David Rilley-Harris


June 2019

Traditional Maasai sword and scabbard

The Maasai people of Northern Tanzania, and Central and Southern Kenya, are among the earliest people in sub-Saharan Africa to make common use of swords as weapons. The Maasai sword or seme is light and short with a double edged blade. The blade is leaf-shaped and traditionally includes a central ridge. Maasai men will carry their swords permanently slung on their right hip and have a variety of uses for their sword. The sword is used as a weapon, mostly for cutting instead of thrusting, and the width of the blade makes the sword useful as an axe. The Maasai also used their swords as pangas for clearing brush, for butchering cattle, or even for peeling fruit. In combat, the Maasai also made use of spears and knobkerries designed for throwing.

As violent conflict became less common in Maasai life, the style of their swords changed to become more useful in their non-combat roles. Specifically, the blades became wider and more familiar with the design of a machete or panga.

Traditional Maasai sword of a later style

Seme means lion’s sword, and the red colour of the scabbard, and sometimes the grip, is believed to frighten lions. In Maasai culture, red is also a symbol of bravery, strength, and blood. Furthermore, the Maasai are monotheists who believe that their god is black when benevolent, but turns red when vengeful. The leather would be died red with extract from the root of a gakaraku kairu, or from the stem of the chesalei plant, depending on where the weapon was made. While the Maasai have always made their own swords, they have also made use of regional manufacturers. The Maasai-made swords can be identified by their less symmetrical blades. Often, the Maasai-made examples appear slightly indented along one side of the central ridge. As the Maasai swords have become more widely utilized as pangas, even European manufacturers have been used. More recently created Maasai swords can usually be identified by their lack of a central ridge.

More recent European-made Maasai sword

Despite their functionality as pangas, Maasai semewill always be referred to as swords because of their place in Maasai culture. The Maasai sword is a symbol of a boy’s coming of age. A Maasai boy, or layok, will be initiated into manhood between the ages of fifteen and twenty-one. They will then be referred to as a moranor junior warrior and will be given their sword to always wear. The way that the scabbard is initially manufactured leaves superfluous threading in the way of the blade. As a result, the new moran has to cut through that threading when first sheathing their blade. For some time thereafter the blade will be tightly fitted into the scabbard and difficult to unsheathe. As the young warrior gains experience, the scabbard loosens and the blade becomes easier to draw.

The Maasai have a distinct weapon in the seme, and distinct clothing for their region. This has drawn suggestions that they may have once been an auxiliary legion of the Roman Empire. Similar suggestions have occurred regarding various other cultures which persist along the old fringes of the Roman Empire, such as in Western Asia. It is considered possible that, as the Roman Empire declined and receded, cultures adopted into the Roman legions became disconnected and retained some of the old Roman traditions. In Maasai culture, the seme has some rough similarity to the Roman daga or small gladius. Also, the red dye used to make Maasai clothing makes their clothing colour look very much like the red of the old Roman legions. The Maasai also used to live further north right on the edge of the Roman Empire until the Kenyan and Tanzanian governments convinced them to move to land farther south.

Verified by Mackenzie: Director