The beadwork of the Maasai tribe is vibrant and elaborate, carrying with it deep family traditions and representing far more than beautiful jewellery.
The Maasai tribe of Kenya is known for its stunning beadwork, characterised by its intricate patterns and ornate nature. The bright and bold designs are not just jewellery; they are wrought with symbols, as the colours and patterns carry meaning for the wearer. According to Masatomo Yonezu in the Smithsonian, beading is a part of everyday life for the women of the Maasai tribe and is taught at a young age, with the technique and design containing a deep history and value to its people.
THE HISTORY BEHIND the BEADWORK
Although Kenyan beadwork has existed for some time, it wasn’t until the 19th Century that it was introduced to the rest of the world. One of the earliest forms of beads was introduced into Africa by traders from the Middle East in 200-300 AD. The idea of glass beads was later introduced by European colonisers in the 19th Century. However, before these global influences, the Maasai tribe crafted jewellery with elements from the earth such as brass, clay, and wood. Different colours were also achieved by using natural resources, for instance, iron, charcoal, and clay were used to make blue and black beads. Likewise, bone and shells were used to make white beads.
THE CONNECTION to COMMUNITY
For the Maasai tribe, beadwork isn’t just a type of jewellery or a skill that is practiced out of leisure, it is a way of life. The skills required are passed down from mother to daughter, thus ensuring that each family continues the historic practice. Moreover, the creation of jewellery is considered to be a social activity, rather than something to be done alone, meaning it brings together large groups of women at the same time.
THE CONNECTION to CULTURE
This style of beadwork is inspired by more than what is pleasing to the eye. Each color and pattern contain a deeper meaning that speaks for its wearer. Many of the symbols behind the beads are connected to cattle as this is an important source of food for the Maasai tribe. The beadwork can also reveal one’s age, social class, and marital status based on the color or design of the beads, for example, a long blue necklace worn by a woman would imply that she was married. There are seven specific colors that symbolize elements of life, including nature, health, unity, struggle. Below are the colors and the meanings behind beadwork of these colors. For more information on the beadwork’s connection to the Maasai’s culture, Gladys Macharia’s article in Ubuntu Life Blog goes into intricate detail of each beads’ color and meaning.
Blue – This symbolizes sky and rain, something that provides cattle with water to drink.
Red – This symbolizes the blood from cattle as well as loyalty and bravery.
Orange – Many times those who visited were given milk from orange gourds, making orange a symbol of hospitality.
Green – The cattle eat the green grass, making green a symbol of health.
Black – This color symbolizes struggle.
Yellow – Similar to orange, yellow also symbolizes hospitality as the bed coverings for visitors were of a yellowish color.
White – The Maasai tribe would drink milk to stay healthy, making the color white a symbol of peace and purity.
To the Maasai tribe, beadwork is a form of art that brings the community together, a tradition that is carried through many generations, and holds meaning and symbolism to their people. Through its rich history and vast symbolism, the Kenyan beadwork is a small portion of their fashion, but its meaning speaks volumes. We must be careful to treat the traditions of the Maasai with respect, as their culture is too often infringed upon by over-eager tourists.