Cultural Jewelry: Maasai Peoples of East Africa




Introduction to Maasai Peoples and Their Traditional Jewelry

     Kenya is home to many ethnic groups, each with their unique traditions and culture. Nevertheless, the most iconic tribe of this country has always been the Maasai!  The Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania are famous for their artistic craftsmanship, with intricate handmade beaded jewelry being an indispensable aspect of Maasai culture. Their elaborate colorful beaded ornaments depict age-old symbolism and are closely linked to traditional beliefs.

      Extraordinarily bright artisan jewelry is in fact a part of the Maasai identity; worn by members of all ages and classes. However, what is most intriguing is that every piece is distinct as Maasai bead jewelry does more than just serve the purpose of adornment. If you closely examine different pieces of Maasai jewelry, you will be surprised to see that it contains fine details linked to specific aspects of the tribe’s culture. But, before we attempt to understand the unique symbolism of Maasai jewelry, let us briefly explore the history and origins of this iconic African warrior tribe.


Story of the Maasai peoples

    Historical evidence suggests that ancestors of the Maasai migrated from North Africa to Kenya as early as the 15th century. These fierce warriors made their way to central Tanzania and Northern Kenya, capturing land and cattle along the way. By the turn of the 19th century, the Maasai had occupied the entire Great Rift Valley and assimilated other ethnic groups in the area into their own. They then settled down to practice cattle farming, with cows forming their means of livelihood and most prized possessions.

     We must appreciate how their practices have remained unchanged for centuries, and everything from what they eat and wear and how their society functions is linked to their glorious history. Despite all challenges of a simple and natural lifestyle, the Maasai stay rooted to their traditions, resisting the urge to adopt modern influences. In their patriarchal system, families continue to live closely and care for their livestock together. They follow a semi-nomadic lifestyle, adapting to the needs of their cattle.

     Lion hunting was a traditional practice for the Maasai men, who were required to participate in it as a rite of passage to manhood. However, in recent times the Maasai have come to realize the sensitive issue of the dwindling lion population and have replaced lion hunting with other competitive activities to demonstrate strength and agility.

Maasai Jewelry Facts

While Maasai men herd cattle, protect the village and manage social responsibilities, Maasai women tend to household chores. They also set aside time every day to make beaded jewelry that is an essential part of their cultural identity.

Traditionally, beads were made from natural substances like clay, shells, grass and sticks. The Maasai now use glass and plastic beads to create the same ethnic designs that are intricate and fascinating.

maasai hair pin
Maasai Beaded Hairpins

      A peculiarity of Maasai jewelry is that every piece cleverly reflects important information about the wearer. By observing the patterns on the jewelry, an onlooker can thus assess the wearer’s history, wealth and social standing. Unmarried women, for instance, wear flat discs around their necks signifying their single status. Meanwhile married women wear long necklaces with blue beads. Women also wear decorative Maasai collar necklaces while dancing, with details on it representing things they like. Men wear beaded bands around their necks, wrists, ankles and waists.

    Brides on their wedding day wear elaborate and very long necklaces that document their identity in a remarkable way. These Maasai wedding necklaces are created by the bride’s family to represent different aspects of the community they belong to. There are beads that indicate the number of animals received as wedding gifts and the more colors the necklace has, the higher status the family enjoys. Another important aspect about Maasai jewelry is that each color in it has special significance. Let us look at this in closer detail.

Significance of Maasai beaded jewelry colors

      Red beads represent bravery, strength and unity while white beads stand for purity and peace. Blue is associated with energy and the sky that blesses the Maasai with rain for their survival. Green symbolizes health. Yellow and orange represent warmth and friendship while black beads reflect challenges and struggles in life. You can now see why their jewelry is as exquisite and unique as the Maasai themselves. So, the next time you decide to shop for fine Maasai bead jewelry, remember the symbolism behind each color and choose jewelry that best reflects your personality.


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