Case Study

Maasai Murran as Rebellious Youth (20th c)

Why I Taught the Sources

A number of societies in Eastern Africa, including the Maasai, divide the male life-cycle into distinct stages: childhood; murranhood (or "warrior"); and elderhood. Age-set societies like the Maasai are perhaps unusually explicit in the way that they divide up the life cycle whereas other societies find different ways of socialising the young and managing generational tension. Among the Maasai, the stages are marked by a series of graduation and retirement ceremonies that emphasize the growing cohesion of the generational group and its changing relation to others.

I use three texts on the Massai murran with upper level or seminar classes dealing with youth, either in a specifically African context or more generally in world history. The first is a travel account entitled Through Masai Land by Joseph Thompson. The second is an official report written by Clarence Buxton, District Commissioner, Narok, to the Officer in Charge on the Masai Reserve in July 1935 after a murran riot. The third contains field notes from interviews with elders about events under colonization. The interviews were conducted by historian Richard Waller and took place in 1973.

Since the texts are, essentially, about the way that social maturation is controlled and contested, there are comparative possibilities. I ask students to consider the contrasting natures of the types of sources and to think about how they might be contextualized and assessed. The variety of sources and their separation in time—from 1880 to 1973—offer a number of critical perspectives about processes of change.

How I Introduce the Sources

I generally introduce primary materials towards the middle of a course. Students need to acquire a degree of familiarity with the subject matter before they can make full use of unfamiliar materials. As they gain confidence, their grasp improves and they begin to understand the importance of primary sources for historians and become engaged in the process of interpretation. They learn how to "listen" to a text – for what it is not saying as well as what it is saying. In the process, they learn how to identify and analyze bias and subtexts.

Students read the texts before class discussion. I generally divide a class into a number of small working groups. Each is given either one text or one theme to explore in depth. Because all group members have read the three different texts, we are able to discuss how primary sources, like the secondary literature, have an internal logic that only appears if the entire text is examined.

Reading the Sources

I provide background material and present some of the ideas leading to the major theme of youth culture and its context through an interrogation of its construction. I also pose preliminary questions for students to think about when reading these sources. For example, I ask students why Thomson places young men center-stage in his travel account, with only a few dismissive paragraphs about middle-aged men. Were these young men, the murran, simply more visible, assertive, and flamboyant? Why the long descriptions of dress? Does this reflect readers' expectations of the exotic or the essence of murranhood as experienced by the Massai? Was Thomson more confident in describing what he saw than what he was told (through interpreters)?

I then ask for comparisons with the second document, the 1935 report written by Clarence Buxton, the British official who served as District Commissioner in Narok after a murranriot. Murran are still central, but does he see them in quite the same romantic way? Have they become archaic obstacles to progress? Has Buxton, any more than Thomson, sufficient understanding of language and culture to understand what he is seeing and being told? Comparing this report with Thompson's reminiscences, I ask whether they are really talking about the same thing.

In the third source, the interview field notes, is the elders' understanding of events and their significance different from Buxton's? What were the elders trying to convey to the interviewer about generational relations? I also ask students to consider what shifts occurred over time between these two narratives. Did the aggressive and self-confident warriors of 1880 become the defensive and hostile teenagers of the 1930s? Or did two different authors in two different times interpret the actions of the murran in different ways? What other factors, including external changes as well as the different narrators and kinds of documents, might be involved in these different perceptions?


Although anthropologists and historians have not generally done so, it is possible to see murran as youth gangs: Maasai elders and British administrators would not have disagreed. Like gang members elsewhere, Maasai murran create a world and a group identity for themselves apart from "the mainstream."

In some respects, the murran whom Thomson met were not dissimilar from those that Buxton dealt with. In the 1880s, the Maasai had been at the height of their power yet much had changed in the intervening fifty years. Over time, the Maasai lost much of their grazing lands and were confined within a Reserve under colonial rule. Raiding had been outlawed, and the martial virtue of the murran, useful to the British during their conquest of what became Kenya, seemed both archaic and threatening in a time of colonial law and order. The balance of power between murran and elders had also shifted in favour of the latter. Defiant before, angry young men now saw their world threatened and themselves marginalised. They were more obviously subservient to and dependent upon their elders than before.

The Maasai struck back to maintain their honour and their way of life in a series of risings, against a background of calculated disobedience and refusal. After the risings in 1918 and 1922, the British administration decided, in effect, to abolish murranhood, but the attempt failed. By the early 1930s, the administration began to experiment with a modified form of "managed murranhood," allowing young men to be murran for a limited period with supervision.

Sympathetic administrators like Buxton saw that youth must have a space and hoped that its energies and competitiveness might be channelled and controlled by working for the community and perhaps by organised sport. Experience showed, however, that murran could be suppressed but not tamed, and young men, uncertain about their future, continued to "give trouble" to the end of the colonial period and beyond.

How to Cite This Source

"Maasai Murran as Rebellious Youth (20th c)," in Children and Youth in History, Item #53, (accessed August 10, 2021).