We sat in a big queue, waiting to enter Maasai Mara national park, a line of pop-top matatu minibusses, and like rats in a trap, we were deluged by Maasai ladies, elegantly beaded with their earlobes swaying delicately just above their shoulders, trying to sell us “traditional” Maasai beaded jewelry.
I was at first sour that the plain beaded bracelets were not as exciting as their own jewelry, but, on further thought, I wondered: how did Maasai people get plastic seed beads?
The Maasai are a one of the most famous “tribal people” of Kenya, and, in fact, when most people think of “Africans” they’ve probably cobbled together some mental image of a Maasai warrior with a character from The Gods Must be Crazy.
I found this quotation easily on the internet:
“The Maasai have come to represent Africa at its most primal, a fiercely independent tribe of legendary courage who sternly shun the modern world in favour of traditional rites and customs. The Maasai are undoubtedly one of the most famous traditional cultures on earth. “
What is the culture that we’re really ascribing to the Maasai, though?
Asking most people – even people who live in Kenya – what is “Maasai” and they’ll come back to you with lore and aesthetics: beads, clothes, long earlobes, and “lion killing.” Some people know about cattle herding too, and about the drinking of some mixture of blood and milk.
These things are considered to be tribal, primitive , and a representation of “THE REAL KENYA”. But are they really?
The pictures are beautiful – the beadwork is often extraordinary. Beadworking, done by women, has a long history among the Maasai, who articulate their identity and position in society through body ornaments and body painting. But before contact with Europeans, beads were produced mostly from local raw materials.
White beads were made from clay, shells, ivory, or bone. Black and blue beads were made from iron, charcoal, seeds, clay, or horn. Red beads came from seeds, woods, gourds, bone, ivory, copper, or brass. It was only when, late in the nineteenth century, great quantities of brightly colored European glass beads arrived in East Africa, that beadworkers replaced the older beads with the new materials and began to use more elaborate color schemes.
So that’s that. “Traditional” Maasai beads have really only been around 100 years.
What about their tartan plaid blanket-outfits? The shuka look like blankets, and are often used and sold as such
to white people. In fact, there’s been a REVOLUTION of Maasai shuka fabric being used in extremely high end fashion collections, so much so that a lot of Kenyans feel like “their heritage” is being stolen.
But who’d ever think that red plaid fabric is a Kenyan heritage?
Well, it’s not. Traditionally, Maasai shepherds wore capes made from calf hides, and women wore capes of sheepskin. The Maasai decorated these capes with glass beads.
In the 1960s, the Maasai began to replace animal-skin with commercial cotton cloth. Women tied lengths of this cloth around their shoulders as capes or around the waist as a skirt.
Why red? One theory has it that the tradition started with the dyeing of clothes with the red ochre pigment obtained from Mt. Kilimanjaro earth, which used to spew out red volcanic dust. Yet another says that because red signals danger to animals, bulls, buffaloes, and lions will attack any color except red.
A fascinating hypothesis suggests that the Maasai – warriors and soldiers by instinct – are the descendants of a lost Roman legion that either deserted or became lost in the southern fringes of the Roman Empire. The red color of the traditional Maasai shuka is similar to what is believed to have been the uniform of the soldiers who were fighting for the Roman Empire.
The tradition of rubbing red ochre on the skin falls in line with the love of red, and, once, Maasai hides were made red with ochre as well, becoming a sort of camouflage with the red dirt of this part of Africa.
Shocked yet? Most of the Maasai shuka for sale in every tourist curio shop in Africa are not even made in Africa. Huge quantities of them are acrylic, and mass produced in China. There’s been a push in recent years to bring manufacturing back to Africa; companies like Shuka Duka who are trying to discourage the sale of “Faux Maasai Culture” (har har). There are actually a number of local Kenyan producers of Maasai shuka, even though most of these companies don’t really seem to know the history of the shuka at all. From one of their websites:
the shuka has been the traditional piece of clothing for the Maasai tribe for hundreds of years
And this is where wording trickery comes in. The definition of shuka has changed for the Maasai in the last 50 years alone, so sure, the shuka is traditional, but hundreds of years ago there weren’t Maasai running around in Scottish plaid. (Buy some anyway! buy some anyway!)
If anything, it’s not the unchanging nature of the Maasai that’s made them successful, but their mutability. The Maasai have cleverly adapted to increasing globalization. They charge a fee for any photographs taken of them, using Western curiosity about traditional African cultures to their advantage. It was precisely a Maasai willingness to adapt that allowed them to integrate the tartans they traded for and the beads they traded for into a new conception of what it meant to be kimaasai.
The Maasai no longer wear cowhide sandals, but buy plastic flip-flops or make shoes out of old tires. The process of earlobe stretching has been altered by Westernization, too. Where previously the earlobe holes were gradually enlarged by inserting rolls of leaves or balls made of wood or mud, plastic film canisters now may serve this purpose.
When I visited a Maasai village in 2002 (somewhat by force), the chief had just come back from university in Europe. He wore a shuka over a pair of pants (extremely unusual for Maasai) and had a shiny wristwatch. He told us, inadvertently, about some of the Western influences on his village: a European-built clinic, primary and secondary schools, and of course his own attendance at university in Europe. But as he spoke, ladies continued to come by and parade their children in front of me, begging me for money and offering to let me take pictures. Because Maasai bring their cows, sheep, and goats inside the village wall at night, like you do when you live near lions in Kenya, the ground and walls and air and your nostrils are just filled with poop. And with poop comes flies, and when you’re standing there in your Westernness and some lady wants you to take a photograph of her child or to buy her necklaces and there are flies in your eyes and her eyes and her child’s eyes – it is not fun. Does it feel like the Maasai know exactly what they’re doing? Absolutely.
Some tourists lament what they perceive as a tide of modernity in East Africa. They’re vacationing from the Western World in order to see cultures that they think are ancient, and uncompromisingly “traditional”.
The Maasai are, even more than people think, a reflection of Kenya in that they were because they are a perfect example of how colonialism has fundamentally changed Africa while everyone pretends that everything is the same.
Will the Maasai culture continue to change? Almost certainly. Cattle herding is limited now that land is restricted, and Maasai aren’t really nomadic anymore either.
So who cares if Maasai culture is a loose definition of “tradition”? We forget in the USA anyway that most “landmark” buildings are less than 100 years old. Is “culture” really meant to be static, or isn’t its very definition an echo of learning and changing? How many quotation and question marks can I use in this post?
The important takeaway is – the Maasai mythos really means one thing – money.
So the next time someone tries to tell you to celebrate something that’s unchanging, by paying money to see a Maasai village and the “real Africa”, take a minute, examine it closely, realize that nothing ever stays the same and pay attention to the fact that when you’re a tourist, everyone is trying to sell you something.
…Even the idea of the STOIC unchanging Maasai.
***I should mention as an addendum that, while researching this post, it was almost impossible to find information that wasn’t just “ Colorful bead necklaces and plaid cloth are a longstanding tradition of the Maasai”. It behooves people to maintain the myth. It looks good on a brochure, and Maasai crafts are big business for Kenya.