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Kasha Boutique Hotel - Zanzibar, Tanzania

Nestled on the quiet and serene northeast coast of Zanzibar, Kasha really is as idyllic as it sounds. Here, in this oceanfront tropical paradise, visitors are invited to indulge in Swahili style massages, feast on exquisite seafood meals, and spend the night in luxurious private villas with verdant terraces and plunge pools. The décor is charmingly ethnic, but with a modern touch, featuring traditionally inspired baths, dark wood furnishings, and interesting artisan details. The hotel offers a spectacular infinity pool and direct access to a secluded white beach lapped by a turquoise Indian Ocean lagoon.

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Pharrell’s GQ Masai-inspired Cover Sparks Outrage From Masai Community.

The British have a terrible history when it comes to cultural sensitivity. Looking at this world map, one can see that the vastness of the once-British Empire is not a display of greatness, but rather the markings of a former global system of oppression of brutality that has left its mark on our world today. Whilst far from the level of British imperialism, Pharrell Williams’ happy-go-lucky self doesn’t have an outstanding track record when it comes to cultural appropriation either. Perhaps that’s why this pairing featuring British GQ and Pharrell Williams isn’t altogether shocking.

Earlier this year, the singer, rapper, producer and ‘New Black’ spokesperson swapped his Vivienne Westwood mountie hat for a Native American war bonnet as he posed on the cover of Elle UK. How he and the entire Elle UK Magazine crew have managed to miss the countless articles and posts that have been published and circulated widely online against this form of cultural appropriation, I have no clue. But it seems like neither camp was aware, cared or showed any concern about their offensive actions until they were lambasted on social media.

Prior to the shoot, the Elle UK Magazine’s website posted a description of the editorial saying, “We persuaded Elle Style Award winner Pharrell to trade his Vivienne Westwood mountie hat for a Native American feather headdress in his best ever shoot.” Post-criticism, the message was later changed to read, “We persuaded [Pharrell] … to collaborate with us on his best ever shoot.” This weak attempts at a “cover-up”, if you can call it that, shows that Elle didn’t quite got the message. Not only were they fully aware of what Pharrell Williams was wearing from the get-go (they referred to the item by name), they neglected to concern themselves with the significance behind the item. Rather odd as fashion magazines are notorious for publishing well-researched in-depth articles about the designers behind the clothing featured in their magazines - especially on their covers.

Posing in yet another Western fashion-related magazine, this time British GQ, Pharrell’s multi-page spread sees him wearing arbitrary face paint and items of clothing associated with Masai people. Shot by lens duo Hunter & Gatti, the two said about the shoot, “all the inspiration concept of the shoot is related to the Masai tribe paintings. We brought a real Masai tribe just to make the ambient music around the shoot and inspire Pharrell.” If you’re wondering what this ‘tribe’ looked like or what the so-called ‘ambient music’ sounded like, GQ posted a video of the behind-the-scenes action on YouTube. But what’s really frightening in this case isn’t their overuse of the word ‘tribe’, it’s how they refer to the Masai people and culture as nothing more than items and props to be used at their disposal exposing the ways cultural appropriation rids a people of agency. That and how this cover makes Pharrell a repeat offender and serial cultural appropriator.

Whilst there has been outrage from members of both the Masai community and people leaving comments on Kenyan blogs concerning the commercial use of their culture, it is yet to receive the attention it deserves in mainstream media making a formal apology less likely in this case. What’s more, the specific use of Masai culture as a source of ‘inspiration’ speaks to the greater problem of companies that have been profiting from the image of the Masai, an already marginalized group in their home country, for decades.

In a BBC interview, Lemayian Ole kereto, an elder from the Masai community, expresses some key concerns with regards to the case against appropriation. Not only is cultural appropriation an act of suppression done primarily for commercial gain and usually enacted on already oppressed and marginalized groups, the use of “culture without consent” is never complimentary as it disregards the history, traditions and identities of those it depicts and affects the most. Ole kereto further adds that without prior consent from those representing the communities or culture in question, use of any facet of their culture falls directly into the real of cultural appropriation. If no body or agency exists that represents the majority or totality of the people in question, then companies should then refrain from this form of cultural ‘borrowing”. Ownership must be respected at all times.

Often, when discussing the issue of cultural appropriation, the question of whether or not it can be complimentary or not is sure to arise. The answer, quite simply, is no. Cultural appropriation has no benefits to those it affects. Cultural sensitivity and awareness are at the crux of addressing issues pertaining to cultural appropriation. When buying or making use of an item that is said to represent or belongs to a certain community, it is important to inform oneself of who is benefiting from this transaction. There is a possibility that cultural “borrowing” can benefit all parties involved. As Ole kereto says, “partnership attracts responsibility” which in turn creates effective awareness beyond commercial gain and profitability.

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safari photos of cheetahs by (click pic) marc mol and bobby jo clow in tanzania’s serengeti national park and david newton and elmar weiss in kenya’s masai mara. unlike the other big cats, cheetahs don’t have an aggressive nature and are quite docile. 

but sadly, it is estimated that only five to ten thousand cheetahs may still be living in the wild, which is a 90 percent decline in the past 120 years. cheetahs require vast expanses of land for hunting, but now, thanks largely to human encroachment, can only be found in 23 percent of their historic range.

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A troubled past: Slavery in East Africa is a subject that is not talked about often enough.  Typically, conversations about slavery only discuss slaves that were taken to the Americas but slaves were also taken in East Africa throughout what is now Tanzania, Congo, and other modern-day countries in the region as well.  Many slaves were taken from the area around Lake Tanganyika - forced into servitude by Arab slave traders who raided villages or sometimes sold into slavery by kings,  The slaves were then forced to walk from where they were captured to Bagamoyo, on the coast.  This journey would take months and many slaves died along the way.

The slaves were often forced to carry the other valuable commodity of the region with them: ivory (see top picture) and were chained together, 50 or 100 at a time for this long forced-walk to the coast (see bottom picture).  Slavers such as the infamous Tippu Tip - who was supposedly named after the noise his gun made if you were too exhausted to walk - made a fortune off of this trade and up until the colonial period, these Arab slave traders had a big presence in the area.  Not that colonialism was any better though; it’s true slavery was used to justify colonialism but was the system of forced labor where colonial subjects would pay ‘tax’ to the state through forced labor an improvement?  It’s difficult to qualify such matters but I just wanted to put things into context.

As you travel to the West of Tanzania, you can still see the effects of slavery today.  Though the Waswahili people and others who lived on the coast had a positive interaction with Islam, many on the interior very much did not because of slavery.  Thus, as you travel more and more west in Tanzania (and finally into Congo), you see less and less mosques because of this.  So, though this history was over a hundred years ago, it’s certainly not something that can - or should - be forgotten that easily.  

Pictures were taken, top to bottom, at the National Museum of Tanzania in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania and the Holy Ghost Mission in Bagamoyo, Tanzania.

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