The Cycles of Life in Kenya

NatureNational Museums of Kenya

4 stages of the circle of life

Life amongst Kenyan communities is filtered through different stages; birth, through youth to old age, death and transition into ancestry. Nairobi National Museum holds objects telling stories of many of Kenya's communities and their cultural practices.

Explore a glimpse of these through four stages: childhood, youth, adulthood and burial.

Carvings of a womanNational Museums of Kenya

1: Childhood – the beginning of life

The birth of a child is widely viewed as a means through which the family, clan or ethnic line is continued. Traditionally, elaborate rituals such as name-giving ceremonies provided each child with a specific identity within the community. Childhood was perceived as a fragile stage and many children would wear charms for protection.

Social status objectNational Museums of Kenya

Sakha – a son is born

Traditionally, a mother who gave birth to a son would be given a Sakha to wear as a status symbol. The Sakha was used by the Borana community.

Baby carrierNational Museums of Kenya

Extraordinary beginnings and names

In many Kenyan communities, names have meanings referring to the season, occasion of the birth, or the reincarnation of a dead relative.

DressNational Museums of Kenya

Can you guess what the name means?

The girl's name 'Makena' means 'a person who brings happiness' and was commonly used by many communities including the Meru and Kikuyu. The boy's name 'Nyongesa' means 'born on a Saturday' and was commonly used by the Luhya community.

Child CarriersNational Museums of Kenya

Sheepskin anapet: carrying the child

Traditionally the Turkana community would carry their children in an anapet, which was tied around the the waist and above the breasts.

Provoking crisis by Allan GithukaNational Museums of Kenya

Passing the book: great stories connect generations

In the past, children acquired knowledge through proverbs, riddles, illustrations and stories, which were often told by their grandparents. Today, much knowledge is gained through a formal system of education.

Hyphaene dollNational Museums of Kenya

Can you solve the riddle?

"Your father has a long unfoldable rope."

Answer: "It's a pathway."

Turkana womenNational Museums of Kenya

2: Youth – changes mark new beginnings

Childhood is followed by the vibrancy of youth. Traditionally the biological changes marked the beginning of new cultural status and roles for the communities. Various rituals and initiation ceremonies marked the graduation to this stage of life. After initiation, boys and girls were assigned corresponding responsibilities. In some communities boys would take care of herds and girls would help with home chores.

Ndorobo Boy Initiate by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

The importance of initiation

Among many African communities, initiation was a rite of passage marking an entrance or acceptance into a group or society. In the customary settings, circumcision, bodily scarification, tattoos, removal of teeth, piercing of earlobes, and lip plugs were some of the varied initiation practices that were exercised.

The significance of these ceremonies was to test the courage of community members, and to help them understand the central activities of their life. Circumcision was an important rite, as it was a way of initiating an individual to adulthood. In Kenya today, female circumcision is illegal, and other forms of marking this rite of passage are encouraged.

Maasai MoransNational Museums of Kenya

Eunoto ceremony: from boy to warrior

Traditionally the Maasai community marked the rite of passage with the Eunoto ceremony, held every 10-15th year. Upon circumcision, boys would become young warriors, popularly known as Morans (Ilmurran).

Tiriki Circumciser by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

A beautiful headdress and cloak: Tiriki circumciser

An illustration showing an elderly circumciser wearing a traditional costume, symbolising his importance in the community and for the initiation ceremony.

Kuria Initiate by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

The meaning behind the skirt: Kuria community

An illustration of a boy wearing an elaborate skirt, indicating that he had recently undergone circumcision and was in a state of seclusion.

Imenti Woman Initiate by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Becoming a women: Imenti community

An illustration of a girl wearing a seclusion costume, indicating that she has been initiated into womanhood.

Post Circumcision Ornament (1950)National Museums of Kenya

Maria ya Maghu: ready for marriage

Maria ya Maghu consists of a headband, armband and a leg band. They were worn by girls from the Taveta community after circumcision, and indicate that they were deemed ready for marriage.

MaskNational Museums of Kenya

Initiation mask

This is an Ingolole mask worn by initiates from the Tiriki community after circumcision. Masks were a central part in covering the identity of the initiates, as some women and strangers were not permitted to see them.

Bless first born, long live my child by J. KahuriNational Museums of Kenya

3: Adulthood – starting a family

In many communities, adulthood was marked by marriage and the establishment of a family. As an adult, one was expected to carry out basic responsibilities, including bearing children, livelihood pursuits, protecting the community, and being involved in political matters.

Bushman hunting by E. M. KuriaNational Museums of Kenya

Economic pursuits

Dating back centuries, the stories and traditions of the peoples of Kenya are some of the most fascinating in the world. Today, 44 communities are officially recognized by the government. Traditionally their livelihoods depended on hunting, farming, fishing and trading.

Borana WomenNational Museums of Kenya

Wearing culture

In many communities, beauty was very important, and the choice of ornaments and costumes indicated the person's status.

CloakNational Museums of Kenya


This Maasai cloak was worn by an elder to indicate his status in the community. In many Kenyan communities leadership positions were appointed based on a person's display of courage, wisdom, responsible parenthood, and the ability to lead.

Stick FightingNational Museums of Kenya


Recreational activities are things people do for fun and enjoyment. This photograph shows two men engaging in a stick fighting game.

Tharaka-Nithi Cultural FestivalNational Museums of Kenya

A musical journey through Kenya

Music has for centuries played an important role for many communities, each with their own unique sound. Music was also played during ceremonies including weddings, dowry deliberations, initiation ceremonies, and for entertainment.

Medicineman's outfitNational Museums of Kenya

Invocation: solving challenges through magic

Invocation is an act of calling upon a deity or spirit for protection and inspiration. A medicine man's bag would include herbs, gourds, containers and horns.

Witch Womans EquipmentNational Museums of Kenya

What's in the bag?

Depicted here is a witch woman's bag, decorated with beads and cowhide. The witch woman would wear it across the chest and carry her remedies inside.

Kamba (1995) by Leonard KateeteNational Museums of Kenya

4: Burial – the end of life

Traditionally the death of any member of a community was viewed as both disruptive and mysterious. The departed members of the community were transformed into ancestral spirits, which were believed to act as intermediaries between the living and supernatural world.

Luo Funeral Mask by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

A Luo funeral mask

The Luo community would wear masks and elaborate costumes during funerals. The mask depicted here is made of hide, cow's teeth, cowrie shells and cow horns.

Board of spiritualNational Museums of Kenya

A board to commemorate the departed

Some members of the Mijikenda community would create wooden boards to commemorate the departed.

Care by Divya C. HaniaNational Museums of Kenya

A new cycle begins

In many Kenyan communities, the renaming of a newborn baby after departed family members was viewed as their re-birth, and a new cycle of life begins again.

Credits: Story

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