After a few searches on traditional indigenous groups in Africa, there is no way that you will miss the Maasai people of East Africa. They are one of the most famous indigenous groups in Africa and are spread across southern Kenya and northern Tanzania, totalling about 1. 5 million people in both countries.
The creativity and colourful exuberance of the Maasai people are evident in their accessories, clothing and general way of life. They are best known for their distinctive culture which has stood the test of modernity and has been preserved to date. From their dance to jewellery and housing architecture, the Maasai are indeed a unique lot who refuse to mix with western cultures.
The nomadic tribesmen are greatly skilled as warriors and cattle rustlers. It is recorded that the Maasai came from Lake Turkana, an area in the lower Nile Valley and began to move South in the 1400s. They can be identified by their dark skin, tall and slim build, iron rods, and distinct clothing – beads, and body piercings.
One thing that also sets them apart from others is their beautiful traditional cloth known as the Shuka. The beautifully designed cloth, also known as the “African Blanket’ has kept the Maasai people warm and has since its discovery by other parts of the world raised various controversial discussion.
The cloth is often coloured red with black stripes. Black, blue, checkered and striped cloths are also worn together with multicoloured African garments. The dress code mostly varies by sex, age and place.
Throughout Africa and the world, there is none like the Shuka cloth. The popular narrative of the history of the Shuka cloth explains that the Maasai people were inspired by the earliest Scottish missionaries who settled in East Africa to propagate the gospel and start trade around 1889. These missionaries wore their traditional highlander outfit which had similar Shuka patterns that were believed to have appealed to the Massai people than their mud cloths.
As a means of getting the fabric, they traded with the missionaries by giving them foodstuff, cattle and minerals. Soon, they abandoned their traditional mud cloth and adapted the Scottish fabric as their everyday wear. The Shuka cloth gained more popularity throughout the Massai group as the slave trade began to increase.
As much as this narrative is believable, it is unfortunately not true. It suggests that the Maasai were not happy with their traditional wear until they came across the fabric of the Scottish missionaries and for an ethnic group who have stuck to their traditions till date, that is undoubtedly and definitely not the case.
The Maasai made leather long before colonisation or the presence of westerners in Africa. They made leather out of rigid animal skin such as buffalos. They are also known to make their dyes using clay, purified animal blood, minerals, plants and crushed insects. This made it possible for producing colours such as red, blue, green and black.
Among these colours, red and blue were easier to do. The Shuka cloth patterns were original patterns used to design the mud cloths and leather garments they wore. They also designed their walls and bodies with the dye and patterns during ceremonies such as weddings and naming ceremonies.
Like many other things in this world, the Shuka cloth went through a development stage. After the entry of the Scottish missionaries into their lands, the Maasai engaged in trade with the missionaries and exchanged food for commercial cotton. The cotton cloth soon replaced local leather and mud cloth after they realised that the materials could be dyed. This evolution occurred during the early 1900s.
In more recent times, many textile manufacturers make the Shuka cloth with the help of advanced technology adding more colours in the process; but the Maasai people still make the original cloth sticking to their primary red, blue and sometimes green colours.
The origin and meaning of the name Shuka cloth are not known, but its patterns have long existed and were not inspired by the Scottish. That narrative needs to be corrected.
Meanwhile, the Maasai tribe has awakened after years of cultural exploitation by dozens of brands including international fashion brands and car manufacturers who have incorporated their rich culture into their product design without credit nor fees.
This enlightenment resulted in the creation of the Maasai Intellectual Property Initiative Trust which is working with lawyers to get these companies using the Maasai trademark to pay for it.
The Maasai are working with a subsidiary of Washington-based advocacy group Light Years IP whose founder, Ron Layton, is pushing for the rights of the nearly two million pastoralists be restored, the Financial Times reported in January.
Koy Clothing, the UK retail company run by brothers Alastair and Jimmy Scott said: “The ‘Maasai’ brand is valuable, and it should belong to the Maasai people. Their name, designs and styles often get used by others, but the Maasai don’t earn a penny from this. Well, we have taken the opposite approach!” it explained on its website.
The two brothers who grew up in Kenya said the Maasai fabrics presented an opportunity to combine authentic African cloth with the quintessentially British lifestyle and that “5% of all our sales are donated to support and respect the indigenous cultures that inspire our designs.”
Koy Clothing has produced a line of jackets made from Kikoy, a traditional 100% cotton cloth from Kenya. They named the jackets Maasai by reference to its colouring.
Light Years IP is in talks with other companies including Louis Vuitton, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Jaguar Land Rover and Masai Barefoot Technology, a shoe company, who have used Maasai imagery or iconography to project their brand.