Emanyata Oolorikan ‘Olng’esherr’ rite of passage in the Maasai community
Alex Lekishon explains the male rites of passage performed once every 15 years in the Maasai Mara, transitioning males of an "age-set" to adulthood. The current ceremonies just finished, with Alex in attendance. We are grateful to him for sharing this story with us.
by Alex Lekishon
The ceremony dubbed ‘Olng’esherr’ is a vital male rites of passage ceremony performed after every 15 years to mark the transition to another age-set. The 5-day Olng’esherr (meat-eating ceremony) event united two Maasai age-sets — the older Ilmeshuku and the younger Irenchai. It began on Wednesday, January 23rd. It is the final rite of passage after Enkipaata and Eunoto. The ceremony took place in Ngosuani village and other various manyattas on 5th May 2021. It takes 15 years for an age-set to be named, making the difference between the youngest and eldest significant. This magnificent Emanyata Oolorikan ‘Olng’esherr’ rite of passage birthed the Ilmeirishi age-set.
Emanyata Oolorikan has wound up after more than four months of colorful ceremonies. This was not billed as one of the most suitable age-sets to carry this fete to completion. If anything to go by, it was thought that it would be a stillbirth due to current erosion by modernism and the Covid-19 pandemic that has caused a lot of distraction and confusion as large crowds and meetings were prohibited due to the spread nature of the virus. These rites of passage that are critical in identity formation and sustenance of cultural heritage were disrupted prematurely and indefinitely. Thanks to God and a determined and focused leadership, Ilmeirishi have now been inducted into the league of men.
May 5th was to me the clearest indication that this generation means business when it comes to observance, admiration, and preservation of Maasai culture. When the learned and working farmers and businessmen turned up in their numbers throughout the life of Emanyata in Nchurra, Enkipai, Mairowua, Mosiro, and Naikarra, there was no doubt that even the inundated had been won over. Even those that had hitherto been brainwashed by the white man's religion and the Gospel Industrial Complex came about. They tagged along. They dressed like us. They wore our red and white ochre. They sang and danced. They ate and drank.
Three rites of passage
Enkipaata, Eunoto, and Olng’esherr are three interrelated male rites of passage of the Maasai community. The three male rites represent stages in the preparation of boys for adulthood, a process called moranism that involves the transmission of indigenous knowledge, including Maasai rituals, legends, traditions, and life skills.
Enkipaata is the induction of boys leading to initiation; Eunoto heralds the shaving of initiates before their seclusion in the bush for training paving the way to adulthood; and Olng’esherr is the meat-eating ceremony that marks the end of moranism and the beginning of eldership. The rites involve the whole community and feature songs, folktales, proverbs, riddles, and events, thus providing the Maasai community with a sense of cultural identity and continuity. These important events also signify that the Maasai culture is bonded by ritualistic traditions that kept the Maasai culture alive despite the eminent force of modernization.
About 5,000 Maasai morans have been assembling at various places in the larger Narok county, and they underwent a cultural rite of passage that took four months. The young men aged between 18 and 23 years were taught values in the Maa community by respected elders in the society before they held a graduation ceremony.
The rites of passage are mainly practiced by young men of the Maasai community aged between 15 and 30, but women also undertake certain tasks. By educating young people about their future role in Maasai society, the rites serve to induct them first to manhood, then as young elders, and finally as senior elders. Respect and responsibility, safeguarding of the lineage, transfer of powers from one age-set to the next and the transmission of indigenous knowledge, such as in relation to livestock rearing, conflict management, legends, traditions and life skills, are some of the core values embedded in those rites of passage.
However, while the rites still attract relatively sizable crowds, the practice appears to be rapidly declining due to the fast emergence of agriculture as a main source of income, reforms of the land tenure system, and the impact of climate change that affects the survival of cattle and more recently the Covid-19 pandemic which is proving very difficult to manage.
Traditional modes of transmission have greatly weakened since the beginning of the 1980s as a result of reduced frequency and participation, with an increasing number of boys remaining at home and occupied with formal education, as well as the recent distractions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. The event that was delayed by the pandemic.
Lessons of the elders
Several leaders from Narok County made visits to the Maasai manyatta, and they donated money and food. Elder Lesalaon ole Seki from the Mosiro in Narok East said Maasai’s lives are marked by elaborate ceremonies from childhood to adulthood.
“The three ceremonies define the progress and development of an individual member of the community,” said Lesalaon ole Seki.
“The boys are taken to the bush for vigorous mentorship taking several days or even weeks. They are inducted and educated on their culture and their new and future roles in the community,” Simon ole Koyie from the Mosiro community said.
The boys were lectured by elders about the importance of Maa culture, how to behave in the presence of their elders and how to behave as young men after circumcision.
“At Enkipaata, we are just small boys. We need to be taught how to be strong at heart in defending our rights as Maasai, as leaders and as husbands once we marry and have families,” Koyie said.
John ole Melubo from Naikara of Narok West said, “On the day the boys return home from their retreat in the bush, they are smeared with a white substance called enturoto to enhance their outlook.”
The boys are then paraded in a long line and walked to designated homes or emanyata where they are greeted by singing men and women.
At the entry of the emanyata, the boys’ heads are sprinkled with fresh milk as a blessing. This is followed by counseling, singing, dancing, and blessings from elders for at least three days. Emanyata oo Nchurra played host to the Israeli Ambassador to Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Seychelles, and Malawi H.E. Oded Joseph. The ambassador lauded the great efforts put in place by the Maasai community in preservation of the culture that is even recognized by UNESCO department of culture and preservations of diversity. He reiterated that his visit to the Manyatta is very significant in cementing the relationship and drew similarities between the Israeli people and cultures and deliberated on areas of possible partnerships. The visit was made possible by the leadership of the age-sets led by Olaiguanani Ole Naing'isa, Ole Turere, Ole Yenko, Ole Sururu, and Olotuno Ole Meing'ati.
The three interrelated rites of passage for men in the community Enkipaata, Eunoto, and Olng’esherr are losing out to changes in the pastoral lifestyle. Thanks to UNESCO, these three Maasai cultural rites of passage have been inscribed into the cultural heritage list, and this is great news as it means that global assistance will be mobilized to protect these cultural practices.
Oliveseed in partnership with Mara Discovery Centre in Aitong led by Director Amos Ole Kipeen have plans to hold workshops in the future to promote community-based inventorying of Maasai intangible cultural heritage, organize community meetings between elders and youth to empower them with knowledge and skills relevant for enactment and preservation of the tradition, mentor youth on its importance, undertake a mapping exercise to protect the associated natural spaces and places, and research and document the practice for future transmission.
According to Ole Kipeen, a man without culture is like a zebra without stripes. The Maasai nation came a long way with culture preservation, but little efforts are seen from the government institution. There is no robust cultural museum in Maa land, and the little structure that has been in existence in Narok town is desolate with no artifacts or anyone to curate. This is a big gap that needs to be filled in future, and that is what Oliveseed in partnership with Mara Discovery Centre wants to probe, identifying and preserving historical cultural sites, educating young people around the globe about the Maasai culture, and establishing a Maasai oral tradition and literature center in Masai Mara Kenya.
With the rise of modernism, it is imperative for all of us to join hands in researching and improving our ecosystem functions, conserving our rich diversity, and preserving our cultural history.