On a lunch break, I decide to meet up with a young entrepreneur dealing with authentic African clothing, with primarily a Kenyan Hub. The meeting is a quick interview and is taking place in my tiny office. I’m eager to get this one on the books. In the time you’d spend buying a Dashiki that says made in China or Taiwan you could support communities that are directly responsible for its creation and the source of African style and fashion and give to communities that desperately are in need of economic growth and stimulation.
After graduating from Benedict College in Columbia SC, Curtis Onyango Heru went on to pursue a Master’s in Teaching Music at Winthrop University with a focus on creating a music curriculum that would benefit students interested in learning about music and instrumentation from the African Diaspora. But when he was required to focus on a curriculum that was comprehensive and Eurocentric he decided to leave the program.
Curtis wanted to focus extensively on African instrumentation, music, and culture. After leaving the program, Boyd just did a simple Google search for African Music – Culture – Masters – Swahili, after being inspired by a popular documentary called ‘Hidden Colors.’ His search for a musicology program in Africa yielded a program at Kenyatta University in Nairobi, Kenya and he applied and was accepted and decided to enroll as an Ethnomusicology student.
Curtis: The biggest shock was learning about tribalism and the different tribes. I had a classmate, Lenini, that was a part of the Massai tribe and he helped me learn about tribal life and ways. What was mind blowing was that my classmate was a part of this tribe/nation known for there strong spirits, unique culture and even killing Lions as a rites of passage, and sat right next to me 3 days a week in class. Everyone has a story of where they’re from but that one took the cake, and to top it off he played the Bass Guitar, Boom! Lenini’s story wasn’t the only one just the first to hit me. He lived in two worlds and I watched him navigate without losing himself or ever questioning why he needed to be a part of both. I went to Kenya for African culture and I got it by the Truck Load. A whole heap of it just poured all over me everyday.
Joseph: How did you end up wanting to sell authentic Eastern African wear?
Curtis: I came back from Kenya with gifts after my first semester and everyone kept asking for something. People were showing me so much love and some even offered to buy the stuff I was wearing and it dawned on me that I could make a business of it. I only brought a few things, but the next time I left for school I packed very little and only took a backpack going and came back with enough merchandise to set up my business Hakuna Matata Unlimited here in Columbia, SC.
Joseph: Hakuna Matata, that’s an interesting name why’d you choose it for the company?
Curtis: It’s a very popular Swahili phrase that roughly translate to NO WORRIES, but it also embodies some of what Kenyan fashion is to me. Before with my western mindset, I had an idea of colors that should match, but when I got to East Africa, I saw beautiful pieces that shattered that fashion ideology of matching. This led me to the reality that in African fashion every color is in harmony with each other, so no fashion worries, Hakuna Matata Unlimited was born. They love all colors and pattern…that’s just ‘dopiness’ to me. Imagine, just being comfortable wearing bright colors in the winter or summer and not caring. Lol. You know you look great because you feel that you are! Unapologetically Fly!
Joseph: How are you giving back to the community in Kenya through Hakuna Matta Unlimited?
Curtis: I know that colonist robbed Africa of our resources, unity and so much more. I began this business with the help of my Kenyan family to help build our African Diasporic Community and Economy by building cross-cultural discussions in the Americas and in Kenya. This business didn’t just start out of a need to make money, because that would be a loss opportunity to help my journey. It started out of a need to connect deeply with my Kenyan and American brothers and sisters. My classmates and friends, Mululu and Manyu who taught me about native life are a part of the business and are our HMU Kenyan Representatives and they work closely with the designers. I know all our designers personally and we do dinners and meetings while I’m in Nairobi. They are my family and intend to end up living in Kenya at some point.
Joseph: Other than the inspiration to start Hakuna Matata Unlimited what else did you find in Kenya?
Curtis: I found freedom in Kenya man. I found places that hadn’t been touched by man and his slavery and sat and took them in… and said who could take you from a place like this? The scenery, the sunset, its extremely beautiful and the people make me rethink how I see the black community.
Joseph: What are your thoughts on the black community?
Curtis: Coming from Kingstree, South Carolina to graduating from a HBCU and learning so much about my people was one experience, but getting to know a new culture by studying abroad is an opportunity I think all African Americans who are genuinely interested in the Diaspora should experience at least once in their lifetime. The fact that I left Kenya knowing so much more about myself mentally, spiritually, physically and historically made me realize that who we are as a people is nothing short of AMAZING and once we see each other as family the world would change. I don’t see a divided community anymore because I have the experience of being loved in a completely different culture as an African American. A ‘Brotha’ once said when a question was asked within a group discussion, “what’s wrong with the black community”? Someone said, “they’re like crabs in a bucket, always pulling each other down.” The ‘Brotha’ answered, “A bucket is not a Crabs Natural Habitat…” and highlighted the fact that ALL creatures behave abnormal when placed in abnormal circumstances.
On that note, the lunch meeting was over and Curtis and I parted with a pound and a hug and he walks away with a quick stride and wide step. I’m still sitting at my desk and thinking how much Curtis has inspired me. He knows this, but I’m not sure how much he realizes he’s influenced my interest in Kenya.