Mbatiany Ole Supeet was a legendary spiritual leader of the Purko and Rift Valley Maasai who presided the office of Oloiboni between 1866 and 1890. (His name was anglicized by the British along the way to the more familiar Laibon Mbatian Ole Supet)
The Oloiboni held a very special and high place in the social hierarchy of the Maasai people. Although not a political position, the religious and hereditary office of the Oloiboni wielded supreme influence and power through his role as the chief medicineman, diviner and prophet for his people.
As a visionary and spiritual leader, the Oloiboni also acted as a chief adviser to his community, providing direction on matters of war and peace based on his ability to foretell the future.
At any one point, there was more than one Oloiboni, spread out and presiding in different localities and serving specific sections (also referred in some cases to as subgroups) of the Maasai people. However some were more famous and influential over the others. This was case for Oloiboni Mbatiany.
Lords of East Africa
Mbatiany’s tenure as Oloiboni was marked by a period of prosperity, tranquility and the seemingly impossible feat of full unity of all Maasai sections. This period also marked the apex of the Maasai as “Lords of East Africa,” a tribal power occupying large tracts of land in present day Kenya and mainland Tanzania that spanned all the way from the shores of Lake Turkana to base of Mt. Meru near Arusha (about 80,000 square miles).
In the lead-up to this time of unity, Mbatiany had summoned and united the Kajiado Maasai that comprised of an alliance between the Purko section (residing in the present day Narok and Kajiado Counties) and Kisonko section (residing in the pastoral regions around present-day Arusha at the base of Mount Meru) for a decisive and victorious battle over the Laikipiak Maasai (roughly residing in present day Southern Rift Valley region all the way to Uasin Gishu County) in the 1870’s.
The Laikipiak, a stubborn enemy for the Purko and Kisonko Maasai, had also haunted Mbatiany’s equally famous father Oloiboni Supeet. Warriors allied to Oloiboni Supeet had fought in a series of battles centered in the area between Lake Naivasha and Lake Nakuru. Some battles were won and other were lost, but they had not been able to completely dispatch the Laikipiak from their stronghold.
Mbatiany and warriors allied to him had finally subdued and dispersed the Laikipiaks among Maa and non-Maa speakers once and for all, taking their cattle and in some cases forcing them to search for an alternative mode of existence. The Maasai attribute Mbatiany’s victory to his more powerful medicines and charms than those of his enemies.
Civil war, Treaties and Natural Disasters
However, the last decade of Mbatiany’s life to the time of his death saw the rapid decline of the tribe’s population, cattle numbers and land size. This was due to a series of unfortunate events including a civil war arising from a succession power struggle pitting warriors allied to his sons Sendeu and Olonana. Each son claimed to be the legitimate successor to Mbatiany.
It is said that Sendeu, the oldest of the two, was his father’s preferred successor. But on the early morning when their father was to officially pass the secrets of his craft to Sendeu, Olonana tricked his father (whose eyesight was failing) into thinking that he was Sendeu.
A twisted case of the early bird catching the worm!
The tribe was also struck by catastrophic epidemics of Small Pox (1883-1890) and Rinderpest that decimated whole families and cattle stocks. Records show that the Rinderpest (1880s) outbreak killed 90-95 percent of all Maasai cattle. In addition, drought and famine around the year that Mbatiany died (1890) led many families to seek refuge or forced into servitude with neighboring tribes.
Furthermore, treaties by his son Olonana (anglicized to Lenana) with British colonial settlers saw the Maasai move into land annexed as reserves while the settlers took up most of the community’s land in the Great Rift Valley for settlement. (However, the annexation of reserves had one silver lining – many historians attribute the tribe’s population rebound with the relocation to reserves).
In entering into these treaties with the British, historians say that Olonana believed he would receive British support to ward off his brother and consolidate his power as Oloiboni which ended up not being the case.
On the Tanganyika side, Lenana’s estranged brother Sendeu (anglicized to Sendenyo) was equally left weakened from skirmishes with his brother and confrontation over land with German colonial settlers.
Mbatiany’s Prophecies Come True
Mbatiany had foreseen and warned his people of many of these events, most famously the advent of colonization by a white man and the coming of the “iron snake” (railway line) that would “split” Maasailand into two.
It is important to note that despite their wide influence and domination in the region spanning today’s Kenya and mainland central Tanzania, historical evidence shows that the Maasai population did not exceed 150,000 people even at the height of their domination.
The fact that the tribe was able to dominate over such a large expanse of land even in their small numbers continues to marvel historians. Their success was most likely due to their strong (and very complex) social structure and regimented social hierarchy that established a ferocious and intrepid warrior tribe.
However, at the turn of the nineteenth century, the Maasai population had dwindled to about 20,000 owing to the many calamities that had overtaken the tribe.
As a matter of fact, in the early 1900’s British colonial settlers had predicted that the Maasai tribe would become extinct by mid-century!
This was not to be the case since their population had rebounded and doubled to about 42,000 by 1919 and continued to rise gradually thereafter.
Today, the Maasai population in Kenya and Tanzania stands at more than one million strong.
- An Administrative Survey of the Masai Social System Tanganyika notes and records by H. A. Fosbrooke. Published 1948.
- Laibon: An Anthropologist’s Journey with Samburu Diviners in Kenya. Sep 29, 2011 by Elliot Fratkin.
- Being Maasai: Ethnicity and Identity In East Africa (Eastern African Studies)Apr 1, 1993 by Thomas Spear and Thomas Spear.
- Web Article titled The life and times of paramount chief Lenana, appearing on the digital edition of the Standard Newspaper.
- Maasai Demography by Ernestina Coast. Department of Anthropology – University College London (PDF)
- Traditional occupations of indigenous and tribal peoples: Emerging trends.
- Compiled by the International Labour Organization, 2000 – Economic anthropology
- Web Article titled The complicated kinship system of the Maasai by By Lemomo Ole Kulet appearing on the digital edition of Kajiado County Press
- A Military History of Africa [3 volumes] by Timothy Stapleton. Google preview
- The Last Maasai Warrior by Frank Coates. Google Preview
- Moving the Maasai: A Colonial Misadventure By L. Hughes. Google Preview
Feature Image By User Ninara on Flickr