Friday, August 12, 2011

Installment 3 of The Masai Part I Is Now Up!

by Chris Masterjohn

This is the third and final installment of The Masai Part I: A Glimpse of Gender, Sexuality, and Spirituality in the Loita Masai over at Mother Nature Obeyed:

In this installment, we see a historical example where a contingent of women organizing a fertility ceremony stood up to the men in the counsel of elders and ultimately made them recant their initial decision to cancel the ceremony because of an open case of repayment for a murder.  The event shows that, although there is a sex-based authority structure in Masai society, the women are far from powerless.

I also describe the Masai fertility ritual itself, which is seen as a symbolic and in a sense very real, perhaps mystical, process of insemination.  It involves anointment with ox fat, which is tied to fertility and childbearing in Masai customs.

Read more about the author, Chris Masterjohn, PhD, here.


  1. For me the most interesting thing here is the reason given by the Maasai woman to the question "why [don't] the women ... just bless themselves".

    It sometimes seems to me that many of the answers given by primitive people to questions of the form "Why do you do such and such?" don't reveal much of interest. Either the answer seems rather circular, or it's of the form "because the ancestors did". I think this, in itself, doesn't matter. (And, actually, the assumption, common in our civilisation, that what counts is a "rational" justification for what you do is just that—an assumption, and a questionable one at that.) But an answer like that doesn't tell you much.

    THIS answer, however, is very interesting. Anyone who, thinking it wasn't literally true, said it was based on false premises would be missing a lot. It's expressing a rather interesting (and beautiful) notion of the interdependence and reciprocity of human life. I don't think it would be unreasonable to say that this woman understands things that the anthropologist doesn't. The one thing you can say in favour of the anthropologist is that she obviously does quote accurately what is said to her.

    Ceremony is interesting in that what it does is ENACT a shared condition. This is why Yeats asked "How but in custom and in ceremony is beauty and innocence born?" (A Prayer for My Daughter).

    Talking about have you got a hat on—that's trivial talk that misses that. And how about this?

    "... they want you to be kind of freaked out by the experience and so on."

    That's such an odd way to express yourself. What's the function of "kind of" in that utterance? Do the elders wish you to be impressed or not? What's the function of "and so on"? I think both phrases are an attempt to introduce a note of flippancy. So, actually, is the silly formulation "freaked out". What she should have said was probably "awed". And why not? The Maasai evidently see "the intersection of the timeless with time" here.

    She's probably operating with assumption that what really matters is power. Well, yeah, that's all you'll see if you ignore everything else.

  2. Power IS and always WILL be "all" damn it...none of us is free if ANYONE can tell us how to be, think, feel, exist, act-period. All the 'rituals' exist for one reason-to smooth our servitiude to 'society' bleah.

  3. Power provides electricity. People who deny others of electricity will be dealt with harshly.

  4. Mike,

    These are great comments, thank you.


    Yes, I agree that it is important to understand power relations in a society (which is, of course, why I am writing about them), and I agree that individual freedom is a very important value. However, if you see anything as "everything," than the greater portion of the world will elude you because the world is not so easily reducible to a single concept. In any case, Masai women do have power.


  5. Anonymous,

    We were all born into societies. I can understand if you're mad at your parents/God/civilization/whatever for your existence and would prefer never to have been born. That said, you cannot escape ritual. It's as much a part of existence as eating food. If you try to escape it, you will succeed only in finding a way to do it differently. Even if you find a way to escape society and live as a hermit.


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