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Colour, song and dance at Maa cultural festival

Arts and Culture
 Samburu song and dance at the Maa cultural festival in Sekenani, Narok. [Peter Muiruri, Standard Group]

Once in a while, a community must come together to take stock of their accomplishments, acknowledge their failures, and seek to make amends.

From Monday through Thursday this week, it was the turn of the Maa, a conglomeration of communities living in the plains of the Rift Valley, both in Kenya and Tanzania to showcase their cultural identity including food, clothing, sports, and musical talents.

The 12,000-strong crowd of men and women drawn from 18 territorial sections painted Sekenani in Narok County red as their elegant garb fluttered in the strong winds. Social and economic hierarchies were broken as a sense of kinship permeated the festival.

Clothes make a man, a popular adage goes, with both small and mighty having little choice but to wear the colours of the moment. In fact, President William Ruto who had posed for the cameras in the Maasai traditional attire inside the national reserve as thousands of wildebeests dotted the plains behind him, inaugurated the event later in the afternoon in the same attire.

His deputy Rigathi Gachagua and Prime Cabinet Secretary Musalia Mudavadi too had to bow down to the power of cultural dictates by donning the attire, setting off the ‘Maasai pose’ challenge.

 President William Ruto during the Maa Festival [Facebook]

I arrived at the gate to the world-famous national reserve on Monday morning. Normally, the gate teems with tour vans with roofs open and tourists craning their necks to identify a carving or any other item of interest from eager vendors. But with the large entourage of the Maa community taking over the premises, the gate bore little semblance to its usual hustle. 

And with the president gracing the event the following day, security was bound to be tight. An overzealous security officer manning the gate made it clear that my attire was way off the mark. “You need to be in full Maasai traditional attire,” he said. “You will be lucky if they let you in.”

I should have taken him seriously as almost everyone here had taken time to spruce themselves up in local regalia. But here I was in shorts, a T-shirt and casual sandals. I stood out like a sore thumb. My saving grace was a Maasai shuka that I threw over my shoulder.

Around the tent city, each group put its best foot forward as it danced to traditional tunes blaring from giant loudspeakers.

In turn, the main Maasai sub-tribes of Kekonyokie, Purko, Uasin Gishu, Moitanik, Ildamat, Iloitai, Matapato, Kaputiei and Ilodokilan from Narok and Kajiado joined those from Tanzania in songs characterised by the famed high jumps. The Ilchamus from Baringo and Rendille from Marsabit proved their mettle as they entertained guests outside their makeshift manyattas.  

In adjacent grounds, scores of young men took turns roasting goat meat impaled on skewers while others were an indication of the celebration that awaited the guests. On the other end, the ever-vibrant women were tending to stalls showcasing the Maa communities’ various cultural artefacts.

 Meat roasting on skewers at Maa cultural festival in Sekenani, Narok. [Peter Muiruri, Standard]

The festival had the theme Maasinat Ai Olkerreti Lang’ (My Maa nation, my cultural heritage) and was a first in several generations. To some people such as Kimaren Ole Riamit, the event evoked strong emotions.

Riamit chaired the festival’s task force and spoke with authority. Yet, even he could hardly hold his tears as he saw the entire Maa nation come together after what he termed as “unfair marginalisation” by the colonial government.

He talked about the days, over a century ago when the nation was one. Days before their Laibons, or seers, such as Lenana were coerced to sign off community lands in favour of colonial powers.

“I am nostalgic for the past when the Maa nation was together before they ascended the Kerio Valley,” said Riamit. “Other than geography, most of the other cultural elements are the same. They speak the same language, same rite of passage and on average same dress code and material culture.”

He talked of the challenges that the community has gone through especially the younger generation unable to engage in national or international sports that require agility despite their jumping or spear-throwing prowess.

“Why is it that the Maasai who have held the spear from childhood on have never made it to the Olympics?” he asked.

Then there were the Samburu, Maasai’s closest cousins who inhabit northern Kenya and who showed up in their ever-resplendent fashion. Like the Maasai, Samburu dances are characterised by high-pitched tones and jumps.

The men straddle the plains like male ostriches, walking tall with feathers attached to their braided, red-dyed hair, their elaborate headgear earning them the tag ‘butterfly people’. Young morans don beaded belts some gifted to them by their girlfriends. Talk of romance the Samburu way!

Henceforth, the event will be a national affair to be celebrated by the alternate Maa-speaking counties of Kajiado, Narok and Samburu. It will be the ultimate call to the younger generation on the need to safeguard the rich cultural heritage. 

 A Rendille model at the Maa cultural festival in Sekenani, Narok. [Peter Muiruri, Standard]

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