The Ultimate Guide to The Maasai Warrior Shuka Cloth Throw
April 04, 20226 min read
The Ultimate Guide to The Maasai Warrior Shuka Cloth Throw
Maasai warriors are easily recognized by their tall, slender build wrapped in red patterned shuka cloth and their long large blade spears.
The Maasai are viewed as Africa's last great warrior tribe that has thrived in the great rift valley region of East Africa for well over 2000 years.
Their unique and rather simplistic nomadic way of life includes an unusual diet of milk and cow's blood and traditional rituals deeply embedded in their slow-evolving culture, which has kept them firmly tethered to the land they inhabit.
Contemporary Maasai dress code enforces their cultural heritage as a warrior tribe, and shuka cloth plays a prominent role in their clearly defined life milestones.
The use of shuka cloth as the main Maasai warrior garment has gone through a slow but steady metamorphosis over the last few centuries that finally culminated in patterned red, blue, and green cotton shuka cloth emerging in the 1960s.
Maasai warriors and the lions of East Africa.
As part of the Maasai coming of age ritual, a young warrior would have to earn respect and acknowledgment of the tribe by hunting and bringing down a lion.
This ritual was always an integral part of being recognized as a true Maasai warrior; however, the declining lion population raised concerns among conservationists, who figuratively managed to pull a rabbit out of a hat to save the East African lions.
The Maasai tribe inhabits a sizeable geographical region covering southern Kenya and the northern part of Tanzania, which coincidentally eclipses several game conservation areas.
The population growth of the Maasai meant that they would automatically encroach on game conservation territories due to expanded grazing lands for their cattle.
In the decade spanning 2001 to 2011, more than 200 hundred lions were hunted and killed by Maasai warriors, equivalent to 40% of the lion population each year.
The lion population in Africa recorded in 2013 stood at fewer than 30 000 compared to half a million in 1950.
These staggering statistics led scientists to predict that the lion would be extinct in Kenya by 2020.
But thanks to Dr. Leela Hazzah, an Egyptian American conservationist and co-founder of Lion Guardians, traditional Maasai lion hunts have evolved into the Maasai being lion guardians.
Lions form part of the attraction to East African tourism. Without this turnaround to protect the lions, there may have been dire consequences for tourism which the Maasai capitalize upon.
Maasai warriors and cultural villages form part of East Africa's eco-tourism that helps sustain the Maasai way of life.
Tourism and the Maasai people.
The Maasai have a distinctive, authentic look that appeals to international tourists wanting to experience a taste of ancient African culture.
The Maasai do not enact history like the Americans do with their Civil War history, nor do they dress in outrageous robes with fake white wigs to emulate the Victorian-era aristocracy.
The Maasai are a real-life warrior tribe who thrive off the land. They are nomadic cattle herders whose way of life has not been altered much by western civilization.
Besides their willingness to turn from hunting lions to protecting them, there is very little that the Maasai find appealing about western cultures. One thing is sure; though, the Maasai understand basic economics.
The lion is considered the king of the beasts, and the Maasai have seen how tourists spend great deals of money to see these large cats in the wild.
They have also noted how eager tourists are to be photographed with authentic Maasai people and partake in their unusual traditional jumping dance.
International tourists are in absolute awe about everything to do with the Maasai people.
In turn, the Maasai have graduated the term "pay for play" by having tourists pay for their selfies with this unhinged warrior tribe of Africa.
Interestingly, the Maasai people's end of life was not ritualized with formal funeral ceremonies. Burials in the past were reserved for great chiefs only, and subjects who died were left in the open fields for scavengers.
The Maasai believed that burying the dead was harmful to the soil, which showed just how much reverence they have for nature.
Shuka cloth, the symbol of a nation.
Against the backdrop of dry red-brown savanna plains, the predominantly red shuka cloth drabbed around the body of a Maasai warrior stands out as an epic statement of bravery and courage. Shuka in the Maasai language means "body wrapping."
What is odd about this picture is the warrior's pose, with one leg raised and the foot resting on the knee of the other leg, very similar to how a pink flamingo rests on one leg.
The difference is that the Maasai warrior uses his long spear as support while in this pose. It signifies calmness and ensures alertness to whatever may be lurking in the nearby surroundings.
For most of their history, the Maasai wore leather garments that later included wool blankets but only shifted to cotton in the 1960s. Western influences were prolific in the 1800s and early to mid-1900s, yet the Maasai refrained from assimilating to western trends.
Although fabrics were used as a means of payment during the slave trade and landed in East Africa at that time., it still took many decades before the Maasai began shifting away from leather to fabrics.
The first possible origin of shuka cloth stems back to the 1800s when black, blue, and red dyes were shipped from Madagascar to East Africa and traded with West Africa.
Red and blue checked "guinea cloth" became popular in West Africa and may have been the origin of the Maasai Shuka cloth, which traversed this trade route.
The second possible origin of shuka cloth stems from Scottish missionaries during the early colonization of Africa.
The Scottish mission in East Africa was established in 1895 and operated exclusively in Kenya until 1909. Shuka cloth closely resembles Scottish tartan patterns, so this explanation seems plausible.
Yet only over half a century later did the Maasai transition to using cotton fabric which many interpret as their unwillingness to transform to western norms. Either way, the Maasai were more concerned with a few primary colors related to their culture and traditions.
Shuka cloth colors and patterns.
The primary color of shuka cloth is red, with blue, green, and black being widely used. There are also multi-colored designs available that sport the typical square tartan pattern and include striped designs. This indicates a shift toward aesthetics while still trying to represent or stay connected to traditional values.
Older generations prefer the red shuka cloth and often dye their fabric with ocher as it signifies protection to warn off predators and camouflage that blends in with the region's red soil.
The shuka also identifies the social status of the wearer. Blue is worn by married people, while boys wear blank in the months leading up to and after their circumcision ritual.
Jewelry plays an essential part in Maasai culture for both men and women as it too signifies the status of the person in society.
Blue is the color of the sky which provides water in the form of rain, and white is the purity of milk, whereas red represents blood and signifies the unity of the tribe, courage, strength, and protection.
Green stands for the land, which nourishes the cattle, and yellow is for the sun, making life possible. Orange depicts the hospitality, friendship, and generosity of the Maasai.
Shuka cloth is a thick, hardy cotton blanket wrap worn by the Maasai, sometimes around the waist but mostly over one shoulder and draped around the body.
The dominant red-colored tartan design created a unified identity among the tribe. Shuka cloth is not made by the Maasai but purchased from various suppliers.
The transition from wool blanket wraps to cotton was primarily due to wool being more expensive. Cotton proved to be a worthy alternative.
More recently, other fabrics are used to make shuka cloth which is highly durable and stands up to the Maasai lifestyle in the East African wilderness.
The Maasai are very proud people who are closely connected to nature. Their nomadic movements across the plains ensure that their cattle have the best grazing and nature has time to rejuvenate fresh grazing.
They have great respect for wildlife and do not indulge in indiscriminate hunting practices. Their diet consists of six primary food sources: meat, blood, milk, fat, honey, and tree bark. Meat is only eaten on special occasions and comes from their livestock.
A parting note.
Historically, the Maasai hunted lions as part of their rite of passage ceremonies, but only male lions were hunted as the females were protected as life-givers. However, the Maasai will still kill a lion if it threatens their cattle herd in modern times.
Shuka cloth has been adopted by many fashion houses whose garments feature on catwalks and commercial outlets worldwide.
Shuka cloth throws are also available from different global manufacturers who ensure the Maasai people retain their visual identity as Africa's last true warrior nation.