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Maasai beadwork

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By TzGirl - Posted on 28 September 2008

I wanted to tell you about the beautiful Maasai beadwork which we get here in Tanzania.

The Maasai are a tribe of people found here, who are these days mostly semi nomadic. If you have ever seen photographs of the Maasai, you will know which tribe I am talking about, because they are known for the beautiful red “Shuka’s” or blankets which they wear, the spears which they carry and of course, the beautiful beaded jewellery which adorns the bodies of both the men and women (click on the thumbnails to enlarge the images).

Maasai necklaceMaasai necklace

My Maasai friend Sawe in traditional dressMy Maasai friend Sawe in traditional dress

The Maasai are often referred to as “People of Cattle” as they move from area to area in search of water and grazing for their herds of cattle. Their wealth and status is measured by the number of cattle they have. They have an incredible rapport with their cattle, each one is named and they have special calls and songs for them. (They don’t care much for dogs and cats, but their cattle are prized indeed !)

In certain touristy parts of the country, you will see Maasai posing (and charging !) for photographs but I promise you, this is how they still appear and dress today – even in the very remote areas – it is not always just a ‘show’.

I’ve lived in 3 African countries and I can honestly say that as far as I know, the Maasai are one of the very few remaining African tribes who still uphold most of their old traditions, cultures and way of dressing and have been relatively uninfluenced by Western culture. (Although I do see this slowly changing, especially in the cities and larger towns). My husband and I have worked with, and lived among, many Maasai people in our time here and I am honoured to have learnt some of their traditions and got to know, and understand, these people first hand.

Beadwork is practiced in all of the villages and traditionally this is the job of the women, and is taken quite seriosuly. In times gone by the beads used to be made from local raw materials such as bone, ivory, shells and clay but now most of the beads are made from glass. Even today, most of the beadwork is still threaded or sewn on to leather strips.

Maasai beadwork (which is all done by hand) includes head gear, necklaces, bracelets, rings and belts. Items produced for the tourist market include everything from beaded leather sandals (which are absolutely gorgeous !), jug covers, napkin rings, leather handbags and knife sheaths to mention but a few.

Jewellery plays an important part in the Maasai culture and depending on the person’s age/status in the tribe, different types and colours of beadwork will be worn. Different beadwork is also worn by single or married women and it also plays a big role in celebrations and ceremonies.

My favourite type of Maasai jewellery is the large, collared necklace worn by the women and the photo above is of a necklace I have hanging on my kitchen wall ! (To give you an idea of size, it has the diameter of a large dinner plate.) All the beads are woven onto leather – the back of the necklace is made entirely of rough leather (which smelt a bit at first !)

A friend of mine uses these necklaces as mirror frames above the basins in her bathrooms (the mirror is placed inside the circular part in the middle) and they are also very striking when used on a table instead of placemats for a special dinner party.

I hope that the Maasai culture and traditions continue and are never wiped out completely - but I fear that sadly, as with most things in the world today, the ways of these people will one day be all but a distant memory and we will have nothing left to remember them by, save a few dusty glass beads and bits of leather.

I do hope that I am wrong though.

This post was originally published here on TzGirl's blog.

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