The Maasai people of the east African countries of Kenya and Tanzania are known to the world as warriors and cattle herders. Their busy lives are filled with daily chores, which are done by hand. Just imagine how difficult it is to live without electricity and running water; think how time-consuming doing chores must be. However, Maasai women still find time to practice their beadwork every day. Jewelry must be made. Maasai jewelry is heavy with symbolism. Events are marked by its display. A man or woman’s age, financial status, marital status, or number of offspring can be gauged by the amount of jewelry he or she wears. And, while jewelry is worn by men and women, it is made by women.
I find Maasai beadwork to be incredibly attractive, on a deep level. While I hang it on my walls, I don’t in any way consider it to be mere décor. I realize the significance to the Maasai, of their crafts. I pay homage to their beliefs and their skills by displaying their work in my home for all to see. I’m happy to share some of my favorite Maasai creations here.
There are two main types of neckwear worn by women of the Maasai: necklaces and wedding collars. Unmarried women wear necklaces, oftentimes in multiples, which completely encircle their necks. These necklaces are large flat discs made of rows of beads threaded onto wire, secured and spaced with cowhide strips. (Unlike wedding collars, they do not feature a square protrusion on their front, from which strands of beads hang. Wedding collars are worn by a woman only on her wedding day.)
The unmarried women stack many necklaces, and dance while wearing them. Their dance movements cause the necklaces to fly up and down, a display which highlights the gracefulness of the wearer. Women dance for many reasons. One dance, the Olamal, is done to solicit the blessings of tribal leaders.
I have read that the mother of a bride makes a wedding collar, known as an Inkarewa, which her daughter wears during her wedding. Large, flat, leather circles are covered in brightly colored beads strung in geometric shapes. The Inkarewa features beaded strands hung from its front, from a square portion which protrudes from the front of the disk. The beads hang down to the bride’s knees. The strands often have cowry shells attached to their ends. Cowry shells represent peace. The beaded strands themselves represent the dowry which will be given for the bride; that is to say, the number of cattle. According to Mark Cherrington, who writes for the website, http://www.culturalsurvival.org, every portion of the bride’s wedding collar represents an aspect of a bride’s community. Please visit the site to glean more detailed information from Mr. Cherrington’s writing. I am a collector, not an expert. My aim is to give you an introduction to the Maasai’s beautiful work, and to encourage you to do more reading.
A bride will only wear the wedding collar on her wedding day; but then, as a married woman, she will wear the simpler necklaces daily, especially while dancing.
In Maasai jewelry making, colors have meaning. The most common colors used are red, blue and green. According the website http://www.objectlessons.org, red is said to be the color of the Maasai. Blue beads are regarded as godly, directly reflecting the color of the sky, while green is the color of God’s greatest blessing, fresh grass after rainfall. For much more information re this, please see their website.
Before trade beads became widely available, beads used in Maasai jewelry were made from seeds, skin, metal, and bone. It is easy to tell if a piece is newer, because glass beads will have been used. My beads could date from the 1950’s. I’ve had some for nearly 30 years, some for less than 5. I would think the older pieces are more likely to have been actually used in a ceremony or dance. Newer pieces are made for sale to collectors like me, who wish to decorate our homes with the beautiful Maasai work.
There are many varieties of beadwork in addition to the necklaces and collars discussed above, including pendants, bracelets, wrist cuffs and earrings. (Note that the pendant at the top of the page incorporates buttons in its design.)
Collectors may also find beautiful milk/blood gourds, decorated with geometric patterns and cowry shells, which are sown onto strips of skin, and then attached to the gourd. I have had mine for over 25 years. I found no evidence of my gourd being used to actually hold blood or milk! It was probably made for art’s sake. And that is how I enjoy it.
While jewelry is often given to visitors as a sign of respect, as mentioned above, it is also created for sale. Recently, proceeds from sales are helping to fund Maasai girls’ education. It is noted that girls who are more educated tend to marry later, and are less likely to undergo female circumcision. Collectives and organizations have been established, which help facilitate the production and sales of the Maasai women’s fantastic work. One such organization is known as Beads of Esiteti. Their website is http://www.beadsofesiteti.com.
Please note: I’ve found conflicting information stating that Maasai brides make their own Inkarewa, and that the quality of the work reflects upon the young artisan. So it is very important that she beads with skill. (I’ve been researching native arts and crafts for years, and find it customary to meet with contradictory information. Sadly, I have not, and do not expect to go to the Maasai land, to discover the complete picture for myself. Perhaps you will!)
Websites for additional reading: