Sunday, June 15, 2014

Maasai vs. Kikuyu

No, this is not about a FIFA football match.  It’s about a rivalry that goes back nearly a millennium.  The sort of rivalry so pervasive in human experience that Rogers and Hammerstein wrote a song preaching against it:

“The farmer and the cowman should be friends,
Oh, the farmer and the cowman should be friends.
One man likes to push a plough, the other likes to chase a
But that's no reason why they cain't be friends.”

Sadly the two dominant tribes in East Africa had great difficulty finding a way to heed this advice.

Here is a very quick overview:


The Maasai, one of the most famous African tribes, are also one of the most enduring culturally.  They are semi-nomadic pastoralists, whose society is ruled more by tradition and their customs than by law.  “Dignified” is the word most often used to describe them.  Their chic clothing is much what it was 150 years ago.  Their life style is strongly ingrained and assiduously defended, sometimes violently in the past, against any intruder who tries to get them to move over or to force them to change their ways.

Their oral tradition says they moved into what is now Kenya and Tanzania from the Nile valley.  These days their strongly patriarchal society is the target of much criticism because of their stance against the education and self-determination of women.  On the other hand, there are things about their culture that are much admired.  The governments of the adjoining countries where they live have been trying to get them to abandon their age-old ways and live more like modern citizens, but no less an organization than Oxfam has taken their part, saying that in the face of climate change, the Maasai ability to feed themselves out of desert and scrubland is a way of life to be preserved.


The Kikuyu are the farmers in our story.  They were, and still are the largest ethnic group in Kenya.  They are a Bantu people, whose origins are uncertain.  Their reputation has long been as an attractive, cheerful people, who welcome any reason to laugh or dance.  Before the arrival of the British, they fought off Arab slavers and were in a constant state of enlarging their settlements in the area around Mount Kenya.

They had been the traditional enemies of the Maasai.  The bone of contention was, as ever, territory.   The Maasai took umbrage when Kikuyu settlements popped up in their pastureland and exacted revenge by stealing the Kikuyu’s cattle and goats.  The two tribes battled back and forth for eons until Her Majesty’s subjects showed up to impose the Pax Brittanica.  The bad feelings, of course, persisted.

One of the main characters in my upcoming book is Kwai Libazo, a half-Maasai, half-Kikuyu tribal policeman.  I gave him that identity to keep in a no-man’s land in terms of his allegiance.  In solving the mystery of Strange Gods, his background gives him an advantage.  The victim is murdered with a tribesman’s weapon.   Kwai readily identifies it as a Maasai spear.  But the immediate suspect is a Kikuyu medicine man, who may have killed to protect his honor.  Kwai knows that such a person would never use a Maasai spear to commit such an act.

I carefully described the difference in design in the text, but here I can show you examples.

A Maasai warrior with his spear.
The blade curves abruptly into the shaft.

A Kikuyu medicine man with his spear.
The blade tapers into the shaft.

And here is the cover of the book.  Kudos to the designer who got the difference right.  The man you see in the jacket photo is a Maasai herdsman.  And the spear he carries is exactly the right shape for the man pictured.

I will have LOTS to say about my story next Monday—the day before the book launches.

Annamaria – Monday.


  1. Thanks for helping us understand some of the differences.

    1. Stan, it's a big subject. I have just scratched the surface. I would have written more if some Jersey driver hadn't run into the back of my car yesterday. I am okay. My car has a bit more than a scratched surface. His wife was angrier at him than I was.

  2. A spear, by any other shape, will prick as sharply.

    Sorry to hear about the fender bender. Imagine his reaction had you emerged from your vehicle bearing your Maasai spear...

    1. EvKa, My car is so small that a Maasai spear wouldn't fit in it. I am just glad his wife didn't have one. I want the guy to live long enough to pay for my repairs.

  3. Well, Annamaria, you've really hooked (as opposed to skewered) me. I can't wait until Monday.

    By the way, aren't you proud how I speared you any puns?

  4. Thank you, my bother--I mean brother. I am always proud of yew.

    1. That was a very good one, sis! I'll take it as sign it's time to leave.

    2. Can't believe you missed yew. A yew is a tree, and what do trees do? They ...drumroll please,,, leave. Gotcha, sis, gotcha, nah nah nah nah nah nah.

    3. Enough of this bantering chit-chat. You guys had best ship up and shape out, and I mean yesterday! I just signed on the dotted line for I and my wife Sharon to be at LCC Portlandia 2015, to heckle and jest at every slightest opportunity (well, I may have to carry the full load, as Sharon's just not quite up to professional level when it comes to heckling, but she's pretty good at taking a jest, or at least a jab with a sharp spear). I had to mortgage the house, but darn it all anyway, sometimes you just have to step off the ledge or step in it. Or something.

  5. I probably should join the bantering, but it's not my style (alas!). I look forward to Monday's blog and the book launching next Tuesday at Mysterious Bookstore. Those Maasai are a handsome people! And having gone through some recent fashion magazines in the last couple of days, I can ditto your description: their attire is indeed chic, very au courant in our culture.

  6. Barbara, There is such a natural elegance about the Maasai. There is a scene in the film "out of Africa" where a group of them crosses paths with Karen Blixen. Their dress, their movements, their complete imperviousness to the presence of Karen and her wagon train are so emblematic of everything I have read about them. I wish I could show you that here.