Tanzania in Fabrics II: The Maasai Shuka

The shuka is a hugely prevalent fabric in Tanzania, with a history as rich as its colors.  Sometimes referred to as “Maasai blankets,” they are traditionally worn by the Maasai, a prominent pastoral tribe in East Africa, with men typically wearing red and blue and women wearing deep purples and blues.  However, the word “traditionally” must be taken with a grain of salt.  Before colonialization of Africa, the Maasai wore leather garments.  The cotton shukas that are worn today and the checkered patterns they bear are the result, I’m told, of the influence of Scottish tartan patterns during the Colonial era.

Now the fabrics are manufactured in Dar es Salaam and even in China, bearing text such as “The Original Maasai Shuka” on the plastic packaging, and the ironic warning, “Do not dry in the sun.”  But the most ironic part is this- they are the real deal.  The Maasai really do buy and wear shukas made in China, packaged in plastic, and bearing designs originating in Scotland, as do other local tribes, though their color preferences vary.

I own two shukas myself- does it constitute “cultural appropriation” when I wear them?  Or do I as a Scot have as much right to wear a shuka as an Mmaasai?  It’s not worth the time to think about it; there is no such thing as “authenticity.”  Every culture is a mix of traditions and influences, and there is no unchanging standard to which some anthropologist can point and say, “This is authentic.”  So when the temperature drops after sunset and the rainy season fog settles over camp, I don’t hesitate to throw a shuka around my shoulders, or nestle underneath one when I lay down to sleep.

Until next time,
Heather

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