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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).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(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.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
Masai warrior Legei, 18, said he taught William how to hunt the animal using a 7ft- spear made from acacia wood.
A high-ranking Japanese politician is single-handedly improving the future of the Masai people in northern Tanzania by using education to promote change.
Muneo Suzuki, an executive member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives, has made a personal contribution of some $70,000 to help a school in the Masai community.
The Kimandolu Secondary School lies in the heart of the Arusha region in northern Tanzania, where the Masai tend their cattle, goats and sheep over thousands of acres.
Suzuki's contributions come at a time when educators have increased criticism against the Masai for maintaining cultural beliefs which they see as unprogressive.
The physician observes that although the Eskimos of the Arctic and Masai of Africa consume a high fat diet, they experience little or no incidence of noninfectious (degenerative) diseases including Alzheimer's Disease, cancer, coronary artery disease, diabetes mellitus, multiple sclerosis, lupus and the like.
Blixen's sojourn among the Masai provoked the British colony in Nairobi, usually not given to moral outrage.