Maasai Couture

Maasai woman repairing her roof (with cattle dung). Photography by Richard Field.

Maasai Couture

Richard Field, African Correspondent

1 February 2014

The Maasai are some of the most striking and fashionable people on the planet. Not bad for semi-nomadic pastoralists living on the plains of East Africa.

They live a simple life. The men herd cattle, and the women are responsible for maintaining the homelife. Their diet includes blood from a cow – carefully drained in order not to kill the beast – mixed with milk. They very seldom eat one of their cattle, as they are such a highly valued part of their life, preferring the occasional goat or sheep. The fact that they never eat wild game (it is a major taboo) has meant that they can exist in some of the wildest parts of Africa without harming the local wildlife populations. Lions, always prevalent in areas where the Maasai live, are one of the few wild animals to fear the Maasai. In days past, young men, as part of their initiation into ‘warriorhood’ have had to kill a lion. They would venture into the wilderness as a small group, armed only with spears and chase down a fully grown male lion!

The lion hunts are one aspect of Maasai life that no longer occurs, but their cultural fashion identity is strong. The way that they dress is clearly of great importance to the Maasai, all of it highly imbued with aspects of their culture and environment.

From a distance, the most notable thing about a Maasai is their ‘shuka’. This is a brightly coloured blanket, these days made from cotton. The most common colour is a bright red, but blue, purple and orange shukas are also seen. Generally a shuka is tied over each shoulder with a third draped over the top. These bright colours stand out in the dry grasslands in which they live – hardly camouflage yet it affords them protection from predators. When lions see someone wearing a brightly coloured shuka walking across the plains they tend to hightail it in the other direction!

On closer inspection, the Maasai are finely adorned with metal ‘jingles’ and incredible beadwork. The ‘jingles’ are visually beautiful, but sound like a wind chime as a warrior strides through the bush. Whilst the intent is clearly decorative, the sound is certainly loud enough to alert a sleeping lion to the presence of a Maasai. Again, the lion will most likely disappear before it is seen.

The beadwork is really one of the cornerstones of life for the Maasai in general, but particularly for the women who create it. Incredibly intricate anklets, bracelets, belts, necklaces, earrings are carefully banded together using a variety of coloured beads. Most of the colours have significance to the Maasai. Red beads are a reference to blood, bravery or unity; blue beads reflect the heavens and perhaps a plea for rain; white is for purity, and green is for the land. The other colours may still have specific meanings and in this way a woman is able to weave a narrative through the jewellery she wears.

The Maasai are also intensely practical and are gifted at recycling materials into something quite distant from their initial design. A great example are the shoes worn by Maasai. In days past, bits of skin were used, or people would walk in barefeet. These days old tyres are cut up and turned into shoes that clearly serve their new purpose very well!

In contrast to many other African tribes, the Maasai have been able to successfully retain the major facets of their culture. Life is changing though, at a rapid pace. More and more the Maasai are settling permanently in areas and some are even growing crops. Mobile phones are a common sight as western style education is being widely introduced. This will undoubtedly further dilute long-standing traditions. The fashion though, remains significant. Even if a Maasai is university educated, earns foreign currency and generally wears western clothes, he or she will long to return to their home village, where they can wear their shuka and beads. Only then will they again feel the wildness of Africa coursing through their veins.

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