For consumers in the Western world, buying unique jewelry or clothing with distinctly foreign influences may seem a natural part of the quest for personal style. For many communities in developing countries, however, these items or designs are a part of cultural heritage. A recent BBC spotlight on one such culture — the Maasai in Kenya and Tanzania — explores why some forward thinkers in Africa are partnering with intellectual property groups to protect their heritage.
Tourist practices have long been questioned as exploitation, such as taking photographs of natives without permission or in return for money, or disrupting natives’ daily lives by gawking. For the Maasai, these tourist practices also violate deeply ingrained cultural superstitions. In an interview with BBC, Maasai leader Isaac ole Tialolo shared that twenty years ago a tourist took a photo of him without permission. “We believed that if somebody takes your photograph, he has already taken your blood,” Isaac explained. Angered, Isaac destroyed the tourist’s camera.
More than exploitative tourist practices, what concerns Isaac is “use and abuse” of the Maasai culture. 80 companies worldwide use the name or the image of the Maasai, whether for Land Rover accessories, athletic and orthopedic shoes, or Louis Vuitton’s Masai line.
The fight against exploitation of cultural trademarks is not a new one. For example, in the mid-1970’s the Navajo Nation unsuccessfully tried to copyright the word “Navajo” to restrict who could apply the term to products; this resistance against outside use has continued, notably in a 2011 lawsuit the Navajo Nation brought against the clothing chain Urban Outfitters for using the term “Navajo.”
In some respects, the quality and representation of the items carrying cultural brands is a concern. “Tacky is a good word,” Navajo Times contributor Bill Donovan said of the Urban Outfitter items in an interview with NPR. “The Navajo Nation has been very sensitive about people using their name to promote tacky products.” For the Maasai name to be attached to orthopedic trainers or beach towels — items that do not even represent their namesake — is similar abuse.
Today, many Maasai leaders are attempting to stand for their cultural heritage. But Isaac ole Tialolo understands the entire Maasai nation must agree to this. He hopes they will be successful in uniting the Maasai for intellectual property rights. The NGO Light Years IP works alongside Maasai leaders — as it has in a number of developing countries — to educate the Maasai in what they are aiming to do.
The Maasai have a strong sense of ownership of their culture, says Isaac. As the Maasai become educated and the rest of the world becomes informed on the matter, branding consultant Bruce Webster says “they’ll win the PR battle absolutely.”
– Naomi Doraisamy