The Cattle Currency of Maasai

Exploring the cultural significance of cattle for the Maasai community in Arusha, Tanzania.

Feeding Calves (2021) by Vibhor YadavProject FUEL

Cattle are one of the most integral parts of Maasai society. From their rituals and traditions to their economic and livelihood sustenance, cattle are an important part of their way of living.

Cow Blood (2021) by Vibhor YadavProject FUEL

Before adopting the pastoralist way of living, the Maasai were a nomadic society. Traditionally, they didn't grow crops or do much hunting. Their entire way of life revolved around their herds of Engishu or cattle in Maa language.

Engai, God of Maasai (2020) by Advithi EmmiProject FUEL

The Maasai are traditionally monotheists and worship a God named Engai. According to most myths and legends, Engai resided in and was one with the sky and owned all the cattle as well. 

One day, the earth and the sky separated, and so Engai was no longer among the people.  

How Maasai got the cattle (2020) by Advithi EmmiProject FUEL

The cattle needed grass from the earth to sustain themselves. It is then that Engai sent the cattle down to earth to the Maasai through the roots of the sacred fig tree and told them to look after the cattle. The Maasai have since then taken care of the cattle for Engai.

Orkipire (2021) by Vibhor YadavProject FUEL

As the Engiteng (cows in Maa language) are a gift from God, drinking milk and eating meat symbolize the connection between the Maasai and Engai.

Status Symbol (2021) by Vibhor YadavProject FUEL

For the Maasai, cattle are seen as a form of wealth. Generally, a Maasai owns around 14 cattle, during favorable conditions like availability of water and grass.  The cattle herd size indicates the status in the community. They are a highly valued source of pride and a symbol  of wealth.

Collecting cattles (2021) by Vibhor YadavProject FUEL

Cows also play a major part in the Maasai afterlife. They believe that when a person dies, their guardian spirit leads them to one of two places: a desert with no cows if they have been a bad person, and pastures with many cattle if they have been good. 

Cattle Wealth (2021) by Vibhor YadavProject FUEL

The cattle is also used as a form of transaction in marriage. The groom’s family gives cows to the bride’s family as part of the dowry. They are used to create or strengthen loyalties and ties and as a symbol of their bond.

Pastoral Living (2021) by Vibhor YadavProject FUEL

Half of the cattle herd belonging to a family are dairy cows. The other half feed the calves. So, the calves get a generous amount of milk. Hence, Maasai cattle are larger and in good health. The Maasai family depends on the milk cows for subsistence. Their staple food, like  porridge, is made of cow milk.

Elements of importance to Maasai- Blood (2020) by Advithi EmmiProject FUEL

The Maasai also extract blood from the cows that is either mixed with the milk, or cooked in animal fat, and given to people with weakened immune systems, particularly those who have just given birth, been circumcised, or fallen ill.

Maasai Morans with cattle (2020) by Stephanie FuchsProject FUEL

The blood from the cow can only be extracted by Morans. They fire a short, blunt arrow from a loosely-strung bow puncturing the vein of the cow. They then collect the blood in a gourd. The bleeding is stopped with a wad of dung and mud.

Skin Mattresse (2021) by Vibhor YadavProject FUEL

The Maasai also use cattle skin for furniture or as mattresses.

Plastering Bomas (2021) by Siddharth GovindanProject FUEL

Cow dung is used to plaster homes. The bomas are constructed by women.

Protectors of the community (2021) by Vibhor YadavProject FUEL

Maasais are very observant of their cattle and can recognize them by their body shape and colour. They name them and can even recognize each animal’s voice. 

Catttle marks (2021) by Vibhor YadavProject FUEL

The Maasai individually mark their cattle with long curving lines and intricate patterns designed to enhance the animal’s beauty. It’s also a sign of emotionally bonding with their cattle. Each clan has their own special earmark for identifying their cattle.

Knowledge of Generations (2021) by Vibhor YadavProject FUEL

Knowledge of cattle is passed down from generation to generation. Children can also read the animal's behaviour. 

Who to rely upon? (2021) by Vibhor YadavProject FUEL

Due to the drought conditions, many Maasai have lost their cattle. They have to walk long distances in search of grass and water for the animals. These conditions are worrying for the Maasai. Their prayer to God is abundant water for them and their cattle. Juru Lahita, an elder shared with us, “My happiest moment is when I see my cows during the rainy season. They are healthy. The grass is green.”

Credits: Story

Project FUEL would like to thank the Maasai community in the Losimingori village of Arusha, Tanzania for opening their hearts and home to this research. 

This exhibit is part of the Wise Wall Project, an initiative of Project FUEL, to document, design, and strengthen the wisdom of rural communities and marginalized villages using art and community outreach programs. In the third edition of this project, we collaborated with the Maasai, in Arusha, Tanzania, to build an on-ground community centre for the people and bring an exclusive insight into the life, lifestyle, and learnings of this inspiring community.

Photography: Vibhor Yadav, Siddharth Govindan
Wall Murals: Poornima Sukumar
Canvas Art: Advithi Emmi
Cultural Consultant and Translators: Kaay Ndoika Lengima, Elisha Olchakai Kirumui and Lemali Ndoika
Research, Interviews and Curation: Project FUEL
Project Partners: Vijana Inspiring Foundation, Vikram Solar Ltd., Lions Club of Dar es Salaam and Arusha, Google Arts & Culture

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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