Skip to main content
February 20, 2019

The Maasai 'Shuka' Has Evolved Into A Brand

The piece I wrote on intellectual property protection in Kenya a few weeks ago was reposted a good bit, so it seemed to have struck a nerve with a few people. Here is another one that has been rattling around my head recently:

In a Refinery article I posted on Facebook, a red and blue checked fabric, was described as 'Buffalo Plaid', prompting one of the Focus Group (aka Facebook friends) to point that it was actually the Maasai fabric. You may remember the uproar when Louis Vuitton’s Spring/Summer collection 2012 featured those red and blue Maasai checks.

Of course that red and blue checked fabric seems so quintessentially Maasai that your mind probably will not think of it as anything else. But did the pastoralist Maasai actually ever make fabrics?

When in doubt, take yourself to Google. But there were not that many obvious answers. One article on gingham fabrics claimed that the Maasai had been using it for ‘thousands of years’. Highly unlikely, I thought.

But with a bit more persistent googling, I eventually found a paper by Lola Sharon Davidson, ‘Woven Webs: Trading Textiles Around the Indian Ocean’, published at the University of Technology Sydney. She traces the textile trade back through centuries. I was briefly intrigued by two pieces of information that I thought might unriddle the mystery: the use of black-blue and red, based on the available natural dyes, in Madagascar, and the fact that fabrics were used as a means of payment in the slave trade. There is also mention of West Africans becoming particularly fond of red and blue checked cottons known as 'Guinea Cloth' in the 18th century.

But a more useful hint was on page 15, in a paragraph on the Maasai at the end of the 20th century: 'The Maasai continue to affect distinctive dress while rejecting both Islam and Christianity. Their tourist paintings show them invariably clad in single red woollen blankets originally imported from England, although they now drape themselves in an average of four lengths of thick striped or checked cotton, called shuka, which is produced locally for sale to both the Maasai and tourists.'

I had also asked the Focus Group if they had any ideas. Diana Opoti, who produces an Africa fashion show and just opened up an agency to provide strategic marketing advice on African fashion and lifestyle markets, said: ‘The Maasai blanket may have been brought in by Scottish missionaries. It looks like the Scottish plaid or tartan. Perhaps the inland missionaries: Africa Inland Mission was established in 1895 and until 1909 Kenya was its only operation.’ She also pointed out that the word ‘shuka’ originally meant a wrap around the body, made from animal hide – only later, in the 1960s, did this turn into a fabric.

Fashion designer and lecturer friend Tereneh Mosley is working on a collection with a group of Maasai women, and she had this to contribute: ‘When I was doing my thesis a professor told me that the fabric was introduced by the British, it is tartan or based on tartan with red being the primary color. The Asian traders made them for the Maasai again using the beloved red as the main color. One story was that when Queen Victoria came to Kenya the tartan fabric was used to cover the tables and her entourage asked the Maasai men to cover their bodies with the cloth so the queen would not see them nude. A professor told me this, but I am not convinced this is a true story.’

Tereneh had asked the Maasai ladies she works with about this, and also about the importance and meaning of color as well as the geometric designs of the beadwork linked to Maasai design – another thing we do consider so typical for the Maasai. ‘No straight answers yet’.

And then Sam Rich: ‘I heard it wasn't just missionaries but Scottish regiments that were posted in Maasai areas who started leaving their tartan blankets lying around. So originally they were wool from the UK, but now overtaken by cheaper synthetic versions from China. (…) This conversation reminds me of a cultural tourism trip I took around Arusha some years back. I went to see a "traditional" Maasai metal workshop. They were making those Maasai blades. Closer inspection revealed they were removing plastic handles and scraping off words Made in China from knives and filing down and putting on a leather handle. But I was still keen to discover the origins of metal working on the Maasai. I asked: “Where did you get the metal before you got it from China?” The answer: "Sheffield."’

So that is how far I got: one of the most iconic images of Kenya is a cocktail of trade and industry, colonialism and possibly religion, and actually a fairly recent development. An intriguing challenge: No doubt the Maasai have made the imported fabric their own after so many years, and Light Year IP, the NGO supporting the Maasai Intellectual Property Initiative (MIPI), estimate that the Maasai brand (which is of course more than the fabric) is currently worth around USD10m a year in commerce around the globe. So surely the community should see some benefit from this, no?

Poll of the day