The Maasai Want Royalties for Use of Their Name
Sometimes, to get your point across to the Maasai people of Kenya and Tanzania, you have to talk in cows. Lawrence ole Mbelati, a tribesman, stands in front of a group of about 70 Maasai leaders and elders from a district in northern Tanzania, holding a picture of a red-and-brown fountain pen. Introduced in 2003 by Italian pen maker Delta, it was part of the company’s “Indigenous People” luxury line. Called Maasai, it retailed for upwards of $600. “That’s like three or four good cows,” ole Mbelati, 35, tells the group.
Ole Mbelati, who works for a Kenyan nongovernmental organization, has driven down from Nairobi. He’s speaking in Maa, the Maasai language, but wears jeans and a polo shirt. Most of the elders have come in the clothes they wear every day: bright red shukas, wrapped around them like togas. Some have sneakers on, but many wear homemade sandals crafted from tire treads. The women, as well as some men, wear intricately beaded earrings, necklaces, and armbands. They sit in a concrete building usually used for classes in veterinary medicine. Many have placed black wooden rods, the mark of a chief, on the table. A few hold up mobile phones, recording ole Mbelati as he explains the ways in which others are profiting at the tribe’s expense. “Whose name is being used?” he asks. “It’s the Maasai name. Who is becoming strong economically? The people who are using the Maasai name.”
The Delta Maasai pen is just one of the products on display in ole Mbelati’s outreach session, an effort to organize one of Africa’s most famous tribes to lay claim to the commercial use of their name and image. Maasai leaders have come by public transportation, in Land Rovers, on motorcycles, and on foot to a small compound of roughly painted buildings to listen to a two-day presentation on intellectual property. According to Ron Layton, a New Zealander who specializes in advising developing world organizations on copyrights, patents, and trademarks, about 10,000 companies around the world use the Maasai name, selling everything from auto parts to hats to legal services.
Unlike most African tribes, the Maasai, whose population Layton estimates at about 3 million, have held on to their traditions, living in small mud-and-stick homesteads clustered around oval-shaped pens for their cows and goats. The tribe is an important element of the East African tourism industry. Their recognizable red attire makes them as much an attraction as the lions, giraffes, and rhinoceroses.
And yet, as a people, they have benefited little from the visitors. They see their images on billboards and their beadwork in gift shops, but they are underrepresented in the industry’s craft markets and other trades. They see tourists take their pictures and imagine them sold for riches abroad. Tribal elder Isaac ole Tialolo, 52, grew up near the border of Kenya and Tanzania. Long a campaigner for Maasai rights, most recently for water access for their cattle, he once broke the camera of a tourist who took pictures of him without permission. On a visit to Mombasa, Kenya’s second-largest city, he got into an argument with a Chinese restaurant owner who’d used statues of Maasai men and women to indicate the toilets. “I was really angry,” he says. “I did not even eat.” When a friend told him of Layton’s interest, he was quick to get in touch. “We knew there were a lot of misuses of our culture,” ole Tialolo says. “We didn’t know what to do about it.”
Layton, 62, first became interested in intellectual property in the late 1970s, while seconded from New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs to serve as chief economist in the tiny island nation of Niue. The country, with a population of fewer than 2,000, was a passion fruit producer, supplying ice cream manufacturers in New Zealand and Australia, but its industry was being disrupted by Hawaiian exports. Niue would soon find itself bested on price, quantity, and reliability. “There was only one boat, and it showed up when it wanted to,” Layton says. “At that point, I realized there were parts of the world that could never be competitive in a commodities market.”