The Maasai, who live in the Great Rift Valley of Kenya and Tanzania, are renowned as great warriors. For these pastoral people, the most dramatic transition in life is the passage from warriorhood to elderhood.
It is known as the Eunoto ceremony and occurs once every 7 – 14 years. At this time an entire warrior generation come together to celebrate their achievements in warriorhood, and pass through five days of rituals which prepare them for their next stage of life.
The largest Eunoto ceremony we have ever witnessed occurred amongst the Salei Maasai who live in a remote corner of Tanzania, east of the Serengeti Plains. Long lines of Maasai warriors, nine hundred in all, arrive in a colorful procession from over the horizon. They were heading for the ceremonial manyatta, where family members in the thousands waited to greet them, all beautifully attired in red Maasai togas and white bead jewelry.
Following this, we witnessed five days of spectacular rituals marking the warriors’ passage to elderhood, the rituals alternating according to whether it was a White Day or a Red Day. Warriors visited distant, sacred chalk banks, where they transformed their bodies using white paint to appear unrecognizable to their mothers upon their return; then, covered in red ocher, they performed the Empatia, a high, leaping dance to impress their young girlfriends. They boasted of their bravery by wearing headdresses of lion’s mane and ostrich feathers. Nearing the climax of the ceremony, they charged into the manyatta in long lines waving hundreds of kanga flags, in a joyous riot of design and color.
The ceremony ended on a poignant note: each mother shaved off the long, treasured hair of her warrior son and then slathered his head with a mixture of red ocher and animal fat. Elders give them a final blessing before they prepare to return home, to take up their new roles as elders, when they will settle down, take on the responsibilities of the community, marry and have children.