Ngai (also called Engai or Enkai) is the name of the supreme God among the Maasai people of East Africa. The Maasai may have separated from other Nilotic groups as early as 1,000 years ago and moved into what is known today as the countries of Sudan and Uganda. This split was followed by two major migration waves, one that might have occurred 300 years ago or earlier and the second one in the 18th century. These migratory movements account for the Maasai's present-day locations in Kenya and Tanzania.
The Maasai are primarily a pastoral people, whose life and, therefore, religion are centered on cattle because the latter are said to be Ngai's unique gift to the Maasai. The word Ngai means “sky” in the Maa language. In the beginning, the sky (i.e., Ngai) and the Earth were one. All the cattle of the world belonged to Ngai. However, it happened that the sky and the Earth separated, and Ngai and its cattle were no longer residing on Earth. However, given that the cattle's subsistence depended on the availability of grass, Ngai decided to send all the cattle down to the Maasai, giving them the divine mandate of looking after the beasts. The cattle slid down from the sky onto the Earth by means of a long rope made of the wild fig tree's roots. To the Maasai's neighbors, the Torrobo (or Dorobo or Ildorobo) hunters and gatherers, Ngai gave honey and wild animals. To the Kikuyu, another neighboring group, Ngai sent seed and grain. But the Maasai alone were blessed with the gift of all cattle. A jealous Torrobo man cut the rope between the sky and the Earth, thus destroying the direct line of communication between God and the living.
Hence, like so many other African supreme Gods, Ngai is only indirectly involved in human affairs. However, through their relationship with and care of their cattle, which as the ultimate gift of God to human beings are most sacred, the Maasai re-create the primordial unity with Ngai. The cattle possess the qualities of God and attest to God's greatness and generosity. Through the consumption of meat and the drinking of milk, God and human beings become one again. Thus, meat-eating and milk-drinking, through their recreation of this original unity, are religious experiences of the highest order and, quite predictably, occur at the most important times in Maasai life, such as birth, initiation and circumcision, marriage, and death, and on all critical occasions like rites of passage from one age set to the next. Animals are ritually killed, the meat blessed by the elders and shared and eaten in the open.
Ngai, as supreme God, is androgynous, that is, both female and male. Ngai's primordial dwelling, the Ol Doinyo Lengai, which literally means “The Mountain of God,” is located in northern Tanzania. Ngai presides over rain, fertility, the sun, and love matters. Although a single deity, the Maasai God appears under two manifestations: Ngai Narok, characterized by goodness and benevolence, is black, whereas Ngai Nanyokie, the angry one, is red, like the British colonizers who disrupted Maasai life. There are many stories about the relationship between those two dimensions of Ngai: Ngai Narok and Ngai Nanyokie. It is told, for example, that once upon a time, as famine spread as a result of a severe drought, leaving humans and cattle alike on the brink of starvation, Ngai Narok suggested to Ngai Nanyokie that they send rain to the creatures living on Earth. Ngai Nanyokie reluctantly agreed to it, and rain started to fall in abundance, providing much-needed relief on Earth. After a few days, however, Ngai Nanyokie asked Ngai Narok to stop sending rain, which she or he did. Later, when asked to release rain again by Ngai Narok, Ngai Nanyokie refused. What followed was a dispute between the two, and the noise that they made while arguing was heard in the form of loud thunder. Hence, powerful, invisible forces of the natural world, such as rain, thunder, and lightning, represent both blessings and punishments from Ngai. When drought strikes, the Maasai appeal to their supreme God by having children sing a religious song while standing in a circle and holding a bunch of grass in their hands after the sun has retired for the day.



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Further Reading

  • Bentsen, C. (1989). Maasai Days. New York: Doubleday.
  • Hauge, H.-E. (1979). Maasai Religion and Folklore. Nairobi, Kenya: City Print Works.
  • Kipury, N. (1983). Oral Literature of the Maasai. Nairobi, Kenya: East African Educational Publishers.
  • Scheub, H. (2000). A Dictionary of African Mythology, the Mythmaker as Storyteller. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Spencer, P. (1988). The Maasai of Matapato: A Study of Rituals of Rebellion. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Spencer, P. (2003). Maasai (African People)/Rites and Ceremonies. London: Routledge.