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Maasai beads: the interplay between Europe and Africa

Maasai warriors wearing red and women wearing beads attended to be observed as symbols of traditional Africa. These colourful glass beads and red blankets play a significant role in Maasai culture.

For a large number of European tourists who happen to be East Africa, a trip will be incomplete without buying beads and blankets. What few know may be the intricate cultural interconnection between Africa and Europe that led to these traditions.

Glass beads actually result from Europe. Even today, they’re imported from the Czech Republic. The red blankets originally originated from Scotland.

Glass beads first found its way to Africa from the initial millennium AD through the trans-Saharan and coastal trade. Since they were stated in India these were very costly and only utilized by royalty.

From 1480 onwards, the mass export of beads from Europe to East Africa started from Venice and Murano in Italy, Bohemia and holland. By the late 19th century huge levels of beads were used as trade goods.

Although beads were easily available, the Maasai didn’t develop a pastime in them for a long time. The Iltalala age-set, who have been warriors from 1881 until 1905, were the first ever to use larger amounts of beads to decorate themselves. An age-set can be an institutionalised stage in life that is shared by people who are in exactly the same age-category. Maasai age-sets are dependant on the circumcision-ceremonies of boys, which initiate them into warriorhood. Enough time of circumcision defines who belongs to a particular age-set.

The age-sets have names and their members used to paint their health and shields to tell apart themselves. Once the colonialists prohibited warriors from wearing their weapons in public areas, the Maasai instead begun to wear beaded ornaments which made a public statement concerning the wearer.

The Iltalala age-set, who have been warriors from 1881 until 1905, were the first ever to use larger amounts of beads to decorate themselves.

Beadwork fashions come and go

Beadwork can let you know several things concerning the wearer. Specific ornaments and colours indicate if the person is Maasai or from another ethnic group. Different Maasai clans also use certain beads and colour combinations to point their affiliation. Finally, an individuals beadwork reflects his / her position in life. The belt of a woman differs from the belt of a man, and an unmarried girls earrings will vary from those of a married woman.

Within those cultural rules, beadwork fashion changes continuously. Each new generation develops a specific style, including certain materials, colour placements and symbols that unite and identify them. In the spirit of creative competition, the girlfriends of a fresh age-set make new ornaments to make sure that their men outshine the prior age-set.

Other changes in the style derive from a shortage of beads of certain types or colours for trade reasons. A good example may be the blocking of the Suez Canal through the third Arab Israeli war in 1967.

Rivalry between age-sets also sparks change. Competing age-sets have often chosen to include symbols of adopted technology. For example, the Iseuri age-set, that was circumcised in the 1950s and 1960s, find the telegraph pole as their symbol, as a mention of the speed of communication between warriors and their girlfriends.

Another major age-set, the Ilkitoip, elaborated with this theme with the addition of a big button eye along with the telegraph pole to symbolise the swirling blue light of a police car. Succeeding age-sets created ornaments with a helicopter rotor blade because helicopters are faster than police cars.

Outside influences

Tourists tend to be quite surprised and just a little disappointed if they learn that Maasai beads are imported from Europe. They might like African beadwork to be authentic. And its own true that some ornaments have significantly more cultural meaning than others.

Some are adapted to tourists preferences. For example Maasai women began to use colours and designs they might not normally used in their very own beadwork, because tourists liked them. And ornaments for tourists tend to be manufactured from cheaper Chinese beads.

Some items have such symbolic significance they cannot easily be sold. A good example may be the Elekitatiet belt, which a female produces her daughter-in-law when she’s delivered her first baby.

Nowadays uncircumcised boys in the town wear beaded necklaces in Rastafari colours, and warriors buy beaded straps that provide their watches a Maasai touch.

So Maasai beadwork is still the consequence of the interaction between European and African cultures, and you’ll find nothing isolated or timeless about any of it. Instead of exotic, static and detached, it forms an ever changing, multi-cultural realm of exchange of materials and ideas between Africa and Europe.

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