A colleague in the heritage sector was walking in Mombasa’s Old Town and happened upon a Swahili kofia that he thought he liked. He stopped to inquire about the price knowing very well he would not buy it, since this handmade and often silk-threaded kofias tend to be pricey. But he is in for a monumental surprise, as the kofia goes for a song.
How can specialised headwear that is supposed to be painstakingly hand-woven, with designs that have meaning cost so little? Under normal circumstances the price of an authentic kofia would set one back by not less than $100 or about Sh10,000.
But the kofia at hand was not an authentic design crafted using traditional needlework. It was a Chinese, machine-made version, imported in bulk into Kenya. It therefore costs only about $10. It is almost disposable, as it has a short shelf life, is not well thought out like those of traditional craftspeople and has been made for commercial use rather than religious and cultural attachment.
The Chinese have entered, well more like invaded, the Kenyan indigenous cottage industries with their version of cheap merchandise that threatens to vanquish all else from local markets. Whereas some may argue that they introduce an element of affordability of goods, in some instances, too much stands to be replaced by cheap imported goods.
The authentic Swahili kofia is made of elaborate intricate designs created to commemorate world events and other events that have meaning to the user communities within and outside the Islamic calendar. There is a design referred to as malkia, for example, that commemorates the coronation of Queen Elizabeth.
The cultural meaning of the kofia is similar to that of the kanga. Users of the item are more than just dressing up — they may also be passing a message to a target audience that only people within that cultural context can understand. Kangas, for example, are used to pass messages between in-laws, neighbours and friends. In the Swahili context, a husband will read the message on his wife’s kanga on getting home. He then acts on the message.
It is not clear what message the motifs the Chinese have chosen will be and who they will target. The kanga industry has not been spared either, as there are cheap kangas manufactured in China that cost about Sh180 as opposed to the regular East African cotton variety that costs upward of Sh450. Again the messages from China cannot have the cultural applications, or might the Chinese surprise us?
A couple of years ago there was a hue and cry that both the kiondo and the kikoy had been patented in Japan and Britain, respectively, and that they were no longer Kenyan for the kiondo and East Africa for the kikoy brands. KIPPRA later clarified that in the world of intellectual property the kiondo enjoyed express intellectual protection in the public domain as it falls under indigenous knowledge. Such knowledge is owned by the source community and was developed as a response to a cultural need. Under intellectual property rights law, such items cannot be patented, either in Kenya or elsewhere.
This, however, does not satisfy or placate the concerns about a cultural heist by the Chinese in regard to the kofia, the kanga or any other item made locally especially by indigenous cottage industries. These industries need some form of protection from the government as they remain the livelihood of communities at the local level and their authenticity and the aesthetics that they represent cannot be overemphasised.
INNOVATION IS FINE BUT...
The same case applies to henna, a naturally occurring plant that has been used for body décor and beauty in the traditionally Islamic societies of eastern Africa and elsewhere. Varieties of chemical henna are available and in use in the market. They are easier to apply and make more concise patterns that do not bleed into the skin beyond the lines of pattern. They are also easier to dry and come pre-packed in a variety of colours. But it is not quite clear what chemicals have been used to make them so user-friendly and less time-consuming. Might they have adverse effects on the skin and health of the users?
Traditional application of henna, though beautiful to the eye, is a painstaking process that sometimes requires overnight drying of the patterns and rigorous experiments with food colour, coffee and other species such as turmeric to get the desired colour. The traditional variety of henna is purely plant-based and is not known to be harmful to health in any way.
Change is inevitable and our cultures, being dynamic, must change and accommodate new innovations and techniques that make life easier. But that does not mean killing indigenous industries or putting the life of users at risk.