Tag Archives: women

Unearthing the messages behind traditional jewellery

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Image Devotion, bravery, status. Love, womanhood, marriage. Unity of family, harmony of community and balance of nature.

These are just a handful of the core concepts the Maasai people hold in high regard. Though ideas circulate amongst generations, consolidated by the advice of mothers and the command of elders, nowhere is social value granted a more elegant expression than in the art of beadwork undertaken by the women of each community.  Women of the Maasai have the age-old habit of gathering together before, after and in-between their daily chores to craft beautiful jewellery. More so than simply pursuing aesthetical quality, these women make jewellery to the ends of social and personal expression, and the grandest meanings can be found in the tiniest motifs. From the length of a pendant to the color of an ornament each piece of jewellery is rife with symbolism; so rife, in fact, that an insider can even tell a woman’s status by observing it.

The talented Maasai women pour their love and care into their beaded work. Every necklace is unique. Do you ever wonder what meaning can be attributed to your own Lotusland piece? We thought it’d be cool to do a little investigation into the motifs of Maasai jewellery – let’s find out!

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Colors

Crowds of foreign travellers and European fashionistas scouting for the next big trend have long been attracted to the sheer vibrancy of Maasai attire and jewellery. And all for good reason, too – they are simply breathtaking! Jewellery is where color lends expression to ideas, where a shade speaks a thousand words about an intriguing culture.

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Red

The color of blood can refer to the blood of the lion that a Maasai warrior must slaughter for honour, or equally the blood of the cow that the community sacrifices on the occasion of gathering. Red can thus mean the savageness and danger of the wild and the ferocity and courage the moran man exercises to protect his people. It can also denote unity of the community and even the daily trials and tribunals that the Maasai must learn to overcome.

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Blue

Nature’s beauty, blue represents the sky and the waters that nurture the Maasai’s cattle and provides the livelihood and sustenance for both people and animals of the land.

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Green

Green is intimately tied to the notion of land and territory since it is the colour of the grass that stretches across the vast Tanzanian plains on which Maasai dwell. It is the land that provides food for livestock and people, and where the people’s roots lie. Because so many facets of Maasai culture are inextricable from their physical land, land has sacrosanct status. However, recent land disputes between the government and local farmers coveting the same resources have raised many concerns about Maasai communities. On another note, in the Maasai community a kind of green plant called the olari grows lush and tall – the Maasai hope their people will flourish just like these plants. Green herein can symbolize growth and hope.

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Orange

This is the color of warmth, hospitality, generosity and friendship mainly because it is the color of the gourd in which Maasai people offer milk to their visitors. The color itself is a smiling greeting to both intimate acquaintances and new friends alike; it is a reflection of typical Maasai amiability.

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Yellow

Yellow is also symbolic of traditional Maasai hospitality because it is the color of the cow hide with which guest beds are covered for comfort. In addition, yellow is the color of the majestic sun that gives the world light, warmth and energy, prompting the growth and keeping the health of people and livestock.

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White

White is the classic shade of purity, chastity and virginity. For the Maasai white means even more, because it is the color of milk, a staple of their diet and a core source of nourishment for the people. According to Maasai belief, the cows that provide this milk are pure and chaste animals that the heavens bestowed upon the people to help sustain themselves.

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Black

Black is the color of the people, color of the night and color of communion in the face of difficult times. The Maasai know that many difficulties are present in every individual’s life. They believe trials and tribunals are only natural and that harmony and solidarity are indispensable in overcoming them.

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Another recurrent motif you may have noticed in our jewellery is a round beaded disc layered together by rings of colourful beads. This disc is reminiscent of the “circle of life”, a part of the Maasai system of beliefs about the universe and their natural environment.

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In the feral African plains, life and death are not associated with injustice. Instead, they are but a part of a larger circle of life that reigns over all of Earth’s living things. For example, the gazelle mother may lose her baby to the hungry cheetah, but it is not so much a regrettable act of animalistic cruelty than an unavoidable result of a natural hierarchy of predator and prey. Because all animals need other forms of life for their own sustenance, and are themselves the source of sustenance for others still, life is fragile and volatile. But that’s how things are. Life is a jungle and everyone must be on guard at all times.

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Indeed living on the open plains of east Africa means that communities must learn to coexist with a great diversity of animals. Though they draw their subsistence from cattle, the Maasai are deeply reverent of the wild creatures and beasts that share their land and rarely interfere with this circle of life they respect.

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Unfortunately, man encroach more and more upon the kingdom of animals and interfere with the natural procession of predator and prey. Biodiversity and animal populations are being rapidly razed by global economic growth. Preoccupation with development means that perhaps much more weight is accorded to the latter than to the former. Yet for the Maasai, priorities are inversed.

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The prominent circle of life motif symbolizes life and death just as nature intended. Working beautifully in concert with colors encapsulating age-old Maasai wisdoms, our jewellery brings you a breath of air from the heart of the untamed African plains.

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Meet Our Beading Partners in Kilimanjaro

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When it comes to craftsmanship, there is certainly no lack of incredible talent amongst the women of the Maasai. Yet as individuals they are much more than just artisans, wives and daughters – they are strong and independent-minded women with personalities and histories as colourful as the beads that adorn their bodies.

From the outside looking in, the Maasai way of life can be quite bemusing. For the inside scoop, we’ve sat down with some of the amazing women we’ve been working with in Mkuru, Tanzania so they could tell us their stories. Here’s what some of them had to say.

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            Meet Elyamani Oiaia Lekoor.

The 38-year-old Elyamani possesses spiritedness and intelligence that go a long way back to her childhood. She enjoyed attending primary school in her village, but her educational experience was unfortunately cut short after she married and was obliged to move to a small rural Tanzanian town with her husband to fulfil her compliant role as a spouse. She never did obtain the results of her completion exam. “I never knew if I had succeeded,” she says. But she remembers how she loved learning about English, geography and history.

She tells us she “would have loved to continue studying.”

But her husband did not allow her to do so. Although primary education is public in Kenya and Tanzania, less than 50% of Maasai women are educated. This is largely due to early marriage and family duties.

School kindled Elyamani’s passions for knowledge and self-expression, values to which she still stays true. In fact, she is one of the most opinionated and courageously outspoken women we have interacted with. Her intelligence shines bright and fuels her continual fight for her rights in the community.

Despite everything, life in her current village isn’t easy on Elyamani. The contrast between childhood in the schoolyard and her current dutiful matrimonial life often fills her with nostalgia. She doesn’t really like it in Kilimanjaro – her dreams are painted with the grassy colours of her bucolic home. Sometimes her dreams even take her beyond her city and her continent, all the way to Europe. “Maybe in Europe people are nicer. I don’t know, because I’ve never been there!”

Herself bound to her husband’s side, Elyamani tell us of hopes to send her children to Europe where they might one day pursue their own education. Her last daughter Elizabeth is intelligent just like her mother. We hope that she will attend school and eventually become part of the management team for our ethical jewellery project!

Elyamani is incredibly inspirational. She is a testament to the empowerment education can bestow on women of the Maasai.

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            Meet Miriam Alais.

Like most other Maasai women, the trajectory of Miriam’s life has been difficult and riddled with painful experiences. She is one of the respected elders of the group and currently helps Theresia, chief of the Mkuru women’s community, to translate speeches into Swahili. She is also a fundi, or expert, of Tanzanian Maasai women’s art – her beading is delicate, precise and nothing short of magnificent.

In addition to undertaking a multitude of community engagements, Miriam shoulders the burden of caring for her family all on her own. Unlike other wives in wedlock, she hasn’t a husband for support. At a young age she was “gifted” as a wife to a man she didn’t love. Following their marriage, her husband took other wives and fell prey to alcoholism.

“He would come home every evening drunk and would beat me. Alcohol had changed his mind, and he didn’t love me anymore. One day he threatened me with a knife and said he would kill me. I decided then to escape and go back to my parents’ boma” (village with a livestock enclosure).

Love is a luxury for the Maasai marriage. But love, however, is not lost on Miriam. She recalls the spirited pre-marital days, when she loved to spend time with young men and became infatuated with one in particular. She would always carefully prepare and decorate a calabash of preserved milk, take it to him and spend her time delightedly watching him dance. Yet Miriam, like most other women in her tribe, have no say in their choice of spouse and can be offered like commodities to men they don’t love. If luck is on her side, a woman may end up with a caring husband. But in reality she often has to endure abuse and live alongside her husband’s other wives.

Miriam strongly believes that women need to be independent. They should be able to stand up for themselves and make decisions alongside their husbands. Thankfully, albeit very slowly, we are beginning to see such shifts in some Maasai families.

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Meet Lea Olenatii.

Lea has a real penchant for the arts: she takes part in the church choir and one of the best artisans in the group. She also has a cheery and strong personality – all the more admirable when we discovered the distressing events of her life.

After marrying her husband Isay Olanatii, the pair became distressed since Lea was not able to conceive for a long time. As per Maasai tradition Lea was gifted a newborn child, Joshua, from the wife of Isay’s brother. She cared deeply for little Joshua, but Isay continually reproached her and beat her for being infertile. Eventually he left Lea for another woman who went on to bear him six children.

Lea still endures marriage problems today. In addition, things aren’t looking good for 8-year-old Joshua. He has recently contracted a serious illness. Although currently in a stable condition, the doctors anticipate an early death for the boy. Despite everything Lea still holds high hopes for young Joshua to attend school, but this may not be possible given his health condition.

It is truly hard for us to imagine how difficult Lea’s life must be in light of her son’s predicament and her failed marriage. Yet remarkably, like a true Maasai woman, Lea remains tough and lives spiritedly.

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Because of the culturally prescribed status of Maasai women, our artisan partners often endure incredible hardships and continue to shoulder tremendous burdens on a daily basis.

We recognize their plight and we greatly cherish their partnership – we hope participation in our ethical jewellery project will open new doors for them and bring them the hope, joy and love they truly deserve.

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Visit our site to see photos and find out more about the gorgeous handiwork of these women! Click on the image below.

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White Theresia bracelet