opportunity fund for developing countries

The Life of a Maasai Woman by Simon Nkoitoi of Kenya.

(This story has been edited for clarity, but most of the original grammar has been retained)

A Maasai woman has to do more work compared to her husband. It doesn't mean that men don't like their wives: this has been the tradition since the history of the Maasai people. A woman does not own any property. Massai Women While she refers to property as "ours", in reality every cow, every sheep, every goat, every donkey and land is owned by her husband. She is proud of her husband's property. She handles the products of the cow. This is like milk, meat, hide and shin when the cow is slaughtered. The woman can sell milk to buy other food supplements and the husband doesn't ask for the profit from the sale of this. Milk is the main food of the people. Other food supplement, like maize, bean and potatoes has been adopted by most Maasai and is used along with milk. The money from the sale of milk is kept by the women while the money from the sale of livestock is kept by men.

The life of Maasai women is full of opportunities and when they are their personal best, they are powerful. A Maasai woman may not see it from where she is standing, but she knows there is always something better just around the corner. This story gives a full picture of the work done by a Maasai woman from morning until late in the evening and sometimes until midnight. What is life going to do for her, what is life doing for her? Did it prepare her for the many responsibilities of life? How best was she taught about taking care of herself? What support was she given to enable her to carry out safe and useful life? Perhaps people need to resolve to do better in the next few years, better for themselves and better for others. A Maasai woman therefore can also be a powerful change agent in her own community. A Maasai woman's task list includes:

  1. Build a house - travel long distance to get guilding materials.
  2. She has to smear the house made of mud with more wet soil mixed with cow dung when it rains.
  3. Milk the cows.
  4. In most cases monitor and report to husband sick or pregnant cows.
  5. Close and open the main gate and the cows pen entrance every evening and morning
  6. Prepare food for every one in the house including any visitor.
  7. Collect water.
  8. Collect firewood.
  9. Make sure the fire doesn't go out.
  10. Put fire on in the morning, daytime and evening to prepare food and to warm the house.
  11. Wash and smoke calabashes (gourds) before milking cows
  12. Collect herbs and roots recommended traditionally for young babies and also other herbs for de-worming older children
  13. Help others during ceremonial occasions
  14. Sometimes help husband fence "boo".
  15. Wash clothes.
  16. Make decorative bead artwork for herself, husband and children.
  17. And many more not mentioned above

Every Day in My Mother's Life

It was midnight and rain falls in torrent. The mud hut of my mother, Enkaji, leaked. Mother as usual has to solve the problem. Every one else was asleep including our father and young children who haven't grown big enough to be able to join the rest of the boys and girls in grandmother's house. Grown up boys and girls, boys especially, sleep in their grand mothers' houses. They can as well sleep in their second mother's houses which their father haven't choose to sleep in that house that night. This is the case of a polygamous man.

Mother woke up without disturbing the sleeping children, but she was sure that the children are well covered with cowhides to prevent them from getting wet. She also makes sure that her husband doesn't get wet. She informed him that the house is leaking so that he is aware. My father has to cover himself with the hides in case his bed position start leaking. There was thunder and lightening. Lightening was an added advantage to mother because she is able to see very briefly the position she will smear with cow dung.

It took her about half and hour to collect enough dung from "boo o Nkishyu" cattle pen. It took her another ten minutes to throw the dung up the roof of the flat mud made house (manyatta). She doesn't get much difficulty in throwing the mud up because the hut is short enough that she can push it up. Manyata Mud HouseHer length size is an advantage because she didn't have to add something above the ground level for her to stop to get up the roof. She is taller. The roof started leaking more and almost at every section of the house. Children are awoken by the cold drops of water and father started complaining to mother that she is too slow. And that she should do the smearing faster so that his blanket and sleeping hide doesn't get wet. Mother didn't find this to be a big problem as this has been part of a Maasai woman's activity. She was singing a gospel song thanking the Giver of rain Enkai for longed awaited rain. The area has been dry for several months and there was little grass for the cattle and sheep, hence less milk. Other women could also be heard from the other side of the houses smearing theirs too. Some of the women cleverly mixed clay soil with some sand soil and fire ashes to make a compact mixture of soil to smear the roofs of their hut houses. These are the women who will have less work there in the rain.

More torrent of rain and Noonkipa, the name given to my mother when she was married to my father, tried to do the position of father's bed so that he stops complaining, a complain which might later result to her beating. Massai WomenNanau, one and half years old, my younger sister, cried as the cold drop of colored water dropped to her face as she rested in bed facing up. The colored water, reddish, is washing of the red soil which is used to smear the house. Mother could not hear the child because of rain and thunder outside. Father didn't care to play with the child to stop her from crying. He first minded his bed position so that he cannot get cold and wet. 'Wife, the child is crying', he lamented. 'Leave what you are doing first,' he called. His bed position now is free from water leakage. 'Naneu ai, tigirayu,' 'My Naneu, keep quite', father plead to the child at last. Mother has to leave the work she is doing to lullaby Naneu. The child is not comfortable with the mother because she is holding her with very cold hands and clothing which she is wearing. She suckled and fell asleep again. The rain stopped.

Mother started the fire ready to smoke the calabashes which should be used to put fresh milk. She uses dry African olive stick as it contains good smell and good milk taste. Only dry firewood is collected. Fresh or green firewood is smoky.

The following day, our cattle had to move very early in the morning to get the water before other people take the lead. The distance usually to get water for our cattle is several miles away from home and now there is water nearby from last rain. Mother and co-wives are up milking cows. This was at around 5:30 am. An average of 10 to 15 cows is hand-milk by one woman. They have not enjoyed the long night because of leaking houses and especially a hut where a husband is sleeping or will sleep. This has to be taken care of. Some women go herd cattle for the whole day. They don't own any single cow but they are proud of herding "their " cattle. They don't decide whether a cow is to be sold, given out for free or slaughtered. They are just informed, in some cases by some "caring" husbands, and not to discuss but for their information. Some husbands don't mention any cow or sheep to a woman if he wants to sell or give away.

The cattle moved out of "boo". This is around 7 o'clock in the morning. Escorted by father until the herding boys arrive from home. Massai Warrior They delay for awhile, while their mothers put the calves in the pen and see if they are all in. If by bad luck a young calf goes with the mother cow, then the wife has to be careful because the husband can quarrel or even beat her. So she should therefore be very careful and make sure all calves are retained at home. All the children have to eat. Children drink milk as breakfast and as day's lunch. They don't' come back from herding to have lunch. They drink as much milk as they take them for the whole day. Mother also drinks her share.

It is time now to collect firewood. The distant travel to fetch dry firewood is about 6 km and they have to cover the same kilometers back home. The women have to collect dry firewood and especially from trees which don't burn fast. These are trees like African olive, tachonathus camphorates, fhus natalensis and many more. There are more dangers traveling such long distances. Possibilities of encountering elephants, buffaloes, lions, snakes and many other dangerous animals are very high. There is rarely a day that they don't mention seeing a dangerous animal. They have found this to be part of life's experience. Women, like men, have also learned to dodge the dangerous animals they encounter, and especially when they see it from afar. This does not mean that there haven't been serious incidences of women being attacked and injured by dangerous wild animals. Some have been stamped by elephant, some knocked down by buffaloes and a few incidence of snake. A bundle of about 45 kilograms (100 lbs.) of firewood can be carried by one woman at one time and this can only last for about two days before she goes for more. Fire has to be kept for as much as 24 hours to avoid getting fire from another house.

Naneu cries to mother after arrival from collecting firewood. Mother drop down the heavy bunch of firewood to let the child suckle. Mother is very tired. She asks for water to drink. No lunch, except if there is a cupful of milk to drink. The baby has be bathed as she was playing with mud with other older children. Apart from its mother's milk, the infant is fed with cow milk mixed with herbs and root extracts. She has to monitor the sick cows/calves/sheep and report the progress to her husband. Water for washing and drinking is needed in the house and mother has to go fetch. This is another 2 kilometers away from home. In the evening before cattle come back home, women have to clean calabashes, let them dry and smoke them using African olive sticks.

The cattle are back home again. Women prepare themselves to milk cows, put young calves in pen and lock the main entrance and also entrance to "boo". Where there are more families in one manyatta each one has their own cattle entrance and the cattle are used to their entrance when getting in and out. Children are the first to get the evening "food" which is milk only. The husband is the second and the wife have her food later and sometimes very small ration. She considers her children and husband first. Late evening comes. She adds more firewood to the fire and children get ready to sleep. She spends some times washing the calabashes which are empty after milk is drank by every body in the house that evening. She prepares the bed of her husband, who sleeps earlier than her. She has to monitor any sick cow or sheep in between part of the night and if it get serious she inform her husband who will then decide what to do. Sometimes she tells interesting stories to children before they get to sleep. She is the last to get to bed to sleep and the first to wake up. The long day is gone.


About the Author


Simon Ntokoiyuan Nkoitoi

Simon Ntokoiyuan Nkoitoi is a Maasai, born in 1963 in the dry parts of Narok district, Kenya. He was among a few boys who went to school at the time when education in Maasai land was not welcomed by the Maasai people. They viewed school as waste of time and making children disappear from home.

He joined Ololulung's Primary school in 1970 and completed class 7 and joined Kilgoris Secondary School in 1978. After school, he was employed temporary by the Kenya government to teach as an untrained teacher and he taught for one and a half years.

With the interest of becoming a teacher, he joined a Primary Teachers' Training College and graduated after two years training.

Simon taught for one year at Aitong School as an assistant teacher before he was promoted to be headmaster of Talek Primary school for seven years.

Due to his dynamic work and interest, he was promoted by the government to the position of Teacher Advisory Centre (TAC) Tutor, a post he held until he joined Friends of Conservation (an NGO) as a Conservation Education Officer.

Simon has helped The OPPORTUNITY FUND for DEVELOPING COUNTRIES start up micro enterprise Projects with women on the Masai Mara.

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