Jewelry and Dress

Throughout Africa, natural materials that once were the primary elements of jewelry and dress—shells, seeds, ivory, and hide, for example—have largely been supplanted by imported, manufactured components. Most notable are the glass beads for which the jewelry of the Maasai, Turkana, and other pastoralists are known, but other objects, such as coins and buttons, have also found ongoing popularity, and new materials continue to be used in imaginative ways. While items of jewelry and dress are intended to beautify the wearer, they also tell much more. In Kenya and throughout the world, objects made from materials that are rare or difficult to obtain, such as ivory, or the wearing of multiple pieces of jewelry at the same time may indicate the owner’s wealth or status. Particular forms, materials, colors, and motifs can indicate membership in a particular group or the wearer’s social position. Traditionally among Mijikenda men, for example, an ivory bracelet served as indication of membership in the elite Gohu Society. Turkana custom calls for a married woman to wear a long back skirt that distinguishes her from an unmarried female and for an adult man to wear either a copper-based or aluminum bracelet to show his membership in the Stones (aluminum) or the Leopards (copper) age set. Similarly, large, colorful, disk-shaped bead necklaces are associated with Maasai married women, and each Maasai male initiation group is associated with particular beadwork color combinations and patterns that are worn by its members.