The Maasai tribe, located in the Central and Southern part of Kenya and Northern part of Tanzania, is well known for its traditional handmade bead jewelry. Beadwork has been an important part of Maasai culture for many years. Maasai women set aside time every day to meet and work on beaded jewelry which includes colorful necklaces, bracelets, and pendants. It is considered the duty of every Maasai women to learn the jewelry making craft. All the tribes beadwork is made by the women but is worn by both women and men.
Beadwork can tell you several things about the wearer. Specific ornaments and colors indicate whether the person is Maasai or from another ethnic group. Different Maasai clans also use certain beads and color combinations to indicate their affiliation. Finally, a person’s beadwork reflects his or her position in life. Generally individuals of high social standing will wear more colorful and intricate jewelry. Within those cultural rules, beadwork fashion changes all the time. Each new generation develops a particular style, including certain materials, color placements and symbols that unite and identify them.
Beads also serve as an important source of income for the Maasai. Tourists visiting the Maasai regions in Kenya and northern Tanzania will find many beautiful pieces for sale that make great gifts for women and for men. Some items have such symbolic significance that they cannot easily be sold. Consequently, some are adapted to tourists’/foreigner’s preferences. For instance Maasai women may use colors and designs they would not normally use in their own beadwork, because tourists/foreigners like them– these are the items typically sold on Ricafrica.
Below is a list of the main colors used in Maasai beadwork and the meanings associated with each.
- Red – stands for bravery, unity, and blood. Red is the color of cows blood. Often a cow is slaughtered when the Maasai meet and therefore unity is associated with red.
- White – represents peace, purity, and health. The association with health comes from white cows milk which the tribe drinks to stay healthy.
- Blue – represents energy and the sky. Rain falls from the blue sky which provides water for the cattle.
- Orange – Symbolizes hospitality. The association with cattle is that visitors are served cows milk from orange gourds.
- Yellow – like orange yellow also symbolizes hospitality. The animal skins on visitors beds are yellow.
- Green – symbolizes health and land. Cattle graze on the green grass of the land.