First, we should tackle the big question: Who are the Maasai? The Maasai are theoretically nomadic people, divided into sixteen groups living in Kenya and Tanzania. I say theoretically because the nomadic lifestyle that they have maintained since forever has dwindled in recent decades because of modern influences. You could say there are between one half and one million Maasai, a big margin since they distrust census takers.
This is largely an article about body modification. I’d rather avoid the ugly discussions of society and politics that any article on the Maasai would have to mention, but I can’t completely avoid it. In short: Slavery, no. Female genital mutilation, yes.
Yeah, that got heavy really quickly. Sorry about that.
It could be argued that a strongly patriarchal society where women are bought for arranged marriages at a young age has not technically avoided slavery at all, especially since young women are often not allowed into education or advanced careers. At the same time, many Maasai communities are beginning to reject these practices(It’s illegal in Kenya and Tanzania, and the authorities are starting, slowly, to enforce those laws), and Maasai women, like Agnes Pareiyo, have in fact gone on to become global heroes in the fight against misogyny. And of course, this is a problem across Africa, and not limited to the Maasai so it would be wrong to throw it all on them.
But at Bodyartforms we’re pro-women’s-equality, call us crazy.
Anyways, like I said, this is an article about body modification. So we’re moving on, but if you’d like to know more about the complex history and social structure of the Maasai, or Agnes Pareiyo, there are links at the end of the article.
These are the traditional ear piercings of the Maasai
The first thing that you’ll notice about the Maasai, from a body modification standpoint, is that they stretch their lobes. It’s sometimes both lobes and sometimes just one. The stretching is done to a point where the lobe can often be looped over the top of the ear. Sometimes they wear plugs, but often the lobes are decorated for big events by wrapping them in beads, or by hanging a beaded weight from them.
The stretching itself is often done with wood, sometimes something like a bundle of twigs, sometimes with empty film canisters.
That is a film canister. That’s what we used to put pictures in, kids.
You can think of it like a flash drive that only holds 25 images.
Eagle eyed body mod observers will note that sometimes a part of the ear is removed as well, making the stretched lobe look even more dramatic.
The other big piercing is the one on the helix, or rim of the ear, through which beaded wire or string is often looped. During dances, these loops of beads will swing with the rhythm of the music.
The Maasai are known for their intricate and beautiful beadwork.
In the last few years, tribal elders have fought battles over piercings in the African press, with some groups arguing that the traditional piercings are good for tourism (You can straight up visit a Maasai village if you want), and other groups arguing that the piercings set the Maasai apart and make it harder to get office and government jobs. Many young Maasai people already avoid the piercings and prefer to live a “modern” life, particularly young men, although you also see quite a few wearing awesome plugs, like the sort purchasable through websites like Bodyartforms.
Which you should check out
Read about the Maasai Feminism in Africa Agnes Pareiyo