Lion hunting is an ancient practice that plays an important role in the Maasai culture. Here are some of the cultural reasons including methods and tools used by the Maasai warriors in the practice of lion hunting.
Lion hunting is viewed by Maasai society as an act of bravery skill, wisdom, and achievement. This task can be pursued in a group of five warriors or individually. The game allows Maasai warriors to show off their fighting ability on a non human target. At the end of each age-set, usually after ten to fifteen years, the hunted lions of the entire initiating age-set are counted and are compared with those hunted by the former age-set. This is in order to measure accomplishment of the age-set.
Empikas (warrior delegation) plan for lion hunting a few days before the fact. The planning is done secretly. No one in the community other than the warriors should know about the day of lion hunting. The game is so secret that Irbanot (young warriors) of the same age-set are denied information regarding the day of lion hunting. They are not informed because they are considered immature. Older warriors fear that young warriors can easily release information to elders, local politicians and Western conservationist, groups that are opposed to the act of lion hunting. If a warrior spreads rumors and is found guilty, he is harshly punished by his colleagues in the form of beating. Furthermore, he will be looked down upon throughout his entire age group’s cycle.
It is not easy to hunt a lion alone. However, a majority of Maasai warriors have done it. Solo lion hunting is about confidence and skill. A warrior must build internal physical strength and must be passionate about the game. Unlike group hunting, solo lion hunting is not necessarily planned ahead of time. In many cases the hunting happens at random, usually when a warrior is out grazing livestock.
The lion hunting journey starts at early dawn before anyone in the community is awake. The warriors sleep in different Manyattas (homesteads) and meet at a nearby landmark, e.g. tree, hill, rock, etc., and head towards predetermined areas, where lions are likely to be found.
The reason warriors leave villages at early dawn is to avoid chances of encountering people opposed to the practice. A few minutes before the journey begins older warriors (Irmorijo) and their leaders must choose qualified warriors, those identified as mature and strong who are believed capable for the game of lion hunting. This group is known as fearless warriors (Irmeluaya) who are ready to die or live from the game of lion hunting. Young warriors (Irbarnot) who are disqualified are sent back home for rest. This rejection often creates a dispute within the group, as not every young warrior will accept to return home. When this happens, the dominant group and the rejected young warriors often challenge one another using clubs and shields. Losers are always the young warriors. Despite this, they still believe that the challenge is worth a try.
The fight between young and older warriors could potentially pose a major conflict to the dominant group, as some of their members might stress favoritism towards individuals from the group of young warriors, usually a relative from their clan or family. This situation can push the decision making process into extremes. Nevertheless, if this happens, the battle is treated as part of the learning process. Group dynamics is treated by warriors as progress.
The young warriors, who are sent home, are urged by older warriors to keep the information of lion hunting confidential until their colleagues return from hunting. Young warriors are also forced by older warriors to give up their weapons. (Extra weapons are not necessary for lion hunting. Instead, it is just a way of insulting the young warriors.) This attitude is a form of training that the riot are being regarded as responsible, so that they would be motivated.
When the older warriors return from lion hunting with the lion, a one week celebration takes place throughout the section’s land. The warrior who first speared the lion is embraced by women from various communities and receives a double-sided beaded shoulder strap (Imporro), which he must wear every time a major festival, such as milk ceremony, eunoto ceremony (senior warrior’s graduation ceremony) takes place in the community.
The successful completion of lion hunting brings gratitude and excitement to the hunter’s entire community, as it is deemed an accomplishment of individual bravery and skill. His community will honor the hunter (Ormurani lolowuaru) with much respect throughout his entire lifetime. His accomplishment will not only be heard in his community but also by the entire section. The hunter will also receive nicknames from his colleagues, e.g. Miseyieki, meaning that no one will ever mess with him. When warriors attend ceremonies in other settings, they praise their colleague and urge others to acknowledge the success of their member. The warrior’s information is effectively delivered through songs and verbal stories.
Lions are abundant throughout Maasailand; they are many as warthogs. However, they are as smart as people and can hide very well. The lion search ranges from 20 minutes to 10 hours. Usually lions do not charge people; instead a hunter must go after the lions. The Maasai warriors, in order to make the kill, must chase a lion from 5 to 30 kilometers. This chasing method is to force the lion to develop anger towards the hunter is a one of the few methods used by the Maasai warriors when hunting a lion. Another widely used method is to force a lion to move away from his kill. The lion does not like noise, for this reason the Maasai warriors use loud bells made of metal, purchased from traders, to disturb the lion. This method in turn makes a lion mad and will come after the hunter.
Fighting a lion inside intensely vegetated area can be very dangerous, as he moves faster than a human being. Instead, the Maasai warriors fight them in the plain. This is the best decision to make and best place to be. The warrior’s idea for doing so is to give the lion a chance to fight with the hunter. Lion hunting is all about challenging another creature.
Pursuing the lion’s tail is different in the various Maasai sections. The process to get a lion tail is a challenging one because warriors must achieve the lion’s tail using physical power. Warriors must wrestle in order to get the tail. The strongest warrior is most likely to win this competition. In Irkisonko section, the first warrior to spear the lion receives the tail; there is no much competition involved other than to spear the lion first. There are no tools to build physical strength, e.g. body building, rifle, homework, lecture, specific food, drink, or institutions such as a gym, classroom, club, shield and machete. The lion hunting game is about personal assignment, goals and accomplishment. The game is based on your background, environment, and culture. Your age group, clan, and section grade the accomplishment.
The Maasai depend strictly on livestock (cow, sheep and goat) and do not eat game meat. Three products are used from the lion: the mane, tail and claws. The mane is beautifully beaded by women of the community and is given to the hunter. It is worn on the head and used by warriors during ceremonial occasions. The lion mane serves as a warrior’s costume and helps his fellow warriors, from other locations, identify the toughest warrior.
When a warrior graduates from warriorhood and becomes a junior elder, he must throw the lion mane away for hyenas and other creatures to eat. Before the warrior throws the lion mane away he must pay respect to the mane in the form of sacrifice. To do this, the warrior must slaughter a sheep for the purpose of this sacrifice and grease the mane using sheep oil mixed with ochre. This is done to avoid bad spirits, as the Maasai believe the mane has special spiritual attachment to the owner and cannot be thrown without showing respect. The mane is also used by warriors to make a mini leather skirt, worn over the shoulder. This skirt is also beaded by women of the community and worn only by the hunter on special occasions.
The lion tail is also beaded by women of the community and given to the hunter. Before the community women bead the lion’s tail, warriors must prepare it first. It is stretched on a stick, in order to dry and soften the leather, thus making the skin easy to bead. After beading the tail, is given to the hunter and he must wear it on ceremonial occasions. When the warriors graduates from warriorhood he throws away the tail, using the same process used in the mane. The lion tail is the most valuable product in the practice of lion hunting as tails are kept in the Manyatta (warrior’s camp) usually from ten to fifteen years.
In recent years Maasai elders began to oppose the practice of lion hunting as a result of external pressure from topocrats (politicians and Western conservationists). Topocrats pressured the elders by telling them that; “if warriors refuse to stop lion hunting, they will be gathered and punished in the form of government judicial system”, meaning government laws. (It is important to acknowledge that Kenya and Tanzania laws, of course, do not speak Maa language). As a result of threat from topocrats, the Maasai elders are no longer encouraging the warriors to hunt lions. Nowadays, they tell the warriors that “lion hunting is too risky both physically and politically- and warriors should stop the practice.”
The Maasai warriors refute this discouragement by saying, “The elders have forgotten that the warriors adopted the practice of lion hunting from them and they in turn adopted from their fore generations”