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For the Maasai, death is business as usual

By - Lemomo Ole Kulet | October 18th 2012

By Lemomo Ole Kulet

The Maasai believe in a single but dualistic god. The Maasai god has two opposing identities, the generous black god (Enkai Na-rok). He is the good, generous and benevolent god personified by wind and rain. There is also the vindictive red god (Enkai Na-nyokie). He is bad or revenging god the master of life and death and personified by thunder and lightning. 

It is the benevolent Narok that has declared the Maasai tribe the rightful owners of all the world’s cattle, much to the unease of their neighbours.

So when Enk-ai Na-nyokie strikes and there is death in a Maa family, the entire community is affected. Death is really dreaded among the Maa community and its occurrence brings along a sorrowful dark cloud that envelops all those who hear of it. There are no elaborate mortuary practices among the Maasai and no beliefs in life after death. The Maa people believe that once life has come out of the body, the body has no use anymore and that’s why they do not bury the dead but rather throw them away in the forest to be devoured by wild animals. In fact in some occasions the dead would be smeared with fat so that they could easily attract wild animals devour the bodies. 

Known as En-keeya in Maasai language, death was one thing no Maasai wanted to encounter. This fear of death made some in the community when they suspected that one of their own was about to die and had no chance of surviving, to take him or her away from their enkang’ and would tie a string on one of the victims big toes which they would occasionally pull to see if he or she was alive. When they pulled the string and the person responded then they knew he or she was alive. If they pulled again and there was no response then they knew that the individual was dead.  When a person died at the homestead (enkang’) the Maasai would vacate that house (enkaji) and move to another one. They would pay a man who had no family known in Maa as Olkirikoi to remove the dead, smear it with fat and take it for disposal in the forest. For a woman, life ended with death, but for the man after death, there was En-jung’ore or En-jung’go. This is inheritance.

According to mzee Johnmark Kamakei of Olchurai in Gilgil, inheritance among the Maasai is a very important process, which begins when an old man becomes conscious that he is about to die or when sudden death of an old man occurs.

“Once an old man realises that he is soon going to die he bequeaths his properties to all his sons. It is also at this point in time that he will also appoint the son who will inherit his debts,” he adds.

The other instance where the process of inheritance would be initiated he tells me is when there was sudden death of an old man. In case of such unexpected death of an old man either due to diseases or war, his eldest son would inherit both his father’s properties and debts. To signify his important position as the new head of the home after the departure of the father, this son wears a bracelet called Ol-kataar.

Frank Ole Kibelekenya says, “The eldest son who inherits his father’s property due to his unanticipated death is supposed to share out both the properties and the debts among his younger brothers including the step-brothers.”

Claim to wealth

The men hold and control the main types of properties namely land and livestock while women generally own household goods and only has rights to use land and livestock. The girl child or daughters in Maa culture do not inherit properties. They only enjoy symbolic ownership of the cattle identified with her at the family estate. But as soon as she gets married she loses this claim. However, according to Nasieku Tarayia, an old man has authority and exclusive right to apportion her anything in his estate as he is the final arbiter and no one would risk going against his wish lest a curse befalls him.

There are scenarios whereby a father may have fathered only girls. In such a situation, Robert Ole Masikonte says: “The old man is expected to prevent one of his daughters from getting married. The young woman was then authorised to have children at her father’s home with any man of her choice. If she gets a baby boy, then the boy was pronounced the heir of the old man’s property.”

Such scenarios are rare as the Maasai being polygamous, would in one way or another have one of the children being a son. 

According to Nasieku Tarayia no one in the traditional Maasai society was to inherit land. He notes that livestock is the actual property to be inherited and shared in the Maasai traditional society.

Disputes would always arise on how the distribution of the property should be done. In such a case Ole Masikonte notes that it is purely the duty of the elders within the community to resolve the impasse.

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