A highlight of all my travels is often coming away with art, fabrics and jewellery that remind me of the destination. Travellers coming to East Africa are spoilt for choice on the vibrant fabrics and art work – and having lived there for 8 years, I could well start my own little Duka (shop in Swahili).
The Ladies are often in their bright coloured fabrics known as “Kitenge” – I love these fabrics and have a large collection. They get used as clothes, sarongs and also to carry their babies. The men are famous and easily recognizable thanks to their traditional robe, the Shuka; it is a bright-colored cloth, predominantly red, (though in some areas its blue or even purple) wrapped around their lean and slender frames; red symbolizes Maasai culture and it is the color believed by these people to be able to scare off lions even from a great distance – I have not tested their theory
Maasai jewelry, created with beads and metal wire, are just as famous: and are worn by both Men and Women. Men wear wrist or ankle bracelets, and sometimes belts and necklaces too, while women feature an explosion of color and jewelry: they wear a selection of bracelets and big flat bead-decorated collars in various patterns and colors, that identify their social status.
However, they have not always dressed this way, in the past their customs were different.
In the past, Maasai clothes were obtained from animal hide, that were dyed using vegetable pigments, while jewelry was made of seeds and stones easily found in the surrounding environment, but when the first colonizers arrived, the Maasai started replacing calf or sheep hide with wool or cotton and the beads replaced by glass beads with brighter appearance thus making it possible for more elaborate decorations to be created.
Up until not too long ago the Maasai used to wear sandals made from bovine hide, but today these materials have left room for old pneumatic tires and plastic strips.
Traditionally the beadwork is made by women and has important cultural significance. The beadwork is used to create accessories like necklaces, bracelets, pendants, anklets, belts, and sandals, as well as home décor and a number of household tools Maasai beadwork is a cultural practice with great importance and symbolism to the community of East Africa and is used in cultural practices such as weddings, rituals, and community events.
There are a number of different colors used in Maasai beadwork, and each one holds a special meaning: red signifies blood, bravery, and unity. White represents health, peace, and purity. Blue is the color of the sky and represents energy, and green is the color of grass, which signifies the land and production. Black represents the people and the struggle they must endure. Yellow symbolizes the sun, fertility, and growth, and orange represents warmth, generosity, and friendship.
Although it is a long held tradition – more recently it is playing a new role as women in the community are repurposing this valued tradition to help bring income to the villages. Many safari operators work alongside woman groups to help provide a platform for their jewellery and decor items.
Markets are open each week – sometimes just for goats, cattle and food items, but more and more the artwork, fabrics and beads are becoming popular especially in the private conservancy areas which have many tourists visiting – this is often where I get stuck and end up having to get more luggage to take my collection home.
What do I do with all these items? Well my family and friends take over a large portion of my purchases (hence having to buy more, and more). The rest – the fabrics I turn into pillows, picnic blankets and table cloths, art for decor and the rest – (I got this tip from a guest) – was to buy small items, which once a year would go on the Christmas tree to remind me of my travels and I love that.