Massai Beadwork – What This African Tradition Means

The Massai people of Kenya are one of the most widely recognized people in Africa. The Massai are known for their fashion; for wearing bright colors with intricate patterns; and for their long, jingly jewelry. While many people recognize the traditional Massai style, many don’t know that there is a bigger history, symbolism, and social meaning for the craft.

One of the traditions in Massai life is the habit of Massai women sitting together between their daily tasks. Between their times of looking after the children, milking the cows, cooking, and constructing homes and animal pens, women will often sit together and make beaded jewelry. For a Massai woman, beadwork is an important way to demonstrate both her social understanding and creative capability.

An outsider might think that Massai people have dressed up for some special occasion. This is normally not the case though. Although some jewelry is worn for special occasions (such as for marriage or circumcision ceremonies) most jewelry is worn throughout an entire stage of life. For example, indicating her increasing wealth and her place in life, a married woman adorns beaded necklaces as she grows older. Each piece of jewelry, in its shape, patterns, and colors, speaks of the wearer’s culture. People within that culture can tell a woman’s exact status–her age, marital status, even whether she has given birth to a son–by observing her beaded jewelry.

What the Colors Mean – Massai Symbolism:

Red signifies danger, ferocity, bravery, strength, and especially unity, because it is the color of the blood of the cow that is slaughtered when the community comes together in celebration.

Blue is significant because it represents the sky which provides water for the cows.

Green represents the land which grows food for the cattle to eat. Green also represents the health of the Massai community because there is a local plant called olari which grows tall and plentiful, as the Massai hope they will too.

Orange symbolizes hospitality because it is the color of the gourds that hold the milk that is offered to visitors.

Yellow also suggests hospitality because it is the color of the animal skins on guest beds.

White represents purity, because white is the color of milk, which comes from a cow, considered by the Maasai as a pure and holy animal. White also represents health, because it is milk that nourishes the community.

Black represents the color of the people but more importantly the hardships we all go through in life. It suggests that difficult times are experienced by everyone because those difficulties are part of the same, natural sequence of life.


These are Massai beaded bracelets. Click Here if you’re interested in owning one.

Find out more about African jewelry on the Africa Imports web site or by Clicking Here to go to a page full of articles about African jewelry.

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