Supa! Era supat? Time to learn Maasai culture and Maa language

By Valtteri Nurminen, COCO volunteer

This is the third blog of our blog series introducing various East African local languages, as COCO celebrates the International Year of Indigenous Languages. If you missed the previous blogs or have already forgotten all the Luhya and Luo phrases… Don’t worry, you can go and revise Luhya here and Luo here. This time we will introduce the Maasai culture and Maa language.

The difference between Maasai and Maa is that Maasai is the tribe while Maa is the language. Indeed, Maasai in Maa means “people who speak Maa”. Maasais originate from the Nile Valley and the Maa language is part of the Nilotic languages group. Nowadays, there are around one million Maasai people, mainly residing in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania – but they are hard to count as some sub-tribes do not want to be categorized into any ethnic groups.

Despite their small size in numbers, the Maasai tribe is very well-known because of their very authentic and distinctive culture. Maasais dress up colourfully and wear fancy looking handmade jewellery. Maasais are also famous for living in symbiosis with nature, as Maasais aim to only use natural resources and materials. In addition, Maasais have been able to retain many of their old traditions and way of living despite the modernization and globalization of Kenyan and Tanzanian societies.

Maasais have a very important connection with cattle. Livestock is regarded as status symbols, as in Maasai culture, wealth and well-being are proved by the number of cattle you possess. In addition, livestock has a huge portion in Maasais’ diet and the Maasai people’s life-cycle is also largely determined by the cattle. This is because many Maasai tribes migrate together with their cattle in search of greener lands.

Maasai language is mostly only spoken and not really written. Maasais pass down their culture and history orally by telling folklores and myths and singing songs. Indeed the Maasai culture’s preservation is strongly dependent on the survival of Maa language. The increasingly dominant role of English and Swahili in Kenyan and Tanzanian societies is causing the Maa language to slowly decline. Furthermore, Maa as a language and Maasais as an ethnic group, are in a deprived minority position in Kenya and Tanzania.

Now is time for what you have probably been waiting for the most… The Maa words and sayings:

Hello! – Supa!

How are you? – Era supat?

What is your name? – Ikiji ng’ae enkarna?

I am/my name is – Kaaji…

Yes – Eee

No – Ah ah

Thanks – Ashe

Great – Asidai oleng

Goodbye – Olesere

School – Shule

Football – Empira oonkejek

Come – Wuou

The credit for translating the words and sayings in Maa goes to Pelua Ole Siloma who is COCO’s project partner in Kenyan Maasailand. Pelua works for the RedTribe and is strongly involved in the work of Maasai Academy. COCO and Pelua are united in working towards a better future in Maasailand by providing quality education, improving sanitation and healthcare and building dorms for the students and teachers to live closer to the school.

Ashe for reading this blog and stay tuned for next time, when it will be the Luganda language's turn. Until then, olesere!

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