The Lion Guardian Transition

The Maasai, as a community, form a distinctive social unit sharing a culture, language and social structures. Structures such as age-sets and clans form the most important framework for both the social and political organization of the communities. Through them, every person has well defined roles, responsibilities, rights and obligations in relation to every other person in society. Traditionally, the Maasai’s social structure is based on a series of age-sets. Age-sets are the link that unites all the men and woman of a given age into a single comprehensive social institution.

Approximately every 14 years a new age-set (olaji) of warriors is initiated. When new generations of warriors are initiated the existing warriors move on to become junior elders. As each boy is circumcised between age 12 and 14, he is incorporated into a generational age-set. He and his cohorts pass through the stages of warriors to junior elders then to senior elders and finally to retired elders each lasting an undefined time frame. The senior elders have the primary responsibility for the traditional administration in Maasailand. Junior elders implement the instructions of their senior elders. The warriors (murran) are the defensive unit of the community and protect them against cattle-rustling neighbors and attacking predators. The warriors are well suited for this role. Members of an age-set must respect their sponsors/patrons (i.e. the senior elders to the warriors), but routinely experience tension and competition with the adjacent age-sets that immediately precede and follow them (i.e. the warriors to the junior elders).

Warriors singing
Warriors singing

Currently a new generation of warriors has come of age. Many of them are now actively participating in the ‘meat eating sessions’ where Maasai traditional and cultural values are instilled on them. Tradition demands that the new warriors learn the art of survival, cattle raiding and warfare against neighboring tribes and attacking carnivores. This is where our greatest fear lies. In the past, killing a lion was a valuable act and proof of bravery. It carried with it prestige, status and respect in equal measure. The dwindling lion population within the Amboseli ecosystem cannot afford any more age-set related traditional killings. The two previous age-sets almost wiped out the lion population in the area.

Newly initiated warriors dancing
Newly initiated warriors dancing

The Lion Guardian program, is working to create awareness and community mobilization against the current killing of lions. We incorporate the warrior age-set into lion conservation and research: in the process we inculcate them with values that allows the traditional warriors to hold on to their cultural practices of proving their strength and endurance by spending days in the bush tracking lions while at the same time, discarding retrogressive practices such as the spearing of lions, which is detrimental to the declining lion population in general and tourism as well.

Our program has already begun undergoing a slow transition in line with the current warriors to junior elders traditional transition. We have been honored that a few of our older Lion Guardians have been recruited into the ranks of MPT’s community game scouts. In their places, we have taken on board a few promising fledgling warriors belonging to the newly initiated age-set. One of our new recruits has just been elected by his fellow age mates as their age-set leader.

Our newest Lion Guardian, and leader of his age-set
Our newest Lion Guardian(far right), and leader of his age-set

We are thrilled to be teaching these young, newly minted warriors about lions, conservation and hope for the future. The new Guardians are being trained by the senior Lion Guardians in a multi-faceted approach aimed at minimizing the issue of traditional lion killing. This is of particular concern because many of the newly initiated warriors are waiting for the coming of the rains when strong livestock return to the permanent homesteads. This is a time of feast and celebration as all the new warriors are together. Traditionally, it is during this time when warriors prove their strength and courage to the community, as well as woo young women by spearing lions. In the past decade, the most lions have been killed during the rainy seasons. The rains are just beginning now. In anticipation of this, we have, over the past few months, begun to hire and train as many of the new warriors as we can afford. We have now welcomed two new warriors to the Lion Guardians team and are actively trying to incorporate more.


  • sauwah says:

    thank you for your dedication. and hope all your wisdom will be passed onto the younger or new warriros. and

  • Timi says:

    I cannot follow the math. One one hand you say that each boy joins his age-group after being circumcised at age 12-14. On the other hand you say that age groups are established after every 14 years. Does it mean that a boy who was too young to join an age group at 11 has to wait until he is 25 before the next age group is formed and he can join?

    • lionguardians says:

      It is a bit confusing. Even though age-sets are formed every 14 years, it is not a must that all boys be initiated at the same time. If a boy is aged 11 at the time of the official age-set initiation, he will still be a part of that same age-set once he is circumcised. Any boys circumcised before the current warriors graduate to become junior elders are part of this age set. Age-sets are broken down even farther into age-divisions, which run on a 7 year cycle. So the younger sort of ‘stream’ in to the age-set and affiliate with those that are older. I hope that helps.

  • Timi says:

    Thank you for confirming that my English comprehension was not faltering here. It is rather difficult to imagine, having being raised in a culture where youngsters are divided into annual school grades.

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