Globalisation is a great cultural leveler. But tourists looking for a glimpse of authentic Kenya have a chance with a visit to the Maasai market, a showcase for a way of life that is being defiantly preserved by its people.
The market has become a tourist attraction that continues to expand in many parts of Kenya, especially Nairobi. Visitors looking to buy memorable, authentic African mementos from Kenya or return with gifts for their friends and family back home, can count on a varied selection and exciting experience of haggling at these markets.
The Maasai are the last ethnic group in Kenya to retain their cultural practices, more so traditional dress, and visitors to East Africa can still spot tall, toned, muscular men with their braided red ochre hair and bright red shuka (shoulder cloak), spear in hand, looking like the fierce warriors they are reputed to be. Both Maasai women and men wear beaded earrings, and the women with their shaved heads, additionally have beaded bracelets, and elaborate necklaces and headdresses.
This is just the decorative aspect of the Maasai. Many tourists get to see their way of life, which revolves around cattle and a diet of blood and milk, when they visit the Maasai Mara reserve, one of Airkenya’s many destinations.
Demand for their handicraft has seen traditional Maasai jewellery transform into an amazing contemporary fashion statement, for both locals and tourists. The bracelets, earrings, necklaces, rings, and plenty more accessories are hand crafted with intricate beadwork, bone, copper, wood and other locally available resources.
The items are made by the traders and therefore quite affordable, at the same time unique. The traders usually continue to work as they sell, dressed in their traditional attire.The collection of handicraft has grown to include items such as batik, kikoi and kanga clothing, beaded leather sandals and belts, leather wallets, bags and passport holders, wooden utensils decorated with bone or beads, and an assortment of home decoration pieces such as wall hangings, statues, throws and more.
Like the people themselves, the market is nomadic, and moves to different venues around Nairobi each day. On Saturdays, the market is within Nairobi’s central business district, at the spacious parking lot of the Nairobi High Court.
The market is in town again on Kijabe Street on Tuesdays, but those who prefer not to haggle in an open-air market can visit the comfortable curios shops in the Hilton arcade, also at the centre of town, where the prices are clearly labeled, and a discount still possible on large purchases. These are open daily.
The Village Market, a large shopping and recreation shopping mall in Gigiri, on the outskirts of Nairobi, hosts an average of 400 traders every Friday serving a large crowd of mostly expatriates living in neighbouring Runda and working for international agencies such as the United Nations.
The five-star Safari Park hotel, also out of town and away from the hustle and bustle of Nairobi’s business district,hosts the market every Sunday, and is much smaller, catering mainly to guests at the hotel. The market is just as small at the Yaya centre shopping mall in Kilimani area, with its ultra modern boutiques, coffee shops and restaurants.
With continued demand for market days, the Westgate shopping mall in Westlands also hosts traders on the top floor parking lot. The mall managers have stepped up security, requiring vendors to have a formal market stalls and badges with their name and stall number. What’s more, the Maasai Market at the Westgate mall comes complete with entertainment by a group of Maasai dancers in their traditional regalia to welcome shoppers at the mall’s entrance.
Although the Maasai first incorporated beads in their traditional gear after trading with Arabs between the 8th and 13th century AD, the distinct look of the Maasai has even generated a group of “maasai-ists” in Europe and America, enthralled by and wanting to clothe themselves in, or promote the ornaments of these cattle herding peoples of East Africa.