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The Maasai and Bushmen of Africa Research Paper

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Updated: Aug 25th, 2020


The Busmen and the Maasai are two communities that are found in Africa and they inhabit the Eastern and Southern regions of the African continent, respectively. There is often a lot of mystery and conjecture surrounding these two communities especially because they are widely known and popularized in the film industry. This research paper is aimed at studying these two communities and their way of life in order to gain an insight into their social, political and economic organization. A look into their way of life will serve to either debunk or clarify some of the myths that surround them. The paper will also compare the two communities against each other with the aim of revealing their distinguishing characteristics and how much of those definitive features can be explained by their habitation.


This research aims to compare and contrast two African tribes with a bid to discover their similarities and differences. Specifically, it will look at the history of both tribes, focusing on the political, social and economic organization of these tribes. It will further analyze how these institutions have evolved, if at all, and finally pick out the similarities and differences in culture and traditions.

Research Question

The question that this paper seeks to answer is how the Maasai and Bushmen tribes of the African continent are organized and whether or not they have similarities in the way they function as social units. This paper will also endeavor to answer the question of their differences and analyze this information against the backdrop of the communities’ location and historical development.


This research is on the major part, desk-based. It will rely on information gathered from various secondary sources like Journals, books and articles.

Type of Study

This is a comparative study of two communities found in Africa: The Maasai and the Bushmen.

History of the Tribes

The Maasai

The Maasai are Nilotes who inhabit the East African region, specifically Southern Kenya and Northern Tanzania, occupying a total land area of 160,000 square Kilometers (Maasai Association, n.d.). A majority of the Maasai, however, reside in Kenya. They are believed to have migrated from Southern Sudan (specifically from the north of Lake Turkana, in the lower Nile valley) into central Kenya, but their number deteriorated rapidly in the 19th Century due to famine and disease (Parkinson, Phillips, & Gourlay, 2006). Their livestock, which mainly comprised of cattle, was affected by rinderpest. They began to lose their land when the British colonialists annexed their land for resettlement and as reserves for wildlife.

The Bushmen

They are also referred to as the San people and they are believed to be the community that has inhabited Southern Africa for the longest time (Siyabona Africa, n.d.). Scientists believe that they descended from the first Homo sapiens that occupied Southern Africa for about 150,000 years (Sasi, n.d.). The study of their archeology is said to have revealed evidence of the earliest presence of human life in the world (Lee & Hitchcock, 2001). They inhabit the regions of Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Lesotho. They are believed to have inhabited Southern Africa for over 20, 000 years and they are large group that is made up of smaller groups of hunter-gatherer communities which have linguistic and cultural ties (Siyabona Africa, n.d.).

The term ‘bushmen’ is not used anymore because it has been considered to derogatory in nature. In fact, it is derived from the demeaning Dutch word ‘bossiesman’ which is used to refer to bandits or people that are considered outlaws (Siyabona Africa, n.d.). Since they have inhabited the Southern regions of Africa for a long time, they are also armed with extensive knowledge on the flora and fauna of the area and they are thus believed to have classified thousands of plants with their respective uses (Siyabona Africa, n.d.). They also suffered the negative side effects of civilization, for example, when the government of Botswana relocated them from their ancestral lands in order to clear the land for diamond mining (Gillan, n.d.).


The Maasai

It has been stated that they are highly specialized pastoralists and are in fact the most specialized in the East African region of the Eastern Sudan (Kitumsote, n.d.). They are well known nomads who used to live under a communal land tenure system where land was not owned by private individuals, but rather, by the community as a whole (Maasai Association, n.d). This meant that by virtue of belonging to the Maasai community, one gained access to the communal land and could, therefore, use it for grazing their livestock. Consequently, when the colonial administration began parceling land into smaller privatized portions, the Maasai’s economic progress was hindered because this forced them onto smaller areas of grazing land (Kitumsote, n.d.).

Due to their nomadic nature, they move seasonally from place to place depending on the weather patterns. In some areas, however, to avoid the necessity of having to move to distant lands in search of pasture, the community used to fallow a piece of land and commission warriors to guard it for use after the pastures have been depleted. This meant that moving to a different area was only reserved for the harshest of weather conditions (Maasai Association, n.d.). Their most basic source of income is the livestock that they herd and these include the cattle, sheep and goats. They use livestock as a form of currency and often trade it with other livestock, livestock products, school uniform, for cash or even for the payment of fees.

The Bushmen

The Bushmen are highly skilled hunters and gatherers who survive on the wild game that they hunt and the variety of wild plants that the women gather (Siyabona Africa, n.d.). They are some of the most widely known foragers in Africa and they live as autonomous hunters and gatherers in the Namib and Kalahari deserts (Solway & Lee, 1990).

Their ownership of land is also communal and any member of the community can hunt anywhere within its lands by virtue of being a member. Membership is proved by residence and, therefore, as long as a person lives within their territory, he is considered as belonging to the community (Siyabona Africa, n.d.). Although access to the community land is fairly flexible, permission has to be sought when dealing with the private land of the communities around them and they do not stray to hunt in lands other than their own, except with the exclusive consent of the owner.

The man that hunts has the exclusive right of determining how the kill will be shared among the members of the community but the herbs and fruits that the women gather are shared only with the closest members of her family (Siyabona Africa, n.d.). For water, they have evolved far beyond the traditional sources of water, having been forced to be more creative because of their environment. These foragers often squeeze their water from the roots of plants or dig through the sand for water (Siyabona Africa, n.d.).

They have also engaged in trade, especially after the arrival of other communities within the area who brought new commodities like iron, cattle, sheep and pottery (Lee & Hitchcock, 2001). These were the Khoi speaking tribes which settled towards their south-west and the Bantu speaking tribes that settled on their east side.

Socio-political Organization

The Maasai

They consist of 16 sections and they live in structures called Kraals which are usually arranged in a circular manner within the homestead (Maasai Association, n.d.). These kraals are fenced in such a manner that keeps out lions which usually attack their herds. Traditionally, the Kraal was shared by the extended family but due to the privatization of the land tenure system, they are now occupied by a single nuclear family. The most distinctive factor of their social organization is the Age set system.

The adult males of the community are divided into age sets which have gaps of about fifteen years in between (Maasai-Sociopolitical Organization, n.d.). Each age set is further subdivided into two sub-groups i.e. the right hand and the left hand. The most important age set in the community is that which is made up of warriors who are the most recently initiated. This is the subgroup that is in charge of the security of the community (Maasai Association, n.d.). During the period of being warriors, they are usually secluded from the rest of the community and form their own warrior village in which they are obliged by the circumstances to share everything from food to their mistresses (Maasai-Sociopolitical Organization, n.d.).

A particular warrior village usually subsists for about seven years before the other group is initiated after which they are subdivided into smaller villages as they are ushered into elder hood. These new subdivisions are meant to allow them a wider and more extensive access to resources especially grazing fields (Maasai-Sociopolitical Organization, n.d.). The elders are the political heads of the community and they often lead prosperous and polygamous lifestyles. Social control is made possible by the deep seated belief in the elder’s ability to bless or curse.

The Bushmen

They reside in small, mobile groups which are made necessary by their lifestyle. These groups consist of not more than 25 men, women and children but the different groups often meet each other periodically for the exchange of news, gifts, and for preparations of formal occasions like weddings. They do not have any formal authority figure like the Kings of the Baganda people or more commonly, the chief of other African countries. On the contrary, they make their decisions by consensus and, therefore, the resolutions of disputes often require lengthy discussions because every member of the group has the right to be heard before a decision is made (Siyabona Africa, n.d.)

They are majorly bound together by Kinship bonds but some individuals are allowed to assume authority in some specific areas where they have particular skills and expertise e.g. in healing rituals. The lack of an overall political figure has, however, made it difficult for them to interact with their neighbours and during the colonial period, the British colonialists found it difficult to make treaties with them because they did not know whom to deal with as a representative of the community (Lee & Hitchcock, 2001). They have also had a disadvantage where they had to go to war with the settler communities around them because of their lack of political organization and a lack of more sophisticated weapons (Sasi, n.d.).

The Role of Women in the Community

The Maasai

With regards to the livelihood of the community, the women were traditionally responsible for the construction of the houses while the men were in charge of fencing it (Maasai Association, n.d.). The women undertook roles such as building shelters, fetching water, preparing food, and milking. The daily duties of a woman exceeded those of her husband.

In fact, it has been confirmed by the members of the communities that the women woke up earlier than their husbands and slept later than them. Regardless of this, they did not own any property of their own and whatever was in the homestead belonged exclusively to their husbands (Nkoitoi, n.d.). Essentially, a woman was only allowed the small privilege of being proud of her husband’s possessions but not owning any. With the advent of education, however, these roles have changed and they are not strictly what they used to be.

The Bushmen

As earlier stated, the women in this community are usually charged with the task of gathering wild fruits and herbs while the men are mainly, although not always, the hunters. The gender roles are, however, not strictly adhered to and, therefore, sometimes the men help with the gathering while the women can also assist with the hunting (Siyabona Africa, n.d.). The women’s role in the community is highly valued and their opinion often takes preeminence especially in the distribution of food (Kalahari Bushmen, n.d.).

The demarcation of the roles between men and women is mainly informed by the necessity of their lifestyles and the skills that the two sexes possess. The men are, therefore, charged with the duty of hunting because they can withstand its physical demands. The women are highly skilled in gathering and have the duty of taking care of the children and cannot, therefore, wander too far away from the home.



Both communities, besides being African communities, also share other piquant similarities that are worth noting. First of all, their history can be traced back from very early on and there is enough evidence that they have been in existence for hundreds of thousands of years. This is the reason why the Bushmen are often considered a specimen of the earliest trace of the human being in the world.

Secondly, both communities embraced the communal form of land ownership. They manly adopted this style of land tenure because of the exigencies of their lifestyle. For the Maasai, they were driven by their nomadic lifestyle. This created the need to share grazing lands. For the Bushmen, it is their choice of economic livelihood. Hunting and gathering requires access to vast tracts of land. It would, therefore, be disadvantageous to adopt a private system of land holding because this would have a negative impact on the ability of the people to hunt, or gather.

Thirdly, both communities have undergone a lot of evolution in terms of their social organization especially from external forces. The Maasai were forced to give up some of their land in order to make room for the establishment of national reserves and national parks. This interfered with their grazing patterns because some of their land was sectioned off for various government projects. The Bushmen also faced opposition from their neighbouring communities especially the settlers. They also had to forfeit some of their land for government projects such as mining, and irrigation schemes. These communities were also affected by the entry of the Europeans into their lives.

For the Kenyans and Tanzanians, the British colonial system took effect and displaced the Maasai community in order to get farming land. The Maasai people were also taken to work in the farms of the British without pay. The Bushmen encountered the Europeans earlier on and some of them were sold into slavery. Their structure left them vulnerable to these forms of external forces because they were not politically organized. On the other hand, although the Maasai could be said to have had a political advantage, their weapons were inferior to those of the colonialists and their spears and arrows could not, therefore, withstand the force of the adversaries’ guns.

Both communities also engaged in trade with their neighbouring communities which mostly took the form of barter trade. The Maasai traded with the Bantus for their agricultural products while the Bushmen traded with the neighbouring Khoi and Bantu communities for the same reason. Lastly, both communities have clearly demarcated roles for both their men and women though they are no adhered to with the same level of strictness. In both communities, it is the men that bear the responsibility of protecting the home and its inhabitants.


The two communities also vary from each other in a number of ways and the first and most evident is in their source of their livelihood. The Maasai are nomads who herd cattle as their main source of livelihood while the Bushmen are foragers who rely on the natural resources of the deserts for their food and other sustenance. Due to the harsh climatic conditions of the bushmen’s habitat, they are more frugal and do not waste any part of the animals that they hunt.

Secondly, with regards to the role of women, the Maasai women tend to do more than their Bushmen counterparts. It appears that the roles are evenly distributed between the two sexes in the Bushmen community. On the other hand, Maasai women generally do more work than their men and they take care of almost everything in the homestead. In addition to this, the Bushmen women are highly respected and their opinion is held in high esteem in some matters. In contrast, the Maasai community is highly patriarchal and it is the elders that carry the mandate of decision making.

Thirdly, the social organizations of the two communities differ greatly. Whereas the Maasai have the age set system to provide the structure of the community, the Bushmen do not have such a system and they do not even have a political head. They mostly rely on their kinship ties and it is because of their way of life that they also do not have a strong political structure unlike the Maasai who, besides having their chiefs, also have a specific age set of warriors to provide security for the community.

Analysis of the Sources

All the sources that were used were reliable. The researcher tried to avoid sites which are meant for tourists because they may distort the information favorably in order to appeal to more tourists. Of utmost insight was an article written by a Maasai, Nkoikoi, who clearly depicted the role of the woman in the Maasai community.

Although he is a man, he showed no bias in his narrative and he clearly brought out the subjugation of the Maasai woman with regards to her role in the community. Given more time, the researcher would have looked for more material that is written by the members of the community because these would have offered richer insight into the ways of life of the said communities. The researcher also avoided documentaries because documentaries are often prepared with a specific viewpoint and may, sometimes, not be objective.


In conclusion, the study into these communities’ ways of life has revealed the importance of the indigenous communities to disciplines such as archeology and even botany. This study has also revealed the similarities and differences that the communities have. The comparison has revealed how African communities had to evolve in the face of interaction with outside forces, and provides a glimpse into the question of the erosion of culture and how this happens.

It is also clear from the research that both African communities had clear and distinct roles for both men and women and this went a long way in fueling the progression of activities in the community. The family unit has also been revealed to be indispensable to these two communities and it is the basis upon which their political and social organization is founded. The way in which the communities exploit their resources is testament of their high level of creativity and their ability to adapt to the environments in which they find themselves.

The research also revealed that these two communities had a highly functional even if not sophisticated system that enabled them to survive in their various fields of expertise. This readily dispels the myths that Africa did not have old civilizations because these two communities form the basis of ancient African civilization. The research that has been carried out has also provided a glimpse into the manner in which the communities related with other communities around them showing that there were also wars fought for various reasons not unlike in other civilizations of the world.


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Kitumsote. (n.d.). To ensure the sustainability of the Maasai people’s way of life.

Lee, R. B., & Hitchcock, R. K. (2001). African hunter-gatherers: survival, history and the politics of identity. African Study Monographs, 26, 257-280.

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Nkoitoi, S. N. (n.d.). The life of a Maasai woman. Opportunity Fund for Developing Countries.

Parkinson, T., Phillips, M., & Gourlay, W. (2006). Kenya. Melbourne‎, Australia: Lonely Planet.

Sasi. (n.d.). .

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Solway, J., & Lee, R. (1990). Foragers, genuine or spurious: Situating the Kalahari Sanin history. Current Anthropology, 31, 109-146

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