Body Marks: Make-up in Traditional Kenyan Communities

Tharaka-Nithi Cultural FestivalNational Museums of Kenya

African body markings

Africa has a rich culture of body markings, which is an integral part of society, history, and traditions. Body markings were and are both temporary and permanent modifications of the body, which transmit complex messages about identity and social status. They emphasize social, political, and religious roles.

Turkana FestivalNational Museums of Kenya

Wearing your identity card

In some traditional African communities, body markings were like wearing your identity card on your face. In the past, and in certain areas today, it is a mark of pride, and a major aesthetic and cultural component.

Red OchreNational Museums of Kenya


The most common temporary body markings included ochre, charcoal and henna paintings. Ochre was mostly used by the Maa speaking communities to make decorative marks during celebrations or to apply on hair specifically by warriors (morans). Ochre would be mixed with water for body decorations, and animal fat for hair applications.

Samburu Warrior Adorned by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

A warrior in his element

Just like this Samburu warrior, distinctive body marks were used to differentiate someone from everyone else. In every ethnic community, body marks told an individual's gender, rank in society, family and clan, in addition to symbolizing beauty or strength.

Eunoto CeremonyNational Museums of Kenya

Eunoto ceremony

As part of the Eunoto ceremony, morans traditionally applied red ochre to their heads. The color symbolises rebirth, strength and courage.

Kenya EssayLIFE Photo Collection

Muthambi Initiate by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Different preparations for ochre

This is a Muthambi boy prepared for circumcision. His body is decorated with white ochre.

Pottery makingNational Museums of Kenya

Plant-based dyes

The coastal communities, especially the Swahili, traditionally favored the heavy usage of henna – a strong, plant-based dye that leaves black marks on the skin. Henna dye was used to draw temporary tattoos across the feet, palms, and face as a form of decoration, exclusively for women.

Maulidi FestivalNational Museums of Kenya

Maulidi festival

Decorative henna body art is also used today. It is applied during important occasions, including weddings and at the annual Maulidi festival.

Maulidi FestivalNational Museums of Kenya

Kikuyu Bride by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Dressed for a wedding

Body markings to express beauty were worn by girls to mark stages of life such as puberty and marriage. For instance, this Kikuyu bride is ready to assume a new, elevated status in society.

Note her intricate facial make-up, especially the detail around her eyes. These marks were ornamental and made women more attractive to men.

Married Suk Woman by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya


Scarification is the practice of incising the skin with a sharp instrument, such as a knife, glass, stone, or coconut shell, in such a way as to control the shape of the scar tissue on various parts of the body. This Pokot woman has markings under her eyes.

Nandi warrior by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

The appeal behind scars

Permanent marks such as scars were regarded as appealing to touch as well as to look at, but also as testimony that women could withstand the pain of childbirth. Note the raised scars on this warrior's chest.

Forming scar tissue

Some communities used cicatrisation, which is a technique where a gash is made on the skin with a sharp instrument. The skin is then irritated by rubbing caustic plant juices onto the wound to form blisters, which eventually healed to leave such raised scars.

Dark pigments such as ground charcoal were sometimes rubbed onto the wound for emphasis. These cuts, when healed, form raised scars. Beautiful and complex designs depended on the artist’s skills but also on a person’s tolerance to pain.

Old man carvingNational Museums of Kenya

Sculpting scars

Permanent body markings such as scarification are sometimes made on sculptures that can be seen in some museums around the world.

Woman Workload CarvingNational Museums of Kenya

The ritual significance of scars on sculptures

Scarification patterns on sculptures are not only marks of beauty, but marks of one’s lineage as well, and in some cases protection against evil spirits.

Credits: Story

Learn more about the National Museums of Kenya by visiting our website.

Exhibit Curators: Immelda Kithuka, and Mercy Gakii,Cultural Expert, Cultural Heritage Department.

Photography and Creative Direction: Gibson Maina and Muturi Kanini. Gibs Photography

Exhibit Layout: Barnabas Ngei.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Related theme
Utamaduni Wetu: Meet the People of Kenya
From the cradle of mankind to the superheroes of today
View theme
Google apps