Sexuality in Maasai villages

by Heinrich Schimpf

Sexual behavior in the Maasai villages in the Ngorongoro National Park

During visits to the Maasai villages in the Ngorongoro National Park, I tried to find out, what the sexual traditions of the Maasai are in this area. I had already learned that 100% of the girls are circumcised, that a lot of girls get pregnant in the years between 12 and 16 and that most of the men have several wives. I had already spent some time with friends who come from the Massai villages before my visit.

I managed to get into conversation with individuals about this issue. The difficulty is that the traditionally living Maasai generally speak neither Kisuahili nor English. So I had to rely on someone to translate for me.

The life cycle of the Maasai is highly regulated in tradition. The little boy starts very early to help herding the animals. At first he herds goats and sheep, later, from the age of eight or ten increasingly also the cows. This role remains with him until his circumcision. About the time of the circumcision when it takes place I got different informations, some told me it is about with 16 others tells me it is with 18. Because many Maasai do not know their date of birth and their age these numbers are not very exact. After circumcision, the boys are warriors, called Moran in their language. During the time of being a warrior, according to tradition, they are responsible for the safety of the village. They have to follow certain rules and also go on tours to find better grazing grounds. The rules are strict, for example they are not allowed to eat food that has been seen by women. At times they live exclusively on meat blood and milk. In the village they live together in a boma made of several houses. If dangers come to the village, they are to be found there. The dangers can be cattle thieves or also wild animals. The girls of the village from about the age of 10 or 11 often go to the warriors and spend the evenings and nights with them. So there is obviously a lot of sexual freedom. The parents are not allowed to ask the girls where they go, as I was told over and over again. After the time as a moran, the young man first becomes an elder and takes on new responsibilities for society as a whole. After more years, he becomes yet another role of elder . The transitions are celebrated by great festivals. Polygamy is often justified by the fact, that there are many more women than men. This was probably true in earlier times because of the conflict with neighboring tribes and with wild animals. Today I cannot confirm this assertion.

The age groups of girls are similarly strictly regulated and one can recognize by clothes and hairstyle whether they are already circumcised and married. From a very early age, the girls help their mothers with their work. This is fetching water, cooking, caring for the children and other domestic tasks. Even the construction of the houses is exclusively in the hands of the women. Early on, at 11, before circumcision, the girls spend a lot of time with the Moran. They dance and sing, and there also seems to be a great deal of sexual freedom, in which there are no firm ties. When they are about 16 years old, they are circumcised. This is done by women. Although it is forbidden by law in Tanzania, 100% of the girls are circumcised. There are also occasional deaths, but these are not cleared up. The women I asked about circumcision said it was horrible, but it was unavoidable because the men especially the Elders would insist on it. After circumcision the girls can marry, this often seems to take place at the age of 18. The hair is shorn, the large ear holes and the other scars on the face the girls already have at this age. I was told that marriage does not necessarily have a lot of meaning. Often the spouses do not live together, sometimes a new wife of a man who already has one or more wives has some sort of guidance through the other wives. The wives’ duties now consist of building the house and keeping it in order, taking care of the water, and as far as I understand it, helping out relatively much with the livestock. Several wives of one husband have neighboring houses. The women I asked said to the question how it is to have several co wives said that it is good. They are not alone in this way and have a kind of friend. Even within marriages, sexuality is not very limited to marriage. There is a tradition that when another man is with a woman in her house, he puts his spear in front of the woman’s house.

The man is not allowed to ask about it. The fact that under certain circumstances the children do not come from the husband does not seem to be a problem. A man I interviewed said: It is also no problem at all, if a woman already has one or more children to marry, the man is happy that he has more children this way.

A doctor I know, who works in medical administration, told me that there are very few HIV infections in the Maasai population. This is perhaps related to circumcision, or perhaps to the fact that the Maasai keep pretty much to themselves, and thus the danger of introducing the viruses is not so great. This is partly in contradiction with an observation I made that young women from the Maasai areas often beg in neighboring towns and probably also engage in prostitution.

I have known Monika Lengere for some time, who has been active against female circumcision for many years and has been doing education in this regard. My inquiries with different Maasai women in the course of my journey have unanimously shown that they find circumcision very terrible, but that they would also perform it on their own children, because tradition dictates it and because otherwise they would be completely excluded from the community. Of course, this is less true for Maasai who have attended school and learned a profession.  However, I have also heard from some Maasai who no longer live in the village and have a profession that they continue to feel committed to this tradition.

 Most of the Maasai in the villages have never attended school, or only relatively briefly, and do not speak Kiswahili or English but oney Maasai language. Even today, parents in the villages often do not want their children to go to school. The government insists to some extent that school is compulsory but many children are not even registered.

 Daniel, from whom I learned a lot about Maasai tradition and Marcel’s everyday life, tells me that when he was about 8 years old he was surprised by a policeman dressed up as a Maasai and was thus obliged to go to school, because otherwise his father would have had to pay a fine. It is thanks to this fact, which he now experiences as positive, that he learned Kisuahili and also English. Despite the fact that he is a kind of clergyman of the Pentecostal movement, he assumes that he will bring his two children, who currently live outside the villages near Arusha, back later to let them grow up largely in the old tradition.

Comment of a Tanzanian friend of mine, who is a teacher:

This is amazing. 1. why do they circumcise and does it change the sexual game? women are not expected to have sexual desire, sexual initiatives must come from a man, a woman wanting is a man should be shamed ( slaty ) now since Maasai are traditionally normads men happen to travel a lot in search of new pastural areas so their wife will be left alone as you said before they had these unmonitored sexual encounters at a young age they obviously catch up with their childhood lovers. Remember after FGM their sexual satisfaction becomes very difficulty due the shortness of the clit, and male’s lack of knowledge that a woman also needs pleasure they do not seek to arouse the already wounded clit which is the key to woman’s sexuality.
That makes Maasai ladies to have multiple sexual relationship to feel the gap.Interestingly FGM make women to wander around so much, remember before FGM she already experienced the juicy sexual intercourse.Now she is grown women she has to go through FGM which is expected to lower her libido.In my opinion men are sexual insecure but still want to more women who real sense can not satisfy sexually.

8 thoughts on “Sexuality in Maasai villages”

  1. Heinrich this is remarkably well written, congratulations I enjoyed reading it. We live with these kinds of knowledge but never see a reason to document it. A man marries many wife to strengthen the family economy, more wives and kids more wealth because each wife is expected to handle her own kids, she is given a couple of cows to look after when she gets married it is her job to make sure everything multiplies kids and cows. There are those six romantic months when the new wife has to stay inside looking after her self, looking beautiful co-wives will help with chores. After that woman can not be lazy competition is stiff she has to strive to be the best one in every aspect to win her husband’s heart.
    Cook him a good food when it is her turn to spend a night at his hut, he is the king and ladies are there to serve him. Turn taking gives rest of the ladies an opportunity to be visited by other guys. As long as the guest is of the same age set as the her husband there is no problem.
    When he is to enter the elders age set Landisi there should be a big party for him.The first wife with shave her husband’s head that but she should confess if she had slept with a man older or younger to him.
    If she did and confessed she has to go back to her parents come back with a number of animals to pay her husband.
    If she did and does not want to confess she should expect a catastrophe.

    1. heinrichschimpf

      Lightness, thanks for your thoughts! I think Tanzania is a good place to think about this aspect of menkind. And about the many different ways different cultures tried to cope.

    2. heinrichschimpf

      Yes the topic still occupies me, I haoe to have many possibilities to talk about, when I will be in TZ again in November.

  2. Heinrich, I really don’t understand where the man kind is heading now I have been watching and reading a lot about triple or polyamory which is the biggest in the USA now. I am slapped on the face by the fact that the Western world which has been the icon of the modern civilization turning into this barbaric African culture which has been despised for quite some times. Humans is confusing you just don’t know they really want!

    1. heinrichschimpf

      yes I agree, but human natur is not monogamous, that is a product of some civilisations, therefor it never works perfectly.

        1. heinrichschimpf

          do you think cheating in Maasai communities is different from other communities in Tanzania? I could imagine its more open and less forbidden…

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