The Maasai are among the emblematic peoples of sub-Saharan Africa, renowned in particular for Joseph Kessel’s narrative in his novel The Lion. Semi-nomadic herders who roam the high plateaus on either side of the border between Kenya and Tanzania, they live in symbiosis with the nature that surrounds them and, in particular, devote a very important cult to a tree that one would never have imagined to be found in these latitudes and at this altitude: the olive tree!
The Maasai culture
Although British colonisation, globalisation and mass tourism have reached the Maasai lands, the Maasai communities have managed to maintain their ancestral traditions and way of life. Cattle rearing – mainly oxen, goats and sheep – is their main activity, having so far refused government incentives to settle down and switch to agriculture.
Moving with the seasons on their vast territory, which is mainly made up of savannah, they have developed over the centuries a very deep relationship with the surrounding fauna and flora, which they have always taken care to protect. It is in the Maasai regions, which are particularly well preserved, that the largest wildlife parks in Kenya and Tanzania have been established: Serengeti, Amboseli, Maasai Mara, Ngorongoro…
The brown olive tree
Among the many species of plants present in Maasai area, we were surprised to find, at the level of the equator and at an altitude of more than 1600 meters, Olea Africana, the Brown olive tree! Botanists still seem to be divided on the origin of this species: is it a cousin of the olive trees cultivated around the Mediterranean basin (Olea europaea), or is it really the mother branch, the wild olive tree in its primitive form? Whatever the case, the African olive tree – « oloerien » in the Maa language (the language of the Maasai) – thrives in these latitudes, and can even grow at altitudes of up to 2,500 metres!
Looking at its branches, there is no doubt that the Brown olive tree is a close relative of our European olive trees: we find the same characteristic elongated shape of the leaves, which also grow in opposite pairs here. However, as it is not cultivated, the olive tree has a much more slender and taller silhouette than in Europe: some of the trees we came across grow to a height of almost 15 metres. Finally, like the wild olive trees that can also be found in Corsica, for example, the Brown olive tree produces very small olives, with the stone forming almost the totality of the fruit (with very little pulp).
One of the 3 sacred trees of the Maasai
After the initial excitement of finding olive trees in the middle of the African savannah, we got another surprise. Our Maasai guides told us that the olive tree is one of their three sacred trees, along with the oseki and the strangler fig. As in the Mediterranean culture, the robustness and immortality of the olive tree have given it a very precious aura for the Maasai, and therefore it is at the centre of a great number of ceremonies among the communities with very codified rituals.
This is particularly true of the momentous boy circumcision ceremony, which celebrates the transition from childhood to adulthood and warriorhood. Olive branches are hung at the entrances to the village to inform everyone of what is taking place, and in some families, branches are also placed under the bed of the boy who is about to undergo the rite. Finally, the operation itself takes place in the middle of a circle formed by burning young olive saplings.
Later, during the five years of warrior training that the young adults spend away from their families, one of the initiatory tests consists of locating an olive tree that has never been touched by man and digging it up with their bare hands without cutting or tearing off any of its roots. Once extracted from the ground, this olive tree is carried on the shoulders of 49 young warriors to the heart of their « manyatta », where it will then be burnt under the eyes of the elders. This fire symbolises the birth of a new generation of warriors, and the olive tree represents good fortune, integrity and stability.
Last example of the crucial role of olive trees in the Maasai culture, is this incantation (which could give us ideas after a year 2022 marked by the absence of water in France): during the most severe droughts, the Maasai set fire to olive leaves so that the cloud rising from them would go up to the sky, where it is supposed to call for and bring rain.
The all-purpose tree
Apart from rites and ceremonies, the Maasai also use the olive tree for more prosaic purposes. The branches, bark and leaves are commonly used to make everyday tools or to prepare medicinal remedies.
Several typical Maasai objects are made from olive wood: the club that adults always carry, their walking sticks, and even, for some warriors, the stick of the spear that they use as a weapon. Another more unexpected use: it is from olive branches that the Maasai carve… their toothbrushes! We tried it and it works!
The olive tree is also valuable for storing milk and making yoghurt, which is an important part of the Maasai diet. Before filling the gourds used as containers with milk, the Maasai women burn olive wood in them, so the smoke and ash purify the gourd and ensure better preservation. There is even a word in the Maa language for the smell of the olive wood that spreads in the air: « aropil ».
Finally, olive leaves are used for various therapeutic purposes. According to the Maasai, inhaling steam from boiled leaves is particularly effective against colds, while olive wood tea is used to relieve stomach aches. But it is not only the Maasai who love the olive tree: their goats do too. During periods of severe drought, when grass is scarce, shepherds are allowed to take branches from the sacred trees and give them to their livestock for food.
A tree under close surveillance
All uses of olive trees, whether ritual or domestic, are regulated by the council of elders of each Maasai community. It is the elders of this council who decide whether or not branches or leaves can be taken from a particular olive tree in the area.
The olive tree is so closely monitored and restricted not only because it is sacred, but also because it is rare. It is indeed very difficult in these regions to grow an olive tree from an olive stone or a cutting, and it is therefore necessary to rely on the slow and patient work of nature to see the trees swarm to the right and to the left. Fortunately, like its Mediterranean cousin, the Brown olive tree proves to live forever and trees cut down for ceremonies or manufacturing always end up growing back into valiant plants. This miraculous property makes the olive tree a central part of several Maa language adages used to thank, welcome or wish a long life to people…