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  • Writer's pictureDon Heyneke

Manyatta: A Rare Maasai Ceremony

Updated: Mar 1, 2021

Having conversations and asking questions can inspire one's curiosity and lead you to the most extraordinary places. The art of discovering these places lies in listening. Listening allows you to be changed by the other person and the places that can be discovered. There were so many meaningful, genuine and powerful conversations on a recent safari to Kenya which led me to one of the most incredible cultural experiences I have ever had.

I have been fascinated by Maasai traditions and culture ever since I was a young child but I have never found any clear written material that bettered my understanding. There are many different ceremonies that take place in the Maasai culture, many of them celebrate moving from one stage in life to another. Until this recent safari, I had never had the privilege of experiencing one of these traditional ceremonies firsthand. I had only learned about them through having conversations with Maasai guides and staff and asking questions related to their culture.

During my last safari, there was a new sense of excitement amongst staff and guides and I quickly learned about an exciting Maasai gathering and ceremony that was taking place whilst there. It was such a rare event and I could not pass at the opportunity to witness it. After a number of negotiations, I had the privilege of being invited to experience and document the graduation of Maasai junior elders becoming elders. I knew that this invitation may not be extended again, so I took the opportunity to visit this incredibly rare customary Maasai graduation.

The ceremony that I observed is one of the most important for a Maasai man, it only occurs once every 15 years, and lasts almost 4 months. The ceremony is called Manyatta Oloirikan which means, the ceremonial village of the chairs of elders, this symbolizes and celebrates the transition from a junior elder to an elder. This takes place at manyatta which refers to a ceremonial village, and every 15 years, two age-groups of junior elders meet in the ceremonial village and unite, to form one age-set. The age groups are formed every seven years and are determined when the junior elders were circumcised. Circumcision is representative of the transition from boyhood to moranhood (warriorhood). Men that have been circumcised within the same seven-year period will belong to that one specific age-group and those belonging to this group have a strong, brotherly bond. When mature, the two age groups will combine to become an age-set of elders, it is referred to or seen as ‘the left hand and right hand’ of the age-set.

“In the course of their lives, the members of each age-group will gather four times in ceremonial villages (manyatta) for collective rites of passage that serve as transitions from one stage of maturity to the next” - Eti Dayan, Author of the book One of Them.

I was incredibly fortunate to get a glimpse into the last collective ceremony and unexpectedly I met an inspiring woman with impressive knowledge and great charm, Eti Dayan. Eti is a researcher who is originally from Israel who travelled to Kenya and used to visit a specific village during her trips. One day she received a small note informing her that her Maasai hostess in Kenya had fallen gravely ill. Eti immediately flew to Kenya and was instrumental in saving her hostess’s life. During this extended time in the village, she fell in love with the members of the tribe and was given a Maasai name, Nayolang, meaning ‘one of us.’ She was then invited to build her own home in the village, a rare privilege for an outsider. Over the past 25 years, Eti has become interlaced with the Maasai people and their culture and her knowledge gave me an unparalleled understanding of their daily lives.

Eti has a rare gift of describing the purpose and meaning of manyatta and suggested that “it is the cycle of life, the cycle of teaching”. These Maasai graduates form an unbreakable brotherly bond and will start mentoring the new age group of young warriors through warriorhood. This guidance would have been given to every age group of young warriors by their elders over centuries.

Escape Safari Co. often guides and sends guests on safari to Kenya, and being a part of this graduation was a reminder of the importance of making connections with people during travel. Understanding the strong cultural heritage of the Maasai is an example of how enriching travelling to any destination often is. When an attempt is made to understand a life out of your own perception of home, it is often surprisingly pleasant and can lead you down a serendipitous and insightful adventure.

Until our next Escape.

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