status of junior warrior is a painful circumcision ceremony, which is performed without anesthetic. The Maa word for circumcision is emorata. The boy must endure the operation in silence. Expressions of pain bring dishonor, albeit temporarily. The healing process will take 3-4 months, and boys must remain in black cloths for a period of 4-8 months.
During this period, the newly circumcised young men will live in a “manyatta”, a “village” built by their mothers. The manyatta has no encircling barricade for protection, emphasizing the warrior role of protecting the community. Further rites of passage are required before achieving the status of senior warrior, culminating in the eunoto ceremony, the “coming of age”.
When a new generation of warriors is initiated, the existing warriors will graduate to become junior elders, who are responsible for political decisions until they in turn become senior elders.
The warriors are in charge of society’s security, and spend most of their time now on walkabouts throughout Maasai lands, beyond the confines of their sectional boundaries. They are also much more involved in cattle trading than they used to be, developing and improving basic stock through trades and bartering rather than stealing as in the past. Boys are responsible for herding small livestock. During the drought season, both warriors and boys assume responsibility for herding livestock. Elders are directors and advisors for day-to-day activities. Women are responsible for making the houses as well as supplying water, collecting firewood, milking cattle and cooking for the family. One myth about the Massai is that each young man is supposed to kill a lion before they are circumcised. Although lion hunting was an activity of the past, and lion hunting has been banned in East Africa, lions are still hunted when they maul Massai livestock, and young warriors who engage in traditional lion killing do not face significant consequences. Increasing concern regarding lion populations has given rise to at least one program which promotes accepting compensation when a lion kills livestock, rather than hunting and killing the predator. Nevertheless, killing a lion gives one great value and celebrity status in the community.