In anthropology, an age set
is a social category or corporate social group, consisting of people
of similar age, who have a common identity, maintain close ties
over a prolonged period, and together pass through a series of age-related
The basic Maasai political and social structure is their rigid system
of age-sets. These apply primarily to men; women automatically become
members of the age-set of their husbands.
Under this system, groups of the same age (give or take five years
or so) are initiated into adult life during the same period. The
age-set thus formed is a permanent grouping, and lasts throughout
the life of its members. They move up through a hierarchy of grades,
each lasting approximately 15 years, including those of junior warriors,
senior warriors, junior elders (sometimes classed as senior warriors),
and senior elders, who are the ones who make decisions affecting
the whole tribe.
The image most people have of the Maasai warrior is one of a tall
and lean man dressed in a bright red shuka cloth, or red tartan
blanket wrapped around his waist or slung across his shoulders.
In one hand he holds a long-bladed stabbing spear, and more often
than not will be seen leaning against it with one leg off the ground
hooked behind the other. His hair will be long and tightly braided
into an elaborate style, on which a mixture of ochre and fat has
been applied. He may also have ochre painted on his body.
He is a moran, who together with his age-mates were traditionally
the physical guardians of Maasai society. Their function was to
protect their people and cattle from predators and other tribes,
to take and guard cattle when grazing, search for new pasture
(and fight off the people who lived there), and raid cattle from
neighboring tribes. And at all this, they were extremely effective:
the tight discipline and training ensured it.
Initiation - Sipolio (newly-circumcised youths)
Uncircumcised Maasai boys (laiyok), the passage into manhood -
and warriorhood - is a long yearned-for if slightly dreaded event,
and occurs roughly at the age of fourteen or fifteen, though sometimes
as late as eighteen. The exact age and date is determined by elders,
who decide when they need a new group of warriors. This occurs
every six to ten years on average, and the circumcision ceremonies
that mark the initiation (Emorata) may be spread out over a couple
Once chosen as a candidate for initiation, the candidate dons
long black greasy robes, and keeps his long and greasy, like that
of a woman in maternity (long hair is a common symbol of passage
and rebirth throughout East Africa). The impression his appearance
makes is summarized by the riddle: Who looks like a greasy buffalo?
(Arro onyil?) -the answer is the initiate (oloibartani). On the
day of circumcision itself, the initiates' heads are shaved to
show their new status, and over the following months they will
make and wear head dresses of birds' feathers (ostrich plumes
and eagle feathers are the most highly prized, and are reserved
for those boys who did not flinch during circumcision). During
this time, the newly circumcised boys (sipolio) roam around the
countryside encouraging, in the form of teasing, the younger boys
to go through the operation without flinching. The Maasai refer
to flinching as aipirri or akwet(?), which means 'to run away'.
In short, it is a disgrace to the family for a boy to flinch.
Junior warriors - Ol Murrani Barnot
During the months following their circumcision, the sipolio go
through a period of instruction in the arts of warfare and tactics,
which is called Eng Kipaata. During this time, they are not permitted
to drink milk in their parents' huts or to eat meat in the manyatta.
Meat is provided for the warriors by killing oxen away from the
settlements. Only after this stage are they officially admitted
into the class of junior warriors (Ol Murrani Barnot, or simply
In the past a moran could be expected to prove his manhood by
killing a lion armed with nothing more than a spear - but this
process is no longer allowed under protective government animal
legislation. Warriors who were deemed particularly brave (by killing
a lion, or by proving themselves in war), had the right to wear
a elaborate headdress made from a lion's mane. Others wore ostrich
feathers as symbols of their courage.
The lion hunt (olamayio), incidentally, is the only form of hunting
that was traditionally permitted for a Maasai, not only to prove
the manhood of a moran, but to eliminate predators when they posed
dangers to livestock.
The junior warriors live together in a circle of huts called a
manyatta (or emanyatta; plural i-manyat or manyat), until they
have passed on to senior warrior status and are allowed to start
families. This period generally last between 5-7 years, although
8-12 years is not uncommon. Effectively a military garrison, in
the manyatta they learn the arts of survival, cattle raiding and
Senior warriors - Ol Murrani Botor
Eventually, when the elders deem that the junior warrior age-set
has completed its service; its members are graduated to senior
warrior status (Ol Murrani Botor) in a ceremony called Eunoto,
to be replaced by a new generation of junior warriors. The senior
warriors were a sort of home guard, and were permitted to go home,
marry and raise a family. This period of service would last about
fifteen years, until he became an elder.
The end of the period of senior warriorhood, in which a man is
already married and has a family, is called Ol Ngesher ('Legs
Drawn Astride'). As an elder (of which there are, again, various
stages, of which I remain ignorant except as to some names: ilpayiani,
iltasatior or ilmoruak), both men and women assume responsibilities
pertaining to the administration of the whole clan. There is no
centralized, cohesive authority, as the Maasai have neither headmen
nor chiefs, although ritual leaders (laiboni) are consulted for
advice. Decisions are taken by consensus, and are rarely challenged.