The colorful Maasai are well known in Kenya, however, some are also settled in Tanzania and are believed to be over 3,000 years old. The Maasai are considered to be one of East Africa’s most internationally well-known tourist attractions. Most of them practice nomadic pastoralism while others are working in the tourism sector, displaying their culture to tourists.
Now occupying a much smaller area in the Kajiado and Narok districts since their vast territory has been taken over by some of Kenya’s game reserves, the Maasai are one of the most popular and unique ethnic groups in Africa due to their long preserved culture.
The most prominent cultural marker, aside from their way of dressing, is their rich traditional handmade bead jewelry. This beadwork remains a major part of their existence and culture for many years. It is documented that the Maasai women set time aside off work to craft beautiful necklaces, bracelets, and pendants worn during rituals, weddings, and other community events.
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It is considered a necessity for every Maasai woman to learn to make Maasai jewelry for both males and females and the beadwork is mostly done at night where the women gather around to create their masterpieces.
Maasai beads were initially made from materials like bone, copper, brass, clay, seeds and wood before Europeans introduced synthetic materials like glass. The method for stringing the beads has however remained the same
These beads demonstrate the social status and age of individuals and families. Those high up the social ladder wear more colorful and intricate beads. Different kinds also tell the marital status of women.
Usually, unmarried Maasai girls wear a large flat beaded disc that surrounds the neck while married Maasai women display their status by wearing Nborro, which is a long necklace with blue beads. This work of art tells other men that they are taken and cannot be approached and the bride only wears her beadwork on the wedding day.
The collar of beads has in-depth meaning as well. It is believed to represent the map of the village as the layout of Maasai villages is round with a fence around its perimeter. This is depicted by alternating dark and light beads at the edge of the beadwork. The settlements in the circle take each geometric shape on the collar. The middle ground where their livestock are kept at night is depicted by the hole in the collar.
“When you are wearing this, you are carrying the whole village on your body,” said John Sakuda, a member of SIMOO, a Maasai NGO that partners with Cultural Survival.
The colors for all Maasai beadwork are chosen for their cultural meanings symbolic to the people. The meanings often have links to cattle which is their source of wealth and main source of food.
There are seven dominant colors used in all Maasai beadwork. The red beads mean bravery as red is the color of a cow’s blood. Also, it means unity because the Maasai assemble when a cow is being slaughtered, hence unity is associated with red.
The white ones mean health, peace, and purity because the milk from cows that sustain the ethnic group and gives them good health is white. The milk, consumed directly from the cows, is considered pure. The orange and yellow beads both represent hospitality. The former because visitors are served with cow milk from orange gourds and the latter is due to the fact that the animal skins on the bedding of visitors are usually yellow. The yellow beads also symbolize the sun, fertility, and growth.
The blue beads stand for the sky and energy. The Maasai believe their gods reside in the skies as well. Also, because the rains fall from the blue skies, it provides a source of drinking water for the cows to drink and stay healthy. The green ones meanwhile depict health, land, and production because the cattle graze on the green grass of the land.
The black stands for the people and the struggles they must endure in life.