Trading Lions for Pride: The Maasai Olympics

Written by Thomson Safaris
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The Maasai have a strong warrior tradition; young Maasai men aspire to feats of strength and physical prowess, and elevation to the rank of warrior involves a series of tests and rituals meant to prove a young man’s mettle.

In the past, one of these tests was killing a male lion, alone, with just a spear. In recent years, declining lion populations have led many Maasai groups to instead advocate group hunts, in order to give the animals time to replenish their numbers.

But for the Maasai in the Amboseli region, just over the Kenya border, the practice seemed unsustainable. They wanted to eliminate lion hunting from their culture, and help the Maasai integrate more harmoniously with the modern world by instead developing an ethic of habitat and wildlife conservation.

The cultural “fathers” came to the Big Life Foundation, a group that coordinates cross-border anti-poaching operations in Tanzania and Kenya, and asked the group to help them achieve this goal.

But simply eliminating this longstanding test of fortitude wasn’t an option—how would the young men prove they were embodying the ideals of a Maasai warrior without the lion hunt?

Together, the Maasai and Big Life came up with an innovative and fun solution: the Maasai Olympics, where young men can “hunt for medals, not lions.”

Events are designed to test the same skills a traditional warrior would need; they include 200m and 800m sprints, a 5K run, distance spear-throwing, accurate rungu throwing (a small throwing club), and a high jump (performed from a standing position, as in the traditional warrior’s jumping dance).

Not only do the winning individuals and teams gain recognition and prestige within their communities, they win valuable prizes, ranging from cash and medals to a trip to the New York City marathon. The overall winning team even takes home a prize breeding bull, a valuable trophy, especially in a tribe that has traditionally equated wealth and status with the size of one’s cattle herd.

It’s a fabulous way to retain the spirit embodied by the lion hunt—a test of one’s abilities, proving that one is ready for manhood—without the unfortunate consequence of taking the life of such a majestic creature. Here’s hoping more Maasai communities start competing in “Olympics” of their own soon!