The religion of the Maasai

Originating from the Nile, the Maasai are a famous people of the East African savannah, we will study their religion in this article.

Les Maasaï
The Maasai

It has been 1000 years since the Maasai left the Nile valley to gradually establish themselves in Kenya and Tanzania. This people, by the preservation of its culture despite colonization, became emblematic of East Africa. The Maasai are now with the Zulu, the most famous African people in the world. It is therefore of their spirituality, and the relations of it with other African spiritualties, that we will discuss in this article.

One God, Ngai

Ngai or Enkai is the unique God of the Maasai. For them, in the beginning, the sky and the earth were united, and it is from their separation that Ngai took full expression in the sky. In the cosmogony of Iunu in Egypt, Anuté (sky) and Goba (earth) were united before being separated by water and air under the action of Imana (God). Similarly, among the Somali, the earth is the wife of the sky. For the Sereres of Senegal, the sky and the earth are part of the 4 elements that were created in the beginning.

Parties féminine et masculine de Dieu, Egypte antique Sculpture conservée au musée du Louvre
Female and Male Parts of God, Ancient Egypt (Sculpture in the Musée du Louvre)

For the Maasai, Ngai is both masculine and feminine. We find the androgynous character of the Creator all over Africa. He is the Imana-Aminata couple in Egypt, Mawu-Lissa in the Vodun in Benin. For the Dogon of Mali, the Akan of Ghana-Ivory Coast or the Malagasy people, God is androgynous.

Ol Doinyo Lengai, the primordial Mountain

For the Maasai, the primordial construction of Ngai was Ol Doinyo Lengai, that is to say, the Mountain of God, a massive 2000 meters Mountain which is located in Tanzania. One may wonder if this idea of a primordial mountain does not match the primordial mount, initial Mountain of the ancient Egyptian spirituality, from where Imana continued his creative work. The mountain on which God stood was called Ben-ben in Egypt, from which certainly, Ben-bi, the name of the throne of the king of the Mali empire came from.

Ol Doinyo Lengai
Ol Doinyo Lengai

The good and the evil

Ngai exists in two forms for the Maasai. Ngai Narok which represents the good. He is black. Ngai Nanyoke, another form – which represents evil – is red. If authors attributed the origin of the appearance of Ngai Nanyoke to the British settlers who have seriously affected the lives of the Maasai, one may wonder if this aspect of Ngai has not an ancient origin. Indeed, in ancient Egypt, Usire (Osiris) – which represents the good of God – is black. While Sute (Seth) – who disobeyed God and incarnates evil – is red-white.

Usire on the left is black and Sute on the right is red
Usire on the left is black and Sute on the right is red

The influence of the pastoral lifestyle

The Maasai have also built their spirituality around their pastoral way of life, through the omnipresence of their cows. For them, Ngai has gifted them with cows, which he sent from the sky, making them descend from a long rope. To the Maasai, therefore, cows are the link between them and God. Drinking the milk of a cow and eating its flesh is seen as a communion with the Creator, a highly spiritual act. Even though it is not a question of believing in a descent of cows from the sky, it still shows the degree to which the pastoral way of life has deeply influenced the thoughts of the Maasai.

La vache, ce qu'il y a de plus cher pour un Maasaï
A Maasaï with his cows

In conclusion we find unsurprisingly that there are fundamental elements , which are common between the religion of the Maasai and other religions in Africa, even if the Maasai spirituality is specific by the influence of the pastoral lifestyle in its cosmogony.


By: Lisapo Kama © (All rights reserved. Any copying or translation of the text of this article is strictly forbbiden without the written approval of Lisapo ya Kama)

Notes :

  • The Encyclopedia of African religion, Molefi Kete Asante and Ama Mazama
  • Philtar
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