The history of the Mbulu, or Iraqw, people is shrouded in mystery, as it is not known when they first came to Tanzania. However, some clues, such as agricultural practices, suggest they came down from Northern Kenya, but this has not yet been proven; other important clues are their physical features, namely their thin and fine faces that differ from their neighbours and, not less important, their language, that suggests their origin is further Northwards, in Ethiopia.
The Iraqw ethnic group belongs to the Afro-Asiatic linguistic group that greatly differs from the Bantu; it is actually a principal linguistic family (and not a dialect) like Arabic and Hebrew, although it has been influenced by the Datoga language over the centuries; the Iraqw language is linked to the Southern Cushitic languages spoken in Ethiopia and Northern Kenya, that proves that their migration to the centre of Tanzania started from there.
As an ethnic group, the Iraqw might belong to the Afro-Asiatic Neolithic populations who settled in Northern Kenya and later moved South because of clashes with the Nilotic and Bantu peoples; this assumption has been confirmed by the remains found in the Kerio Valley in Kenya that testify the presence of Neolithic farmers who used complex irrigation systems akin to those still in use in the Iraqw fields; the area was subsequently abandoned due to an epidemic plague, that might have been the cause that forced the Mbulu to move South.
Other archaeological remains have been brought to light in the Engaruka site in Northern Tanzania, where the similarity of irrigation canals, dams and terraces attests the Iraqw presence in the area, from where they migrated Southwards due to clashes with the Maasai and the Barbaig.
The Mbulu settled in the region between the provinces of Arusha and Manyara around the year 1890, and here they came into contact with the Datoga of which they assimilated some words and the use of facial markings.
Maasai (not Masai) is the correct spelling of this noble tribe: it means people speaking maa. Masai was the incorrect spelling of the British settlers and has remained in current use. The Maasai have always been special. Their bright red robes set them apart visually. Spear in hand, they are calm and courageous regardless of the danger.
The armed British troops who drove the Maasai from their lands in the early 20th century had great respect for these fearless tribesmen. Up until recently, the only way for a Maasai boy to achieve warrior status was to single-handedly kill a lion with his spear.
Kenya recognizes over fifty tribes of native people. The Maasai were the dominating tribe at beginning of 20th century. They are one of the very few tribes who have retained most of their traditions, lifestyle and lore. In common with the wildlife with which they co-exist, the Maasai need a lot of land. Unlike many other tribes in Kenya, the Maasai are semi-nomadic and pastoral: they live by herding cattle and goats.
The Maasai have not fared well in modern Africa. Until the European settlers arrived, fierce Maasai tribes occupied the most fertile lands. The Maasai struggled to preserve their territory, but their spears were no match for armed British troops, and their lawyers never had a fair chance in British courtrooms. In 1904, the Maasai signed a first agreement, losing the best of their land to the European settlers.
Seven years later, in 1911, a very controversial agreement was signed by a small group of Maasai, where their best Northern land (Laikipia) was given up to white settlers. Surely they did not fully understand what the consequences of such a treaty were, and anyway the signatories did not represent the entire tribe. With these two treaties, the Maasai lost about two-thirds of their lands and were relocated to less fertile parts of Kenya and Tanzania.