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(mäsī`), a largely nomadic pastoral people of E Africa, chiefly in Kenya and Tanzania. Cattle and sheep form the basis of the economy that they have maintained in resistance to cultural change. The Masai live off the milk, blood, and meat of their livestock. Masai society is patrilineal; polygyny is practiced. Boys are initiated into a warrior age-group responsible for herding, killing predators, and other tribal labors; only after serving as a warrior may a man marry. The Masai, who are characteristically tall and slender, traditionally live in the kraal, a compound within which are mud houses. In some areas the traditional pastoralism of the Masai has come into conflict with wildlife conservation and the tourism associated with it.


See A. C. Hollis, The Masai: Their Language and Folklore (1905, repr. 1971); G. Hanley, Warriors and Strangers (1971).



(self-designation, il-masai) a people living in Kenya and Tanzania. Total population, about 370,000 (1967, estimate).

The Masai language belongs to the Nilotic language family. Traditional beliefs (cult of natural forces, ancestor worship) and vestiges of a clan tribal system survive. The majority of Masai are herdsmen, wandering from place to place in search of good pastures. The socioeconomic development of independent Kenya and Tanzania is leading to gradual change in the Masai’s traditional way of life and to the decline of their clantribal system.


Merker, M. Die Masai: Ethnographische Monographic eines ostafrikanischen Semitenvolkes. Berlin, 1904.
Huntingford, G. W. B. The Southern Nilo-Hamites. London, 1953.



(Maasai, Maa), the language of the Masai people, spoken in northern Tanzania and southwestern and western Kenya, by approximately 370,000 people (1967, estimate).

Masai is related to the Nilotic language family. It has three dialects: Masai proper, Njemps (Ntiamus), and Samburu (Sampur). Masai has 18 vowels; the consonant system includes the glottalized (preglottalized) injectives b, d, j, g. Phonological tones exist. Vowel harmony occurs in the word according to the feature of openness (i, u, e, o) and closedness (i, u, e, o). Word inflection is partly of the fusion type (suffixes or infixes) and partly agglutinative (personal verb conjugation prefixes, classes). Verb classes indicate direction of movement and change the verb’s relation to its object (a-isúj “to wash something,” a-isuj-yé “to wash with [by means of] something”). There are two cases: an absolute case and a subject case. The noun is marked by a prefix (article), which differs according to gender and number.


Tucker, A. N., and J. T. O. Mpaayei. A Maasai Grammar. London, 1955.
Hollis, A. C. The Massai: Their Language and Folklore. Oxford, 1905.


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