By Lemomo ole Kulet
The life of a Maasai woman begins by birth known as E-inoto. The birth of a girl like that of a boy to a Maasai family is normally greeted by a lot of Ululation from the women in order celebrate the good news and share in the family’s happiness. A girl is so important to the Maasai as she is the hoard of fertility worth and the hope of continuity. In the Maa community women are the custodian of culture as they perpetuate it through activities as storytelling.
Rempeyian Murasimi notes that “When a child is born it is given a pet name and for sometime the child would be called by the pet name. The pet name was given as child mortality rate was high and they were not sure of the child’s survival.” Examples of such pet names he tells me included Nanana,Titi,Kerai just to mention but a few. At this stage the mother retains her hair known as Ol-masi. She does not shave it. In fact Jonah Ole Kasura an elder from Ilmasheriani says “She does not even take a bath during this period of lactation. The intention was to make her undesirable as long as she had a young one to care for.”
Ole Kasura continues, “Certain herbs are burnt into fine soot that is diluted in sheep fat and is used to smear her cloths. Since she does not take bath or clean her cloth during this period, she develops a body odour that makes her undesirable.” This state of undesirability, he tells me, is known as Kerere-someone who is dirty, which effectively becomes a male repellent and therefore acts as a family planning method.
I inquired from novelist H.R.Ole Kulet whether this culture is still practised to which he emphatically says yes. He says, “Certainly yes, this is a very important tenet in the Maa culture and it’s very much practised to date with an exemption of those who have embraced modernity.” O le Kulet explains that on the day she shaves the Ol-masi and discards the smelly cloths, cleans herself and puts on clean sheet, the husbands becomes aware that she is ready to conceive another child.
Some families would have the mother retain the hair until the child was given a proper name, other families because they give the proper name after a long period say four to six years would allow the mother to shave her hair while the child is growing. This practice either by design or default helped the Maasai to achieve family planning and may be explains why the Maasai though practising polygamy are not numerous as expected. By the time another child was born, the earlier child was big enough to walk long distance. This ensured that children were not an impediment during periodic movement in the Maa nomadic life.
After three to six months or four to six years (depending on the family) after the birth of the girl its head hair is shaved off together with that of its mother in a process known as Aitupuku enkerai tiaji. Then a process known as En-kidungoto e nk-arna: the cutting or the giving of the name; the baby is given a proper name to replace the nickname it had up until then as the baby is now considered likely to survive. Before this the child is normally given a nickname known as em-bolet which is normally given to children at birth before they receive their proper name. The name is also known as enk-arna e muro; the name of the hind leg. The proper name given to a child at Em-barnoto e nkerai is known as enk-arna e ncorio meaning the name of the front leg.
En-titoisho-girlhood or maidenhood is the stage where the little girl stays at home, progressively learning to look after the goat kids and lambs which graze around the Enk-ang or homestead. She helps her mother to tend the younger children and also help in some household duties. As she grows up she is taught by the older women how to establish her own home and will accompany other girls and women to draw water from a nearby stream and collect firewood.
E-murata-circumcision, cliterodectomy; this ceremony is performed within the privacy of her mother’s house. This practice is deeply entrenched in the Maasai customs and traditions. Sopia Nolturesh, an old circumciser who has been in the business of circumcising girls for nearly thirty years tells me, “Circumcision of girls is as old as Maasinta (the legendary founding father of all the Maasai). This culture was with us when we ascended the Kerio Valley. Although you people say we should not circumcise girls, it’s against Maa culture not to do so.” She continues, “It’s certainly a rite of passage and uncircumcised girl remains a child and cannot be married.”
Maasai’s are brought up trusting that uncircumcised girl-entito neme murata-is incomplete. Long time ago you would hardly find any uncircumcised girl but when Christianity came to Maasai land some families embraced it and dropped the idea of circumcising girls. This is where stigmatization begun. The stigmatization and possible social isolation of girls on grounds of being uncircumcised has forced many young Maasai girls to go for circumcision voluntarily. Most of the parents will never let their sons associate with uncircumcised girls let alone marrying them. This threat of stigmatization is much more tormenting than the practice itself. This explains why it’s probably difficult to eradicate this barbaric custom. After e-murata the girl becomes E-siankiki. This is where the girl awaits her husband to be who had engaged her any time between childhood and the stage in which she is now. As soon as the spouse to be arrives she is shaved and she is taken away as a young bride.
After marriage the young woman, e-siankiki, will hopefully soon conceive and become an en-tomononi, mother. All the way through the years she will pray to God for many children and becomes ngoto in-kera, the mother of children.
Slowly by slowly she becomes enk-kaputani-mother in law then en-tasat, old lady, and finaly kokoo, grandmother, a powerful force behind the scenes in the enk-ang and a spoiler of her loving grandchildren.
En-keeya-death will eventually come gently as she sleeps on her bed and she will be laid out in the open, en-kirragata.
Lemomo who is a PhD student at JKUAT writes on Maa cultural issues.