A Journey Into The History and Symbolism of Kenyan Ornaments

By National Museums of Kenya

HeadbandNational Museums of Kenya

The origins of ornamentation in Kenya

The origins of ornamentation among Kenyan communities is undocumented but is believed to have begun hundreds of years ago. This has been demonstrated by archaeologists through excavations and recovery of ostrich egg shell beads in certain parts of the country.

Lakiblisma of Turkana.jpgNational Museums of Kenya

The rich colors, shapes and functions of African ornaments

In Africa, body ornaments communicate ethnic background, social status, age and beliefs. Traditional ornaments appear in various forms, such as earrings, bracelets, armlets and belts, among others. They are also made from a variety of materials, ranging from leather, brass, stone, bone, iron, beads, and more.

Ear OrnamentNational Museums of Kenya

Ornaments symbolising social status

The material and design of the ornaments often indicated a person’s social status. In some communities, only leaders or members of special groups wore objects made of precious materials such as ivory or gold.

Married Suk Woman by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Suk woman wearing symbols of wealth

For instance, this Suk woman is wearing ornaments which indicate that she is married. The high number of ornaments she is adorned in is indicative of her husband's wealth.

Do you see her scars and body marks?

The ritual scars below her eyes, her lip plug and hairstyle all serve to enhance her beauty.

See the blackish scar marks below her eyes.

See the lip plug below her lower lip.

Chuka Elderly Woman by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Chuka elder not wearing symbols of fertility

This is an elderly Chuka woman. She is past childbearing age, which is indicated by the lack of cowrie shells on her adornments. Cowrie shells signify fertility in most African communities.

Do you see the symbols of her advanced age?

The ornament on her forehead and her coat, and the very stretched ear lobes indicate that she elderly.

What do you think her dull beads symbolise?

When daughters got married, they would inherit the bright beads from their mother's ornaments, leaving the mother with the dull beads.

Maasai Girl Initiate by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Maasai girl wearing ornaments symbolising the rites of passage

This Maasai girl initiate is wearing elaborate ornaments on her head and arms. The ornaments symbolise that she is past the age of initiation.

What do you think cowrie beads represent?

The cowrie bead headband represents fertility, and is an indicator that she has undergone the rite of passage from childhood to womanhood.

Borana Chief by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Borana man wearing symbols of leadership

This Borana man is wearing a traditional turban with a metallic ornament called Kalacha, symbolizing his leadership status.

What do his face marks symbolise?

Some communities add scarification and body paintings to convey symbolic meaning as well as personal style.

Borana ManNational Museums of Kenya

A Borana man wearing Kalacha

This Borana man sells traditional ornaments and objects. He is wearing a metallic ornament called Kalacha, which was used to symbolise leadership status.

Samia mask by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Samia man wearing ceremonial mask

The Samia man is wearing a traditional mask, which was used at a ceremony marking the afterlife. He wears it to conceal his identity. The mask is made of hide decorated with Erythrina seeds.

What do you think the headdress represents?

The headdress is made of colobus monkey hair, bird skull, porcupine quill and a Solanum fruit. A pig jaw is hung on the neck, alongside ostrich egg shell beads. The elaborate headdress symbolises that he is the leader of the ceremony.

Elegeyo womanNational Museums of Kenya

Beautiful beads and their origin to Africa

According to oral history, beads have a long and rich history since before the coming of the first Arabs, Indians and Europeans. They can be traced to the period before the arrival of Europeans in the late 1800s, when handcrafted jewelry was made from sticks, ostrich egg shells, dik-dik bones, seeds, dried grasses and other natural materials.

NecklaceNational Museums of Kenya

Glass beads in Africa

With the arrival of Europeans and Indians came the trading of supplies for glass beads. Glass-beaded ornaments feature in images of local communities from the mid-nineteenth century.

Top Afri (E) Kenya Types (Masai Only) #3 Of 3LIFE Photo Collection

The price of craftsmanship

The quantity of beadwork was dependent on cash resources, while the quality was dependent on the beading techniques, which were varied, labor-intensive and time-consuming.

The makers of beaded ornaments, who were mostly women, not only made use of imported beads to transform traditional forms, but also possibly borrowed designs from other sources introduced through trade.

Arm Band (1940)National Museums of Kenya

Beads were a currency during colonial times

Beadwork is traditionally an activity for women and was originally not done for commercial purposes. During the colonial period, beads were offered as a form of currency or as a form of discount on traded goods.

Tharaka Girl by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Tharaka girl wearing symbols of wealth

This Tharaka girl wears beaded ornaments, which are an indication of her father's wealth.

Tharaka Married Woman by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Tharaka woman wearing symbols of social status

This Tharaka woman's ornaments indicate she is married to a wealthy husband, and the brass earrings indicate that she has children.

Borana Woman by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Borana woman wearing symbols of wealth

This Borana woman is wearing ceremonial metal jewelry, indicating her wealth. Her necklace, back ornament, rings, armlets and wristlets are all made of different metals with various symbolic meanings.

Credits: Story

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

Exhibit Curators: Immelda Kithuka, Archivist.imuoti@museums.or.ke 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.
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