6 Facts About Kenyan Beadwork

By National Museums of Kenya

Borana WomanNational Museums of Kenya

1: Beadwork tell the stories of Kenya’s communities


Most Kenyan communites are renowned for their bead ornaments. Nearly every community in Kenya wore some kind of beadwork, although the patterns, colours and the types of the beads depended on specific socio-cultural contexts.

NecklaceNational Museums of Kenya

2: Some of the most common beads in Kenya are made of glass


They were imported from Europe in the 19th century. Long distance traders, like the Kamba, acquired the beads from the coastal regions of East Africa and traded them with communities in the interior of the country.

NecklaceNational Museums of Kenya

Before the coming of glass beads, people used local materials such as ostrich egg-shells, sea shells, cowry shells, seeds, wooden or stone materials, bones and ivory, animal hooves, leather and skins, baked clay and precious metals, such as gold and silver.

Kikuyu Bride by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

3: They are made by all communities across Kenya


Beadwork was predominantly a female activity in Kenya and most parts of eastern Africa.

Bracelet (1955)National Museums of Kenya

4: Bead ornaments had various functions, with the most common being the aesthetic or ‘beauty’ value


Communities all over Kenya made their bead patterns based on their specific cultural notions of what they perceived as beautiful or ugly, acceptable or unacceptable, good or bad.

Maasai Woman by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

The Maa were guided by the principle of kemakua (acceptable) and kenare (unacceptable) when deciding how beads should be arranged to make a given, culturally defined pattern.

NecklaceNational Museums of Kenya

5: Different communities wear beads in their own way


Not all beadwork was worn around the neck; others were worn as bracelets, on the head as adornments, on the waist or legs. Beadwork, in other cases, also incorporated charms for personal protection. Beads were also used to decorate various clothing and utilitarian items.

NecklaceNational Museums of Kenya

6: Modern Kenyan ornaments are bought by tourists


In modern times, bead ornaments are part of the vibrant tourist trade.

Elegeyo womanNational Museums of Kenya

The modern beadwork is devoid of the cultural meanings that they had in their original cultural contexts. These beaded items are now commodities that are sold mostly for their aesthetics.

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