The Maasai Concept of God


The eminent biographer, Emil Ludwig, was very surprised when E. Smith told him that there was no need of convincing pagan Africans of the existence of God. Deity for Mr. Ludwig was “a philosophical concept, which savages (Africans) are incapable of framing”.[1] Today with the study of the African Traditional Religions, it is, in general, believed that African people have a notion of God as the Supreme Being.[2] Africans have their own religions and their own concepts of the deity. What are those African concepts of God? We have decided to understand the concept of God of one people of Africa: the Maasai. Before discovering the God of the Maasai, we shall say something about the choice of the Maasai, the term God used and the pecularity of this paper. Then a second and very important question will be how as Christians we can approach the Maasai and share with them our faith.

Anybody who comes to Kenya will hear about the Maasai. They are probable the most famous people of Africa. They are certainly brave and courageous warriors but they are more famous today may be for preserving their culture. The Maasai live in a territory of around 15,000 sq. miles in Kenya and 26,000 sq. miles in Tanzania. They are nomadic pastoralists in general. They called themselves “iltung’ana loo nkishu” “people of cattle”. Their God, their Land and their Cattle are the three essentials of their life. The word Maasai is the shortened form of “ilmaasai” which means literary “ those who speak the Maa language. The Samburu of Northern Kenya, the Njemps or Ilchamus of Central Kenya, for example, speak also the same language.

The term God existed in pre-Christian times in the Teutonic peoples and it referred to that which is worshiped or invoked in sacrificial offerings. With the conversion of the Teutonic people to Christianity, the pre-Christian meanings of God were reshaped and absorbed into the Judeo-Christian tradition. The word tends to acquire the meanings associated with “Deus” (Latin), “Theo” (Greek), “Elohim” or “Yahweh” (Hebrew)[3]. We use the word God here as the Supreme Being, object of human’s highest reverence and aspiration, God as a supernatural being or power, which is worshipped. The word deity may suit more may be. But it is not commonly used. The deity is that which transcends the human being or the material world. It is more abstract and may refer not just to God or the gods but to all the powers, forces and energies coming from beyond the human.[4] We are interested here in this Supernatural being worshipped and invoked by the Maasai.

We are concerned with what the Maasai themselves are saying about the Supreme Being. We got some ideas by talking with some few Maasai who could speak English. But we were aware of the influence of their western education and the influence of the New World religions. We believe that the Maasai ideas of God can be found in their proverbs, short statements, songs, prayers, names, myths, legends, stories and religious ceremonies[5]. So we undertook to read first the Maasai oral literature. Two books have been very helpful: “Naomi Kipury, Oral literature of the Maasai, Nairobi: EAEP, 1983” and “Kioi wa Mbugua, Inkishu Myths and legends of the Maasai, Nairobi: Jacaranda Designs, 1994”. Our work is not a summary of Mbiti’s work: Concepts of God in Africa, London: S.P.C.K, 1970 in which he studied the concepts of God of nearly 300 African tribes. Our focus is more on the ideas of the Supreme Being the Maasai express in their oral literature.


The Maasai call the Supreme Being with a great variety of names. Most of the names we came across in reading the Maasai oral literature are found in Priest Doug’s collection of 32 names collected from proverbs, prayers, and songs as well as from conversations,[6] except the name “Naiteru-kop”. The most common name is ENKAI. To the question how do you call God? A Maasai will answer ENKAI. The other names given to Enkai are important even if the Maasai believe that God can hardly be named precisely and can hardly be pictured exactly[7]. The names given to ENKAI are not abstract concepts or philosophical categories. They are symbols and rich metaphors that speak directly to the daily experience and cultural tradition of the Maasai. ENKAI is addressed and worshipped by those names. The names say also something about his or her essence and function. They also describe the attributes of ENKAI. So what are the names given by the Maasai to God saying about Him or Her?

ENKAI in Maa can be translated “the one who originates” or “the originator”. These are approximate English translations[8]. In the myths and legends collected by Naomi Kipury God is often called “Naiteru-kop” and she gives a literal translation: “ the beginner of the earth”[9]. In the English translations of the myths and legends Naomi prefers to keep the Maasai name for God “Naiteru-Kop” while Koiwa uses ENKAI. Both names are interchangeable and express the same idea of originating, beginning or bringing to life. ENKAI is the originator of every thing. He is called justly enkaitopani, “one who brings to life”. This is attested in the legend about the origin of the Maasai clans where it is said: “in the beginning, there was Naiteru-kop, the beginner of the earth”[10]. Is ENKAI he, she or it? The gender of the word ENKAI is feminine. Therefore it is appropriate to think of the divinity as She. And the function of originating or bringing to life, which is attributed to woman, can again make us speak of ENKAI as She. A beautiful prayer even supports this view: “keep us in your stomach; carry us in the whiteness of you womb; and do not take us out again.” But the Maasai, a strictly patriarchal society, believe that ENKAI is not comparable to a man, a woman or a thing. There are also many masculine anthropomorphic images picturing ENKAI in the Maasai stories, prayers, songs, etc… ENKAI is neither male nor female.

ENKAI Narok, “God is black”, Enkai Naibor, “God is white”, Enkai Nanyokie, “God is red”. The many names given to ENKAI does not say that the Maasai believe in many gods or deities. There is no black Enkai, red Enkai and white Enkai. It is the same Enkai pictured in many colors. Enkai is One and Unique. The Maasai have no idea of plural deities. Enkai is “Enairuko ai” (my) One I believe in. He is always the One true God[11].

Enkai is called “Oloikurrukur”, “my thundering One” or Magilani, “Poweful knowing one” or olaidimani: “one who is able”. His power is already expressed in his function of originating or bringing to life. He is also the one who sends rain or stops rains. He is Enopeny “the Master”.

He is called Patulusoo, “One who surpasses”, Natii ilakir, “where there are stars”. Enkai is believed to dwell in the sky but Enkai is not the sky. The sky is the abode of God. A prayer says: “ My god you are surrounded by stars with the moon at you navel; you last for ever.” Here is expressed also the eternity of Enkai. He is called Nalakua nataana, “far one and near one”; oldapaash, “wide one”. He is from horizon to horizon. Enkai is believed to be both transcendent and immanent, far and near according to the living situations of the Maasai.

He is called Parmuain, “many colored” or Enkai narok, “God is black”; Enkai Naibor, “God is white”; Enkai Nanyokie, “God is red”. The colors used to call Enkai are in reference with the colors of the sky. Enkai is black when the sky is black with thunderheads, which will bring rain. Enkai is white when the sky is white filled with clouds announcing the arrival of rain. Enkai is red during the dry season like the sky at that moment. The Maasai believe that when Enkai is red, it means that he is angry that is why he withholds the rain. He is no longer near. He is far away.

Some names attest the goodness of Enkai. Enkaretoni, “one who helps”; Likitajeuna, “one who saves me”; Pasai, Parsai, “one prayed to, O God”. Enkai is helpful in relation to humankind. A Maasai proverb says what many people say: eret Enkai ilooret ate: “Enkai helps those who help themselves”. The greatest gifts of Enkai to the Maasai are cattle, rain and children. Rain is particular important for the fertility of the land, for the cattle and for the people themselves.

If Enkai is associated with rain and sky, it is because rain is essential to the survival and life of the livestock and of people. Rain is the expression of the providence and goodness of Enkai. That is why he is also called Noompees ai “my one of newly formed grass”. Enkai is related to the new grass stems that sprout up in the grass following the rain. It is true that sometimes Enkai is called rain. It is only because rain is the particular pleasing manifestation of Enkai.

This is attested by the names like Nendaronai “my red light of dawn” or Enkakenya esirua ai “my splendor of the morning” or Noonkokirai “my bright star”. The images are linked with time and the appearance of the sky, the abode of Enkai. Enkai is the hope of the Maasai that is why he is prayed to and worshipped. Many prayer songs express it very well and many petitions to Enkai start with “O Thou (or God) who is worshipped”.

He is believed to be a strong and steady guardian. As nomadic pastoralists the Maasai have to face many dangers. They believe that Enkai is with them protecting their herds and flocks against predators and giving them victory over their enemies. They even called Enkai “Our shepherd night and day”. And when they send somebody they say: “Go far and wide, may Enkai be with you.”

He is Enopeny “Master” or Napik neitayu “one who puts in and takes out”. A proverb says: “he is the one who separates paths or allocates behavior” (Naorioriki irrekie). Enkai controls all aspects of the life of the Maasai.

Some names of Enkai are expressed in religious symbolism of birds and feathers. Enkai is called Noosaen lai “my beaded one”; Noolopir lai “my feathered one”; Nabak enguke “one with many chicks”; Tepisai “one of chain bracelets”. These images link Enkai with fertility. The chain bracelets for example were worn by a circumcised Maasai girl.
The various names given to Enkai show clearly how the authentic religious experience of the Maasai is reflected throughout their culture. Enkai remains for the Maasai Naiterup-Kop or Enkaitopani “the One who originates” or “the One who brings to life everything”.


The rich cultural symbolism of the Maasai deserves respect and even admiration. Since Vatican II we believe that we have something to learn from the divine revelations reflected in the expressions and celebration of the African traditional religions.[12]
The Maasai concept of God can not be strange to the Christians. We believe in God, the origin of everything or first beginning of all things, the one who created everything. We also profess a God who gives life. As Christians we are also familiar with the uniqueness and oneness of God. We also give names to God that express his power, his transcendence and at the same time his immanence, his saving actions and help, his protection and goodness, his mastership over the world, his providence and eternity. The names given to Enkai can be found in the 50 names given to God-Yahweh from the Bible and the Tradition collected by Leonard Lessius[13]. We can easily find our Yahweh in the rich symbolism of the Maasai.
The symbols and images used may as a matter of fact look strange because they belong to the cultural heritage of the Maasai, which is unique. However the imagery of birds and feathers for example is also found in the Bible (Ps17: 8;Mt23: 37; Jn1: 32: the Holy Spirit as a dove). The Jews and the Maasai have certainly in common a mentality of pastoralists and warriors, which can be seen in their ways of expressing their faith in God.
The relation God-sky is also very strong in the Christian conception of God. Ps 139:8 express it very well: “if I ascend to the heavens, you are there”. Christians also affirm the remoteness and nearness of God. The God-sky is an awesome symbol for the Originator of everything. We recall the Maasai prayer: “My God, You are surrounded by stars, with the moon at your navel; you last for ever.” “What is symbolized here is surely that same ultimate horizon of hope which Jews, Muslims, and Christians haltingly name Yahweh, Elohim, Allah or God”[14].
The Maasai religious experience expressed in symbols and rituals are capable of withdrawing people from the banalized ordinariness of everyday day life. The Maasai religion as all religion does “seeks to open new vistas on the authentic meaning of life by revealing a path to the ‘really real’”.[15]
Dr Richard Gehman sees two errors in the African traditional Religions: God has been removed from the center of life and as a result of this idolatry has been fostered[16]. We don’t believe that for the Maasai God is that very remote being far from the life of people and who takes little interest in the life of people. That is the impression Donovan had when a Maasai told him: “Enkai lives there”, pointing in the sky to the farthest point away from the place where they were standing[17]. As a matter of fact the remoteness or nearness of Enkai for the Maasai depends on the situations. God is always very far in time of misfortunes. This doesn’t mean that they believe in a remote God. Enkai expressed in their oral literature is personal and present in their life. He is the divinity-encountering people through their historical events. He is often addressed as “O God whom I worshipped”. Enkai is worshipped everyday as a chorus of a women’s prayer song attests: “I come early to my God”. How can we understand the importance of prayer in the life of the Maasai if Enkai was so remote? Prayer is a notable feature of daily life of the Maasai. The average adult has a regular rhythm of prayer. And their many forms of prayer are adaptable to different occasions. There is room for creativity and spontaneity. They pray directly to Enkai in a personal and even familiar way. This shows that Enkai is not removed from the center of the life of the Maasai.
We have to recognize that the missionaries like Vincent Donovan who evangelized the Maasai did not preach the Gospel to empty heads or to people living without a knowledge of God. We can affirm that God through his grace had made known to the Maasai a true knowledge of him[18]. Nevertheless the Maasai have to be preached the Good News. Why?

The knowledge the Maasai have of God is not enough and complete. God is greater than they think. The missionary experience of Vincent Donnovan with the Maasai is enlightening. We summarize his experience in 5 points[19].
First we have to explain to the Maasai that God is not only an originator. He is a creator. He has created things and he continues to create. He is more than the beginner of all things. He is a creator in the sense that he continues to take care of what he has created. Creation is a key part of revelation that needs to be explained to the Maasai.
Secondly, we have to free the Maasai from their idea of God in the sense that they should not believe that they know already everything about God. Like Abraham they have to be hungry and thirsty for God and set to search for the High God. God is not the God of the Maasai only. He is a universal God, the God of all tribes, the God of the world. God is not the exclusive property of a people. The proverb: erisio ilmaasai o Enkai “equal are the Maasai and God” should be extended to all people in the sense of all people are as safe as they are with God.
Thirdly, Enkai is also the God of the enemies of the Maasai. As a universal God he calls all the people to love each other and build a society of peace. God wants all people to be happy and not only the Maasai. He loved all people and wants them to be brothers and sisters of one clan and one tribe.
Fourthly, God is not the cause of evil and misfortunes of the Maasai. God doesn’t wish to harm his children. The sufferings of his people are also his. And he fights with us to overcome the force of evil. It is important that the Maasai discover that they themselves are sometimes the causes of their misfortunes. In one of their legend, Enkai told the Maasai who came to pray for rain: “I see your trouble. The death and destruction you suffer is the result of your own actions. Return now to your lands. Seek unity and peace with your neighbors. When this is done, the demons will be cast out, the sick will be healed. Rain will once more fall over your pastures.”[20].
Fifthly, the Maasai live with many unanswered questions and unfulfilled expectations. The lack of future tense in their language can limit their hope. We have to present to them Jesus Christ as the answer to their questions and expectations. The Maasai can easily understand the man Jesus of a tribe and of a clan. What Jesus is, what he reveal of the High God, what he reveal of the real human being and what people did to him should be explained to the Maasai. Their reaction is unpredictable. But one thing is sure they will wonder about all the originality of Christianity “as all believers should”[21].

We can say to the Maasai something like what Donovan told them[22]: “Everyone knows how devout you Maasai are, the faith you have, your beautiful worship of God. You have known God and, he has loved you. Yes Enkai is the originator, the beginner of everything. But God has become trapped among your tribe. You must leave your nation and your tribe and your land, at least in your thoughts, and go in search of the High God, the God of all tribes, the God of the world. Do not try to hold Enkai or you will never know him. Free Enkai to become the High God. You have known this God and worshiped him, but he is greater than you have known. He is the GOD CREATOR who loves everybody.


    ENCYCLOPEDIA INTERNATIONAL, New York, Grolier Inc., 1963
    GORING Rosemary, Ed., Dictionary of Beliefs and Religions, Edinburg, Larousse, 1994.
  2. BOOKS:
    DONOVAN J. Vincent, Christianity rediscovered An Epistle from the Maasai, 2nd ed., Maryknoll, New York, Orbis Books, 1982.
    DOUG Priest, Jr., Doing theology with the Maasai, Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1990. GEHMAN J. Richard, African Traditional Religion in Biblical Perspective, Nairobi, East African Educational Publishers Ltd., 1993.
    HILLMAN, Eugene, Toward an African Christianity: Inculturation applied, New Jersey, Paulist Press, 1993, p.49-66.
    KIPURY, Naomi, Oral literature of the Maasai, Nairobi, East African Educational Publishers Ltd., 1983.
    LESSIUS Leonard, S.J, The names of God, New York, The American Press, 1912.
    MBITI John S., African Religions and Philosophies, New York, Anchor Books, 1970.
    MBITI John S., Concepts of God in Africa, London, S.P.C.K., 1970.
    MBUGA, Kioi wa, Inkishu: Myths and legends of the Maasai, Nairobi, Jacaranda Designs, 1994.
    SMITH W. Edwin, Ed., African Ideas of God: a symposium, London, Edinburg House Press, 1950.
    HILLMAN, Eugene, “Maasai Religion”. In: African Christian Studies, Vol.7, No.2, Nairobi, Catholic Higher Institute of Eastern Africa, 1991.

[1] Edwin W. Smith, African ideas of God, London, Edinburg House Press, 3rd ed., 1966, p.1
[2] John S. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophies, New York, Anchor Books, 1970, p.37
[3] Encyclopedia International, New York: Grolier Inc., 1963
[4] Rosemary Goring, Dictionary of beliefs and religions, Edinburg, Larousse, 1994
[5] John Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophies, New York, Anchor Books, 1970, p.38.
[6] Doug P., Doing theology with the Maasai, Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1990 p.116.
[7] Hillman E., Toward an African Christianity: Inculturation applied, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1996, p.6.
[8] Doug P., Doing theology with the Maasai, Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1990, p.116
[9] Naomi K., Oral literature of the Maasai, Nairobi, EAEP, 1983, p.27
[10] Ibid., p.39
[11] Donovan V., Christianity rediscovered, Maryknoll, New York, Orbis Books, 1982, p.42.
[12] Ibid., p.51
[13] cf. Leonard Lessius, S.J, the names of God, New York: The American Press, 1912.
[14] Hillman E., “Maasai religion”. In: African Christian Studies, Vol.7, No2, p.9
[15] ibid., p10
[16] Richard G., African Traditional Religion in Biblical Perspective, Nairobi: EAEP,1993,p.226
[17] Donovan, Christianity rediscovered, New York: Orbis Books,1982,p.47
[18] Richard G., African Traditional Religion in Biblical perspective, Nairobi: EAEP, 1993,p.217
[19] Donovan V., Christianity rediscovered, New York: Orbis Books, 1982 p.41-80
[20] Koi wa Mbuga, Inkshu: Myths and legends of the Maasai, Nairobi, Jacaranda Designs, 1994
[21] Donovan V., Christianity rediscovered, Maryknoll, New York, Orbis Books, 1982, p80
[22] Ibid., p.44

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