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What is Maasai bead jewellery?

Updated July 19, 2017

The Maasai tribe, located in Kenya and Tanzania, is known for its exquisitely hand-crafted beaded jewellery. The intricate designs are created for their beauty, which is very important to the Maasai. Women set aside time in their daily schedules, congregating to a common meeting place to work on their creations. Although the women adorn themselves in jewellery that has significant meaning within the tribe, they also sell much of it to benefit their community.

History

The Maasai tribe resides in Africa, mainly in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. The tribe comprises approximately half a million people, and apart from beaded jewellery, their livelihood depends on herding cattle. Making beaded jewellery has been a part of their culture for many years, and learning how to create the jewellery is one of the duties of a Maasai woman. Beginning in 1900, the Maasai traded goods with Europeans for beads, which created a new-found interest in the Maasai's traditional jewellery that extended beyond the tribe.

Significance

The beaded jewellery of the Maasai carries much significance for the tribe. Intricate and colourful designs demonstrate social standing, creativity, beauty and prosperity. Items of jewellery are often given to newly married couples as a gift. Tribe members may also wear the jewellery during ceremonies, or as a good luck wish for a successful hunt.

Meaning of Bead Colors

Maasai beaded jewellery features very intricate and colourful designs. However, colours are not utilised just for visual effect. Each bead colour used has a specific meaning. Red means bravery, danger, strength, unity. Blue represents sky, which provides water for cattle. Green represents grass, which is food for cattle. Orange means hospitality; white means purity, like milk from cattle; and black is the colour of the people and of hardships.

Types of Jewellery

The Maasai tribe handicrafts items of jewellery that are worn by members of the tribe for many occasions. Their creations include necklaces, bracelets, earrings, anklets, armlets and headbands. The Maasai also design beautiful beaded collars and stitch beads on clothing. Usually, tribe members with higher social standing wear the most intricate, elaborate and colourful jewellery.

Community Benefits

The Maasai tribe sells their beaded jewellery through various outlets, and the money earned goes directly back to the community. In particular, the funds benefit schools so that the Maasai children can be properly educated. The Esiteti School in Kenya is one such school that is growing, thanks in part to the Maasai's beaded jewellery.

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About the Author

Based in Chicago, Christina Berry has been writing since 2000. Her work has been published in "The Lighter," Valparaiso University's art and literary magazine. Berry holds a bachelor's degree in English/creative writing from Valparaiso University.