The Masai Blanket – Shuka

No trip to Kenya is complete without a masai blanket purchased to bring back home. This colorful garb also called shuka is as traditional as it gets in Kenya. Though worn mostly by the Masai tribe who predominantly live in the Masai Mara region of Kenya, the shuka has become a popular garment all over the country.

History of the Masai blanket – Shuka

The word “traditional” to describe this Kenyan blanket must be taken with a grain of salt. Before the colonization of Africa, the Maasai wore leather garments and only began to replace calf hides and sheep skin with commercial cloth in the 1960s.

There are a few schools of thought on how the shuka became the garment of choice today. One of them is traced back through centuries — fabrics were used as a means of payment during the slave trade and landed in East Africa, while black, blue, and red natural dyes were obtained from Madagascar. There were actually records of red-and-blue checked “guinea cloth” becoming very popular in West Africa during the 18th century.

The Maasai identity is often defined by colourful beaded necklaces, an iron rod, and the red shuka cloth.

Another interesting explanation is that the Maasai cloth was brought in by Scottish missionaries during the colonial era. The Africa Inland Mission was established in 1895, and until 1909 Kenya was its only operation. This may explain why the  shuka cloth does resemble the Scottish plaid or tartan patterns. Source: Cultural fabric – the shuka.

Revolution of the Maasai blanket

Recent years have seen the shuka cloth popping up in the local fashion industry with garments such as shirts and jackets made with shuka fabrics. What is truly eye-opening is how prevalent this checkered fabric has become among the locals. Driving in Masai Mara we saw goat herders, cattle herders and local Masai walking with shukas wrapped around them as a cape or as a shawl. Some even use them as a wrap around their waist.

Colorful, cheerful and uniquely Kenyan

Truly a unique blanket, the shuka is a cheerful and colorful blanket that not only warms you up but makes you happy as well. No safari holiday in Kenya is complete until you come home with a colorful shuka blanket.

13 thoughts on “The Masai Blanket – Shuka”

  1. Wonderful article, Kalpana! I love the way you document the moments with knowledge, facts, and warmth.

  2. very interesting…being born here even I did not have this knowledge. Thanks for the insight and definitely the pictures with the shukas look great

  3. Beautiful radiant colors of the Masai blankets. Thanks for the history & description of the traditions & trends.

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