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Maasai sandals… and their social life

Noel B. Salazar
p. 113-118

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This picture was taken at the Maasai Cultural Museum in Meserani, Tanzania. Unlike the sandals sold at the adjacent market area, this pair is ornamented. They must have belonged to a Maasai of a certain social standing

This picture was taken at the Maasai Cultural Museum in Meserani, Tanzania. Unlike the sandals sold at the adjacent market area, this pair is ornamented. They must have belonged to a Maasai of a certain social standing

Source: Photo by the author

1As a sociocultural anthropologist, I am fascinated by practices, imaginaries, and processes of human mobility, which can be understood as movement infused with both self-ascribed and attributed meanings. In its scholarly usage, mobility refers to much more than just physical motion. Mobility studies in general focus on the numerous ways in which people become involved in diverse translocal networks and linkages. My academic research interest has brought me to many different places and peoples. In 2007, for example, I was in northern Tanzania conducting ethnographic fieldwork on safari tourism. Towards the end of my stay, I was actively searching for physical objects of material culture that could serve as teaching props. When Joseph, my Maasai research assistant, invited me on a daytrip to Meserani, a village west of safari capital Arusha, I got some ideas.

2At the edge of the dusty but colourful Meserani market, where hundreds of Maasai from the region gather to trade cattle, I was struck by the large amount of sandals that were crafted on the spot, adapted to several types of feet, and bought mostly by young Maasai men. The soles of these sturdy sandals are made from recycled off-road tyre treads and, thus, have a concave, rocker bottom shape. Other parts of the tyre rubber are cut into strips and attached to the soles with nails and glue or needle and thread. A shoemaker can produce seven or eight pairs from one single used tyre. The Maasai like these sandals because they are affordable and comfortable footwear, allowing them to cover long daily walking distances, over stony and thorny terrain, without back pain. Moreover, they provide enough protection from the ground (and dangers like hookworm infection) while keeping the feet cool. The Maasai call these sandals in-túkutukuní, a direct reference to the motorcycles the tyres mostly come from these days. Because of their proven durability, they are also nicknamed “(ten) thousand milers”.

3The Maasai travel long distances, for instance to cattle markets or to attend the rituals of their age-group and their age-mates’ children. Good footwear is thus indispensable. Traditionally, Maasai walked around in some sort of cowskin wrappers. Nowadays, many wear the rubber sandals or, if they can afford it, walking boots. As such, footwear functions as a marker of social status. In any case, the “tradition” of the recycled rubber sandals cannot be that old. After all, the shoemaker needs access to old tyres to produce them. One of the first times they were reported was in 1935, when Ethiopian rebels used them while fighting the Italian occupation of their country. Whereas older models were crafted from Western car tyre brands (leading to nicknames such as dunlop or michelin), contemporary sandals are increasingly made from wasted motorcycle tyres from Chinese and other Asian brands. While recycled rubber sandals have been adopted by rural people across East Africa, they have become iconic for the Maasai people and are widely known as “Maasai sandals”.

4This should not come as a total surprise. Speakers of the Eastern Nilotic Maa tonal language, the ancestors of the Maasai came from southern Sudan sometime during the first millennium to settle in Kenya and, later, in Tanzania. The ethnic group, constituting a population of approximately 2 million people, is now living widely dispersed across southern Kenya and northern Tanzania – an area known locally as Maasailand. Despite their marginalized position in East Africa as cattle herders, Maasai have attracted enormous interest across the globe since the reports of first contact with Europeans in the 19th century. They have become emblems of African traditionalism and inadvertent symbols of resistance to modernity because of stereotypical (mis)representations since the colonial era. Particularly the sight of virile Maasai warriors, dressed in colourful red blankets and beaded jewellery, evokes the romantic image of a modern “nomad” – a priceless tourism attraction. Ironically, it is the growth of tourism activities that have pushed many Maasai to lead a more sedentary, less mobile life.

5Because of the global renown and popularity, Maasai have become one the biggest cultural brands in the world. The footwear, too, has not escaped commercialization, often without Maasai approval. In 1996, the company Swiss Masai (now Masai Marketing and Trading) launched its Masai barefoot technology line of shoes. Their first product was an innovative rolling trainer, which mimicked “natural instability”, supposedly developed by observing Maasai people walking barefoot on uneven ground. This description is clearly not correct, because most Maasai do not walk barefoot, certainly not for long distances. The company later developed its Kisumu Classic, an ergonomic leather sandal with velcro straps, designed for long distance walks. Maasai sandals were also capitalized upon by the British fair-trade fashion store Fresh Cargo, which undertook a joint venture with Maasai to produce Maasai treads flip flops recycled out of denim, leather, and tyres. In 2011, the Spanish shoe company Pikolinos launched a similar footwear line designed and manufactured in Kenya by Maasai women. The footwear itself is the result of transnational mobility: produced in Spain, decorated in Kenya, and then distributed worldwide. In the beginning there were only three designs and twenty women involved. In the meantime, there are twelve designs and about 1600 Maasai women employed.

6Footwear is just one among many examples of how the Maasai name and image is used by brands all over the globe to advance the intangible value of their products. Despite profound changes in Maasai society, the historical semiotic association between Maasai and “mobility” is still very present and has been exploited shrewdly in advertising campaigns for global brands and by some Maasai themselves, who have taken advantage of their widespread image as “ambassadors of mobility”. In 2008, for example, a group of six Maasai participated in the Flora London marathon – wearing their sandals – to raise money for water pumps in their village in northern Tanzania. A year later, three Maasai participated in the New York City marathon, sponsored by the athletic shoe company Puma, to raise awareness for the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust. None of them did very well from a competitive perspective – two of the Maasai running the marathon in London took an extra day to reach the finish line. In 2010, two Maasai participated as the “Maasai warriors” team in The Amazing Race China Rush, the first sub-Saharan participants ever on the show. Unfortunately, they could not do justice to their reputation as traditional experts in mobility because they were the first team to be eliminated.

7The sandal seller at the Meserani market had a good laugh when I, a mzungu (white person), bought a pair from him. His target customers are primarily rural Maasai. International tourists, for instance, are presented with two options. First, there are the Maasai sandals that one finds in souvenir shops and at airports in Tanzania and Kenya. The footwear for sale there is meant to be worn and to adhere to international quality standards. The sandals may not resemble at all what Maasai are wearing but are often a fusion of the recycled tyre sandals and the elaborate and highly coded Maasai beadwork. These commercial products come in multiple shapes and colours and are subject to rapidly changing fashion trends. For the “authenticity seekers”, there is a worthy alternative. Maasai discovered that there is a market of eagerly paying foreign tourists interested in buying their used machetes, spears, jewellery, milk gourds, and sandals. So many of their physical objects of material culture are taken abroad, where they lead a new life as souvenirs.

8In sum, what at first sight may seem like a banal object of daily usage turns out to be a wonderful example of how various practices, imaginaries, and processes of mobility are intimately intertwined. The rubber sandals, as footwear enhancing human locomotion, depend on the tyres made for motorized vehicles such as cars or motorcycles. Once the non-biodegradable tyres are wasted, they are recycled as sandals and start playing a crucial role in other types of mobility. The sandals enable Maasai to wander across a large territory. Moreover, because they have become so iconic for Maasai culture, the sandals are also a carrier of cultural capital, something Maasai are proud to wear. Urbanized Maasai, who usually walk around in Western-style shoes, will slip back into the typical sandals when visiting relatives or attending rituals or ceremonies. This is a reminder of the vital role that footwear can play for identity and cultural expression. Finally, at the end of their lifecycle, the sandals can have yet another function as souvenirs for tourists. In other words, the story of these sandals is a fine illustration of the social life of things, something anthropologists have been studying with much interest.

9I also like the fact that sandals are thought of in pairs. It would feel weird to present only one sandal. From the moment they were cut out of a tyre, the sandals started a joint life as a couple. Most of the functional objects made for our limbs are produced and used in pairs. As such, the sandals implicitly remind us of what it is to be human. It was in Africa that humans began walking upright. With their long walks, the Maasai are practicing what our body was biologically adapted to do, and the rubber sandals they use turn out to be a great help with this. Lastly, the sandals are in black, the colour that in Maasai culture signifies the people and their struggles. Despite the global awe felt for the Maasai, we should never forget that they have been marginalized for an exceedingly long time, by colonial and post-colonial societies alike.

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Título This picture was taken at the Maasai Cultural Museum in Meserani, Tanzania. Unlike the sandals sold at the adjacent market area, this pair is ornamented. They must have belonged to a Maasai of a certain social standing
Créditos Source: Photo by the author
URL http://journals.openedition.org/etnografica/docannexe/image/12724/img-1.jpg
Ficheiro image/jpeg, 193k
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Referência do documento impresso

Noel B. Salazar, «Maasai sandals… and their social life»Etnográfica, Número especial | -1, 113-118.

Referência eletrónica

Noel B. Salazar, «Maasai sandals… and their social life»Etnográfica [Online], Número especial | 2022, posto online no dia 22 dezembro 2022, consultado o 29 janeiro 2023. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/etnografica/12724; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/etnografica.12724

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Autor

Noel B. Salazar

KU Leuven, Belgium

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Creative Commons - Atribuição-NãoComercial 4.0 Internacional - CC BY-NC 4.0

https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/

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