Masai! I

masai shadow


The Masai are amongst the most enigmatic warrior peoples of Africa. Virtually like no other they are relatively obscure when it comes to miniature armies compared to the hordes of Zulus and Mahdists one so often sees, as they are what might be termed a ‘Darkest African’ army, seldom becoming an enemy of Europeans in general. They did off course fight not only amongst themselves but against other ‘invaders’ of East Africa. Fortunately we have enough information on them to give us a good appreciation of who they are, what they’re about and how they found themselves in the thick of it in East Africa in the late 19th century, just as the Zulus were in the south or the Mahdists in the north…they are different.

The Masai had many enemies and were constantly warring, often amongst themselves, thereby providing us with rich pickings for games set in Darkest Africa in the time of Burton, Thomson and Peters. Though much is known the information tends to be hard to locate and not quite as simple as just ordering a book or two and you get all the information you need, though one or two will give you much of it. So the first couple of posts in this look at the Masai is going to focus on what information a potential collector of a Masai army can readily lay his hands on via the internet so he can get a feel for this warrior race.

As an introduction to the subject I happened upon an excellent description of the Masia in Charles Miller’s book Lunatic Express, a wonderful book, that though not of a military bent, still has lots of detail in it about Africa of this time…recommended. So, with that, Mr Miller will now give us a taste of the Masai to set the scene so we can look at them in more detail in a subsequent post…


By the early 1880s, the principal barriers on the short route to Uganda, especially the Rift Valley, had become fairly well known and did not appear insurmountable. The most formidable obstacle, however, was not the work of climate or terrain. It was human. It was, indeed, the reason the Arab-Swahili routes across the region could not truly be called routes; only the boldest and most resourceful traders would take their caravans beyond Kilimanjaro.

This same human barrier, moreover, had much to do with the European explorers’ choice of the longer southern journey from Bagamoyo in their search for the source of the Nile. For these explorers could not afford delay, especially the kind of delay that might prove permanent and bringing disaster on caravans was the particular talent of the Masai. With the possible exception of the Zulu in southern Africa, no other tribal community on the continent—perhaps on the planet—enjoyed quite so richly deserved a reputation for homicidal xenophobia.




During the nineteenth century, the Masai were to eastern Africa what the Apache were to the southwestern United States. For at least a superficial understanding of why, a traveler needed only to meet one of their warriors, collectively known as Moran, in full battle dress. At first glance this killer might not have seemed very lethal, for he was not a muscular figure, sinews seemingly absent in the Masai physique.

But in his very thinness there was menace, certainly nothing to suggest frailty. The man who first reported on the Masai in detail described the moran as having “an Apollo-like form and the face of a fiend.” If he stood under six feet he was considered stunted, and his lion-mane headdress, which itself appeared angrily alive, helped make one feel rabbit-like in his presence. Even when bareheaded, the moran’s coiffure of pigtails, industriously saturated with fat and red ochre, bespoke not a clown but a hellish freak.

Apart from the fearsome busby, the moran’s sole garment was a goatskin blanket draped over one shoulder and extending only to the waist, providing freedom to clout, slash and impale. Those actions were performed with a knobkerrie—a hardwood club that could open a man’s skull at a tap—a double-edged sword called a simi encased in a red-stained oxhide scabbard, and an eight-foot spear with a two-foot blade. A moran also carried an enormous fifty-pound buffalo hide shield, emblazoned with chalk devices and quarterings which revealed his clan and age group. But a caravan leader would have been more likely to have had his eye on the spearhead, hoping to see a tuft of ostrich feathers fixed to it.

This meant the warrior’s intentions were peaceful, for the moment at any rate. Clothes, to be sure, did not make the moran, but when he dressed to kill he could usually be counted on to do so. He feared only magic, having been totally impervious to physical pain ever since the day he stood erect and watched expressionlessly as the foreskin was flayed from his penis in the ceremony which elevated him from teenager to soldier. His physical trim was perfection. He could run for an entire day without stopping to catch his breath. His reflexes were swifter than those of a wounded leopard. As a moran he belonged to a military elite whose discipline and esprit matched the U.S. Marines or the Coldstream Guards.

Entering a hut, he would fix his spear in the ground at the left-hand side of the door, so that he could seize it instantly in his right hand when rushing out to meet an attacker. He never plunged the weapon carelessly into the dirt in ordinary African fashion; he brought it down smartly in two swift order-arms movements. His regiments went into battle in long line-abreast walls, the warriors’ shields overlapping in the manner of the Roman testudo. The formation itself was no less difficult to break than the British army’s hollow square. Nor did many adversaries care to try, as they watched the sun strike the spear blades that leveled out from the advancing wall of gaily colored shields while the massed moran took up the yell which could sometimes cause an involuntary bowel movement and often decided the issue of a battle before it commenced. A perpetual chip seemed seated to the Masai shoulder, for the people were alien to East Africa, having wandered down from the regions of the upper Nile sometime during the seventeenth or eighteenth century.

Ethnically they were Nilo-Hamites, and their slim frames, prominent cheekbones, curved noses and thin lips contrasted sharply with the negroid characteristics of their predominantly Bantu neighbors. But for his color, a pure-blooded Masai might barely have passed as an Anglo-Saxon, easily as a southern European. (Even today a small but respectable body of opinion holds that the Masai are directly descended from Mark Antony’s Lost Legion, citing not only physical similarities but Masai battle formations and the striking resemblance of the spears and simis to the weapons of the centurions.) In any case the tribe knew itself to be a—or more correctly, the—master race. How could it be otherwise? Had not Ngai himself, on the first day of the Creation, presented the Masai with all the cattle on earth as a personal gift?

Was it not the everlasting duty of the elmoran to round up all the livestock that had been lost, strayed or stolen (mainly the latter, in the Masai view) over the ensuing ages? Hence, continual, wide-ranging forays across the surrounding regions, which made the Masai all but unique in another respect. Most eastern and central African peoples tended to regard tribal boundaries with something like the same uneasiness that medieval geographers displayed toward the edges of the flat planet. Even such venturesome exceptions as the Wakamba walked gingerly along the relatively short and familiar path to Mombasa.

Not so the Masai, whose scorched-earth campaigns showed them to be only less peripatetic than the Arab slavers and the European explorers. Borderlines held no meaning whatever for them. At least one Masai commando laid waste the country on the shores of Lake Nyasa, five hundred miles from its own land. The fortified towns of Zanzibar’s coastal domains were not safe from Masai attack. In 1857, a raiding party sent Mombasa’s Baluchi garrison to the cover of Fort Jesus. The port of Vanga was leveled by Masai warriors in 1859, and two years later, Mombasa went on alert again as an elmoran reconnaissance-in-force threatened the city. Only the Indian Ocean kept the Masai from invading Zanzibar itself. It should be noted that the Masai were not conquerors but simply marauders—although this was quite enough, the license to kill having been issued to them along with the livestock and their status as lords of creation.

The elmoran not only honed their collective talent as mass murderers to a keen edge but nourished a huge relish for its practice. So large indeed did violent death loom in the Masai way of life that when the warriors were not off massacring Wakamba or Kikuyu or Galla or Wanyika or Wachagga, they occasionally arranged inter-clan vendettas that could leave hundreds of their own corpses for the vultures and hyenas at the end of a day’s battle. It is fashionable today to maintain that the tribe was not quite so fearsome, that its terrible repute was simply inflated beyond reasonable proportion. This may well be true, but it would be a mistake to underestimate the Masai as a scourge.

As late as 1896, when white rule was beginning to be applied forcibly throughout East Africa, the geologist-explorer J. W. Gregory, who had himself crossed Masailand, could warn: “Whether the Masai will be able to adapt themselves to altered conditions or not, it is certain that they will not do so until their military power has been broken.” Wrote Charles William Hobley, one of Kenya’s pioneer administrators: “It is interesting to contemplate what would probably have happened in this country if European intervention had not occurred when it did. As far as one can judge, the inroads of the Masai would have increased until most of the agricultural tribes in this land were decimated…. Few can nowadays have any conception of the bloodshed for which this tribe was responsible.”

If he lived that long, a moran’s tenure lasted roughly eight years, from his teens to his mid-twenties, at which time he was retired from warrior ranks and became an old man. In this capacity he enjoyed certain perquisites reserved for the mature, including the right to take snuff, chew tobacco and marry. Although his life as a moran had not been celibate—the warriors shared sex privileges among girls of their own age—permanent arrangements went strictly against regulations. He was even permitted, if not actually encouraged, to cultivate a less homicidal outlook toward the rest of the world. Caravan leaders made a point of utilizing this change of heart, and would develop acquaintances with Masai elders who enjoyed the reputation of being friendly. It was important to establish such contacts, since a temporary state of peaceful coexistence could mean the difference between a caravan’s safe passage across Masailand and its annihilation.

Yet a traveler in Masailand would seldom fail to register somewhat hopeful surprise at the less bellicose side of the Masai nature. Apart from their occasional clan wars, waged as much in sport as in fury, the Masai among themselves could only be described as gentle. Domestic life consisted largely of tending the beloved herds, spitting at one another and listening to elders unravel yarns from an inexhaustible wealth of folklore that blended Aesop and Joel Chandler Harris. Masai children were a pampered, frolicsome community who lived in a world of self-made toys and who traditionally greeted grownups by butting them in the stomachs with their heads. There was a neon quality to Masai dress. Hippies might have envied the moran his brightly colored love beads and the free-form grotesqueries that set off his pendulous, distended earlobes.

Masai women moved about under the weight of fifty pounds and more in glittering brass wire anklets and necklaces. Some aspects of their life, to be sure, did not charm. Nutritionists and gourmets alike would have frowned on the Masai diet, consisting almost exclusively of curdled milk stirred into a mixture of the cow’s blood and urine. Masai dwellings, called manyattas, resembled nothing so much as shoulder-high dungheaps; in fact they were just that: generous layers of quick-drying manure plastered over thorn frameworks. These houses naturally attracted vast herds of flies that settled in nostrils, eyes, ears, mouths. Within two hundred yards of any manyatta, the pong was all but stupefying.

The Masai, however, took no notice of these things, for they marched to the beat of a different drummer. Theirs was a self-contained little world of its own, ever on the move under the open sky. They lived a strenuously idyllic, changelessly nomadic life in which government was indeed best because it governed least. Yet it was not anarchy. Although elders had little voice in the conduct of affairs, there were laibons—witch doctors—who delivered Ngai’s edicts, usually in the form of prophecies, and who sometimes issued ordinances of their own. But for the most part, compliance with the law meant conditioned-reflex obedience to an age-old ritual and tradition which no Masai would ever have dreamed of challenging, so perfectly did they suit his life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.

Masailand itself was a heaving pasture of alternately rich and eroded terrain about the size of West Germany. Straddling the present-day Kenya–Tanzania border and extending northward some two hundred miles up the Rift Valley, the land provided more than ample accommodation for its 50,000 Masai and their million-odd cattle, sheep, goats and donkeys. Theoretically, if not in practice, each Masai herdsman had more than one thousand acres on which to graze his stock.

Obviously, the country could have absorbed at least fifty times the Masai population, but if neighboring tribes had felt any need to extend themselves, it would not have been in the direction of Masailand. Even those caravan leaders who received permission to cross the land or skirt its boundaries were not encouraged to tarry. Nor did they. In 1878, Stanley told a meeting of the Royal Geographical Society: “If there are any ladies or gentlemen… this evening who are specially desirous of becoming martyrs, I do not know in all my list of travels where you could become martyrs so quickly as in Masai.” In all his list of travels, Stanley himself had never visited Masailand, but he knew whereof he spoke. His advice was never more to be heeded than in 1883. Under Mbatiany, probably the most charismatic laibon in Masai history, the elmoran had elevated their power and repute to what may have been its most terrifying peak. It was not a time to trespass. It was also the time when the first white man did so.

“Where only his own life is concerned, he gives you the impression of one who might be rash.”

Sooner or later, of course, Masailand would have been opened to the West. As things stood, it had to be sooner. Barghash’s edict against the mainland slave traffic raised interest in reaching Uganda through Masailand. In the late 1870s, moreover, a small group of Protestant and Catholic missionaries had established stations in Uganda. Although they could claim to have gained a certain amount of headway with the inhabitants, they walked an endless tightrope of latent hostility. Any day might bring a message of overt peril, and the need to extricate the churchmen quickly.

But even without humanitarian imperatives, scientific curiosity over the tantalizing but barely perceived wonders of the country behind Kilimanjaro had by now become so intense that the penetration of Masailand held the highest priority in African exploration. The Nile issue having been all but settled, geographers could devote full attention to the task of ascertaining whether Masailand offered a practicable shortcut to Lake Victoria and Uganda. In 1882, the Directors of the Royal Geographical Society prepared to mount the expedition which, it was hoped, would answer that question. As its leader they chose Joseph Thomson….but that is another story!

A fine description of a proud and fearless people overrun by the march of time. Quite evocative in parts, Mr Miller sets the tone for my Masai warriors nicely. These ‘splendid fellows’ of East Africa will be the subject of a Masai Army using Wargames Foundry’s Darkest Africa range.


Next up we’ll look at some more info we can garner from online resources. This’ll provide a bit of detail as to their background, where they live, their military exploits and so on, which will expand on Miller’s description to give us a fuller picture of the Masai warrior peoples and what they’re all about. From there we can start to build some ideas around the force we want to construct, how we can use them when building a Masai army, their armies and enemies, and what game systems we can use them with…


WF masai 2

(Wargames Foundry)

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