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About the Tribe
Maasai Tribe. The Maasai are tall and strong. Fig. 39 shows a typical belle, also a Masai man who is much taller than our six-foot guide. It is interesting to study the methods of living and observe the accumulated wisdom of the Maasai. They are reported to have known for over two hundred years that malaria was carried by mosquitoes, and further they have practiced exposing the members of their tribes who had been infected with syphilis by the Arabs to malaria to prevent the serious injuries resulting from the spirochetal infection. Yet modern medicine boasts of being the discoverers of this great principle of using malaria to prevent or relieve syphilitic infections of the spinal cord and brain.
I saw the native Maasai operating on their cattle with skill and knowledge. The Maasai have no currency and all their transactions are made with cows or goats. A valuable cow was not eating properly, and I observed them taking a thorn out of the inside of her mouth. The surgical operation was done with a knife of their own making and tempered by pounding. The wound was treated by rubbing it with the ashes of a plant that acted as a very powerful styptic. Their knowledge of veterinary science is quite remarkable. I saw them treating a young cow that had failed to conceive. They apparently knew the cause and proceeded to treat her as modern veterinaries might do in order to overcome her difficulties. For their food throughout the centuries they have depended very largely on milk, meat and blood, reinforced with vegetables and fruits. They milk the cows daily and bleed the steers at regular intervals by a unique process. In Fig. 40 we see a native Maasai with his bow and arrow, the latter tipped with a sharp knife which is guarded by a shoulder to determine the depth to which the arrow may enter the vein. If the animal is sufficiently tame, the blood is drawn while it is standing. If the animal is frightened it is quickly hobbled, as shown below. In this figure the stream of blood may be seen spurting from the jugular vein into a gourd which holds about a gallon. A torque is placed around the neck before the puncture is made. The animals did not even flinch when struck by the arrow, the operation is done so quickly and skillfully. When sufficient blood was drawn, the torque was removed and the blood immediately stopped flowing. A styptic made of ashes referred to above was used. This serves also to protect the wound from infection. The blood is defibrinated by whipping in the gourd. The fibrin is fried or cooked much as bacon or meat would be prepared. The defibrinated blood is used raw just as the milk is, except in smaller quantities. When available, each growing child receives a day’s ration of blood as does each pregnant or lactating woman. Formerly, the warriors used this food exclusively. These three sources, milk, blood and meat provide them with liberal supplies of body-building minerals and the special vitamins, both fat-soluble and water soluble. Their estimate of a desirable dairy stock is based on quality not quantity. They judge the value of a cow for keeping in their herd by the length of time it takes her calf to stand on its feet and run after it is born, which is only a very few minutes. This is in striking contrast with the practice of our modern dairymen who are chiefly concerned with the quantity of milk and quantity of butter fat rather than with its value as a source of special factors for nutrition. Many of the calves of the modern high-production cows of civilized countries are not able to stand for many hours after birth, frequently twenty-four. This ability to stand is very important in a country infested with predatory animals; such as lions, leopards, hyenas, jackals and vultures.
Weston Price, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration (1939)
Traditionally, the Maasai diet consisted of raw meat, raw milk, and raw blood from cattle. Note that the Maasai cattle are of the Zebu variety. In the summer of 1935 Dr. Weston A. Price visited the Maasai and reported that according to Dr. Anderson from the local government hospital in Kenya most tribes were disease-free. Many had not a single tooth attacked by dental caries nor a single malformed dental arch. In particular the Maasai had a very low 0.4% of bone caries. He attributed that to their diet consisting of (in order of volume) raw milk, raw blood, raw meat and some vegetables and fruits, although in many villages they do not eat any fruit or vegetables at all. He noted that when available every growing child and every pregnant or lactating woman would receive a daily ration of raw blood. Dr. Weston A. Price also noted the government efforts back in 1935 to turn the Maasai into farmers. An ILCA study (Nestel 1989) states: "Today, the stable diet of the Maasai consists of cow's milk and maize-meal. The former is largely drunk fresh or in sweet tea and the latter is used to make a liquid or solid porridge. The solid porridge is known as ugali and is eaten with milk; unlike the liquid porridge, ugali is not prepared with milk. Animal fats or butter are used in cooking, primarily of porridge, maize, and beans. Butter is also an important infant food."
Studies by the International Livestock Centre for Africa (Bekure et al. 1991) shows a very great change in the diet of the Maasai towards non-livestock products with maize comprising 12–39 percent and sugar 8–13 percent; about one litre of milk is consumed per person daily. Most of the milk is consumed as fermented milk or buttermilk (a by-product of butter making). Milk consumption figures are very high by any standards. The needs for protein and essential amino acids are more than adequately satisfied. However, the supply of iron, niacin, vitamin C, vitamin A, thiamine and energy are never fully met by a purely milk diet. Due to changing circumstances, especially the seasonal nature of the milk supply and frequent droughts, most pastoralists, including the Maasai, now include substantial amounts of grain in their diets.
The Maasai herd goats and sheep, including the Red Maasai sheep, as well as the more prized cattle. Electrocardiogram tests applied to 400 young adult male Maasai found no evidence whatsoever of heart disease, abnormalities or malfunction. Further study with carbon-14 tracers showed that the average cholesterol level was about 50 percent of that of an average American. These findings were ascribed to the amazing fitness of morans, which was evaluated as "Olympic standard".
The mixing of cattle blood, obtained by nicking the jugular vein, and milk is done to prepare a ritual drink for special celebrations and as nourishment for the sick. However, the inclusion of blood in the traditional diet is waning due to the reduction of livestock numbers. More recently, the Maasai have grown dependent on food produced in other areas such as maize meal, rice, potatoes, cabbage (known to the Maasai as goat leaves) etc. The Maasai who live near crop farmers have engaged in cultivation as their primary mode of subsistence. In these areas, plot sizes are generally not large enough to accommodate herds of animals; thus the Maasai are forced to farm.
Importance of Animal Products
Formerly, the warriors used this food exclusively. These three sources, milk, blood and meat provide them with liberal supplies of body-building minerals and the special vitamins, both fat-soluble and water soluble.
As pastoralists, the Maasai live exclusively on their farm products. Traditionally, they rely primarily on fresh or curdled milk, blood, and meat from cattle for protein, also believing that it supports their immune system. Some Maasai drink cattle blood on special occasions, such as the circumcision of a child or the birth of a baby; it also is given to drunken elders to alleviate intoxication and hangover. Although their diet is rich in saturated fat, the Maasai have low levels of cholesterol and a low incidence of heart disease, which is said to be the result of a unique genetic adaptation reflecting centuries, if not millennia, of a largely milk-based diet. The Maasai also obtain additional food items, honey being among them, as well as buffalo hides for shields, Kudu horn trumpets, and other items normally associated with hunters and gatherers
Traditional Maasai lifestyle centres around their cattle which constitute their primary source of food. The measure of a man's wealth is in terms of cattle and children. A herd of 50 cattle is respectable, and the more children the better. A man who has plenty of one but not the other is considered to be poor. A Maasai religious belief relates that God gave them all the cattle on earth, leading to the belief that rustling cattle from other tribes is a matter of taking back what is rightfully theirs, a practice that has become much less common.
All of the Maasai's needs for food are met by their cattle. They eat the meat, drink the milk daily, and drink the blood on occasion. Bulls, goats, and lambs are slaughtered for meat on special occasions and for ceremonies.
Importance of Plants
Increases after warrior period.
Due to an increase in Maasai population, loss of cattle populations to disease, and lack of available rangelands because of new park boundaries and the incursion of settlements and farms by other tribes (this is also the chief reason for the decline in wildlife-habitat loss, with the second being poaching), the Maasai were forced to develop new ways of sustaining themselves. Many Maasai began to cultivate maize and other crops to get by, a practice that was culturally viewed negatively. Cultivation was first introduced to the Maasai by displaced WaArusha and WaMeru women who were married to Maasai men; subsequent generations practiced a mixed livelihood. To further complicate their situation, in 1975 the Ngorongoro Conservation Area banned cultivation practices. In order to survive they are forced to participate in Tanzania's monetary economy. They have to sell their animals and traditional medicines in order to buy food. The ban on cultivation was lifted in 1992 and cultivation has again become an important part of Maasai livelihood. Park boundaries and land privatisation has continued to limit grazing area for the Maasai and have forced them to change considerably.
Though the Maasai's entire way of life has historically depended on their cattle, more recently with their cattle dwindling, the Maasai have grown dependent on food such as sorghum, rice, potatoes and cabbage (known to the Maasai as goat leaves).
Soups are probably the most important use of plants for food by Maasai. Acacia nilotica is the most frequently used soup plant. The root or stem bark is boiled in water and the decoction drunk alone or added to soup. The Maasai are fond of taking this as a drug, and is known to make them energetic, aggressive and fearless. Maasai eat soup laced with bitter bark and roots containing cholesterol-lowering saponins; those urban Maasai who don't have access to the bitter plants tend to develop heart disease. Although consumed as snacks, fruits constitute a major part of the food ingested by children and women looking after cattle as well as morans in the wilderness.
Transition to Industrialized Food Products
The traditional Maasai male diet was high in SFA (milk and red meat) and low in carbohydrates with low heart disease rates (85). Post-transition, they consumed less fat and more carbohydrates. Macronutrient consumption differed between men and women pre- (1960) and post- (1980) transition. Post-transition, men's calories increased 19%, fats decreased 14%, proteins decreased 48%, and carbohydrates increased 39%; women's calories increased 14%, fat decreased 62%, protein decreased 73%, and carbohydrates increased 362%. There was insufficient data to calculate percent change for different fats or carbohydrates consumed. Pre-transition SFA intake was >60% of total fats, with total fat comprised >80% of the men's diets. Refined carbohydrates were rarely consumed (76, 85–87).
Activity and Lifestyle
Pre-transition, Maasai were very physically active. Post-transition, their lifestyle was more sedentary due to a reduced livestock-to-human ratio, increased land restrictions, and introduction to markets and consumerism (87). Among men, smoking and alcohol use were rare before the transition; post-transition, 11–16% smoked and 15% drank alcohol. The post-transition Maasai ate a primarily traditional diet but government programs led to reductions in fat and SFA and increased carbohydrates and refined carbohydrates (88, 89).
Pre-transition Maasai had very low rates of heart disease on clinical, EKG and postmortem studies (85, 86). Cholesterol levels were low in rural Maasai in 1964 (mean 125 mg/100ml) (85) and 1971 (135 mg/100ml) (86). Average male BMI increased after the transition from 21.0 in rural to 23.3 in urban settings (only 7 urban men) (90). For women, rural BMI averaged 22.3; few urban Maasai women were studied. One study found mens' average BMI was slightly higher in urban (20.2) than rural settings (18.9) despite the urban group averaging 19 years younger. Rural blood pressures averaged 121/79 for adults in 1928 and were similar (90) in 2017 (116/73 young adult women; 124/77 young adult men) (89, 91). Blood pressures were similar in rural and urban groups, but the rural group averaged 19 years older, suggesting more favorable levels for age. Compared to rural Maasai, younger urbanites had 27% higher cholesterol levels (203 vs. 160 mg/dL) and 10% higher triglyceride levels (159 vs. 144 mg/dl) (74).
Waist circumference was 80.3 cm for rural and 85.3 cm for urban men (76, 92). In 1931, rural Maasai had no evidence of diabetes (91). Among rural Maasai in 2006, 5.2% of men and 7.8% of women had impaired glucose tolerance or diabetes. Among urban Maasai and individuals from other tribes, 11.8% of males and 26% of females had impaired glucose tolerance or diabetes (76). In 2015, diabetes prevalence in adult (>25 y/o) Maasai was 1.1% for men and 0.8% for women; impaired fasting tolerance at 2.4%; diabetes prevalence among all Tanzanians was 8.0% (80).