The Masaai Shuka, also known as the African blanket is a traditional clothing attire in the Maa community. It’s unclear where this fabric was first used. Some people think that it can be traced to Scottish missionaries. However, others believe that when the Maa community started using commercial cotton in the 1960s, they learnt how to dye it and made the Shukas themselves.
Fascinating African Fabrics: Maasai Shuka – Kenya
The Maa Comminuty
The Maa community are also referred to as Masaais. They are a semi-nomadic Cushite ethnic group mainly found in Kenya and some parts of Tanzania, they’re over 1.5 million. As Cushite’s, they practice pastoralism, so this keeps them moving from place to place with their livestock, belongings and family. Hence, they use the Masaai Shuka, heavy cotton fabric to protect them from the cold nights and hot days as they move from place to place.
Diverse Use of the Maasai Shuka
Currently, the Masaai Shuka is a diverse item used for different purposes that include, as a garment that can be worn or for interior decorating purposes in homes like a rug. It’s also durable and needs minimal care.
The Masaai Shuka includes geometric patterns that come in different colors. Popular color combinations include red and blue, red and black, red and white. Each color found on the Masaai Shuka signifies different values important to the Maa community. It’s a celebration of their culture that also makes a vibrant fashion statement.
Color Schemes of the Maasai Shuka
Red is an important color and it symbolizes cow blood and protects the Masaai warrior from dangerous animals. Sometimes, Masaai drink cow blood mixed with milk as a traditional drink that’s also highly nutritious especially and keeps them strong. It also signifies bravery, fierceness and unity.
Blue represents the sky, this is important because the skies release rain that’s used to keep the livestock strong especially cattle, which are also used as a food source.
Green represents the vast land that the Masaai live on and how it supports them. The land allows them to grow feed to keep themselves strong plus grazing for the livestock.
Orange represents friendship, hospitality and generosity found within the Masaai community. Yellow represents fertility and symbolizes the sun because it helps the grass grow and this sustains the cattle that support Masaai culture.
White represents purity and health and it symbolizes milk from the cattle. The benefits found in milk help keep the Masaai community strong and healthy.
Purple represents spirituality as it balances the strong fierceness found in red and calm peacefulness found in blue. Black represents the struggles and hardships that the Masaai community have endured through tout their lives plus the color of the Masaai people.
Internationally, the Masaai Shuka has inspired various fashion designers that include Louis Vuitton’s Spring/Summer 2012 Collection and Thakoon’s Fall/Winter 2011 Collection. Other designers that have drawn inspiration from Masaai patterns include Ralph Lauren, Diane Von Furstenberg and Calvin Klein tags.
Several brands weren’t authorized to benefit commercially from the Masaai Shuka blanket. Hence, Maasai elders came together in 2009 started creating awareness about the intellectual property rights attached to the blanket and having their collective community rights protected from exploitation.
As the Masaais pushed for the initiative under their Chairman Isaac Ole Tialolo and with help from Ron Layton, an Intellectual Property Lawyer, they struck a deal with Koy Clothing, a UK based retailer, which agreed to pay for a licence.
However, other people argue that the Masaai shuka is already in the public domain and can’t be copyrighted since many Kenyans already use it. Yet, communities are still allowed to pursue legal avenues to protect their traditional cultural knowledge from exploitation.
Only time will tell, what’s in the future for the Masaai Shuka.