Theory Teacher's Blog

Nairobi Diaries 8: the Glocal Maasai Market

 Ooooh, so many pretty colors!!! 

Masai market

I gotta admit, I’m a bit proud of this photograph I took of the Maasai Market in downtown Nairobi. Isn’t it pretty? We went there one morning after visiting the National Museum and the memorial to the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassay, which is also downtown not far from the market. It was a rare moment of classic tourism for our trip, and a couple members of our group were very excited about spending all their money on statuettes, jewelry, and decorated cloth. The Maasai Market’s very reason-for-being is to satisfy the desire of tourists — desire for what, I’m not really sure. For mementos of their time in Kenya? To own some objects with the aura of authenticity? Hmmm… I must admit, this kind of shopping has never been my cup of tea, and quite probably “I just don’t get it”…. Take me to a bookstore or a swank restaurant — now those are things I can get into… and so I spent most of my time in the market taking photos of my colleagues as they tried their best to bargain. I had quite a lot of fun in my own way.

Kenya 306And here are the two things I noticed as I walked from stall after stall after stall of trinkets — (1) the repetition and (2) the insistant claim about every object’s authenticity. I think I saw exactly the same print or statuette about thirty different times in ten different locations, and each time the salesman tried to convince me that this was handmade by a member of his family. Maybe they were, but my intuition told me that in some cases there was probably more than just a little mass-production going on. I’d be interested in an economic and/or cultural study of this market, and it appears that someone else is interested too since a quick google search got me this syllabus here and this scholarly article here. My favorite “authentic” Maasai wrap (or shuka), was the one with Barack Obama’s face on it.  A couple days earlier, at a supermarket, I saw a Maasai woman wearing such an Obama-adorned shuka, so I guess they actually are authentic and not just for tourists.

The Maasai are only 2% of the population of Kenya (in comparison to the Kikuyu who are 22%, the Luhya 14%, the Luo 13%, the Kalenjin 12%, etc.), but they are the Kenyan ethnic group most famous to the outside world, perhaps because of their unusual ear piercings, their fame as warriors, and — as a nomadic culture — their refusal to integrate into the modern world. As professor Leslie Rabine has noted [here] in her book The Global Circulation of African Fashion, what the Maasai are most famous for is simply for having “kept their culture.”  

Except maybe they have integrated into the modern world after all — into what economic historian Immanuel Wallerstein calls the “modern capitalist world system” — by adapting their culture to the rapidly changing Kenyan economy, population growth, and land scarcity. Just as Saudi Arabia’s economy is based on oil, so too the Maasai contribute to the Kenyan GDP by selling their own authenticity, exoticism, and rebel spirit to the world. In other words, paradoxically, they have adapted to the global marketplace by refusing to adapt.

As I have discussed in a previous blog post about Oromo hip hop (as well as in my forthcoming article on globalization theory in the new James Bond movie), such cultural exchange is an example of what some theorists call “glocalization” — a neologism that combines two antithetical concepts, the global and the local. The word was originally coined in the Japanese business community as dochakuka, meaning the adaptation of mass produced, global products to local environments and/or the adaptation of local products to the global market, but it has been picked up by sociologists and literary critics to conceptualize the dialectical nature of globalization. In other words, because the word neatly combines antitheses (local being the opposite of global), it seems useful for exploring the strange, contradictory, and dialectical nature of capitalism. In this case, it would seem to illustrate Fredric Jameson’s argument in this essay here that globalization does not simply intensify sameness (a.k.a. McDonaldization); it also, and at the same time, intensifies difference (i.e., the Maasai Market).

Okay, that’s nice, but so what? Well, the “so what?” is precisely the question that the concept is supposed to focus our attention on. In other words, the point is not to say hooray “glocalization” exists, woot! woot! Because concepts don’t exist. Rather, concepts focus our attention on questions about the relations among things that do exist. So, a number of research questions might follow from my conceptualization of this market experience. How do we understand a culture such as the Maasai as modern or not modern in relation to the capitalist world market? What is the causal chain that led to the Maasai developing in such a way and other ethnic groups developing in different ways? Can we say that the Maasai culture is simply authentic, indigenous, and/or pre-modern when it seems to be so powerfully affected by a postmodern European, American, and Asian consumer culture? Economically speaking, how do we assess the value of any of the objects, and psychologically speaking, why do we want them? Is the global market good for providing a means for the Maasai to survive as a culture in the McDonaldizing world, or does it trap them in a vicious cycle of undevelopment and poverty?


July 25, 2009 - Posted by | global, Kenya

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