The complicated kinship system of the Maasai

By Lemomo Ole Kulet
The Maasai are predominantly nomadic pastoralists whose herds of cattle, sheep and goats are a common sight in the areas they occupy such as the southern part of Kenya and northern districts of Tanzania.
Maasai refers to all the speakers of Maa language. The Maasai community is mainly divided into two major dialects which are the northern and southern Maasai. The northern Maa speaking community includes the Ilsampur who are largely known as the Samburu and the Ilchamus mainly found in Baringo and generally known as the Njemps.
The Njemps are irrigation farmers and the only fishing Maasai community according to Nasieku Tarayia.
The southern Maasai include the Ilarusha, Ilmoitanik, Ilsiria, Ilwuasinkishu, Ilpurko, Ilkeekonyikie, Ildamat, Iloitai, Ilsikirari, Iloodokilani, Ildalalekutuk, Ilkaputiei, Ilmatapato, ilkisonko, Ilaitayiok and Ilparakuyo. According to educationist Frank Ole Kibelekenya, all the above mentioned sections of the Maasai are known in Maa as Olosho (Iloshon in plural). Any Maasai is primarily identified with his Olosho or section, he adds.
He explains further that the Iloshon are Maasai sub-tribes with a unified political and administrative structure and that each of the Olosho is politically autonomous. Despite all these sections among the Maasai, the Maa community remains united by its shared culture, language and social structures.
Most of this Iloshon constitute the Kenyan Maasai with exception of the Ilarusha, Ilpalakuo and Ilkisonko who constitute Tanzania Maasai.
Robert Ole Masikonte notes that the Maasai community is further divided into clans whose members are from the same male ancestor. A clan among the Maasai is seen as a group of people who recognize descent from the same male ancestor.
The community is known to be patrilineal in that a child belongs to the clan of his father and will remain a member of the clan for life.
He explains that there are five major clans among the Maa community each with a different male ancestor.
The founding father of all the Maasai was known as Maasinta and also as Leeyo. He had two wives. The first wife lived on the right side of the gate post known in Maasai as entailoshi e tatene while the second one was placed at the left hand gate post at the Manyatta enclosure.
The first wife had cattle that were all red in colour. That’s why her house was called “the one of which the calves and oxen are red”, in Maa Odomongi.
This wife gave birth to three sons namely Lolkesen, Lelian and Losero. These three sons are the descendants of Il-makesen (of baboon), Il-molelian (of elephants) and Il-taarosero (of the hyena) clans respectively, which are together known as Odomongi.
The second wife who lived on the left hand gate post known as entailoishi e kidianye had calves and oxen that were black in colour. Her house called “the one of which the calves and oxen are black” in Maa Orokiteng.
This wife gave birth to two sons namely Lukum and Naiser. These two sons are the descendants of Il-lukumai and Il-laisen clans which are represented by raven and rhinoceros respectively. Together Il-tukumai and Il-laiser are known as Orokiteng.
The five sons are the founding fathers of the five major clans in Maasai society.
Clans are very important among the Maasai as clan mates have a very strong communal support obligation. The members normally have the same branding of their cattle. Clans too have a very important role in the political system.
They are known in Maasai as Olgilata (ilgilat in plural). They are divided in two moieties i.e. Odomongi – the house of the red oxen and Orokiteng – the house of the black cattle. Clan members help each other in settlement of disputes, marriage including negotiations and obtaining bride-price.
Novelist H.R. Ole Kulet says, “A close observer of the Maa society would note the close-knit interdependence of the sections (iloshon) which doubtlessly was brought about by the survival needs of a people that lived in constant conflicts in a hostile environment. Droughts, animal diseases cattle rustling and perpetual wildlife-human conflicts could not allow a single family the luxury of living a solitary life, hence the need for pooling resources as clans and Iloshon to guarantee continuity of life.

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