Samburu and Rendille peoples live in north Kenya, both pastoralists and semi-nomadic. They look similar; only the language is different. They have in common a passion for beaded jewellery. Beaded adornments are worn for their beauty but can also inform about relationships or special occasions.
From a young age, Samburu girls are offered strings of beads by their fathers. The first layers of necklaces are usually red, meaning the girl is engaged. It can be at a very early age...
Before getting married, teenagers enjoy a degree of sexual freedom. You can spot them with heavy beaded necklaces given to them by a boyfriend, usually a moran (warrior) from her clan or even her family. They become nekarai, steady girlfriends and sexual partners. At this point, her parents must build her a house, where the moran is allowed to engage in sexual activity with her.
The curio shop owners also chase these artefacts to sell to tourists. Nowadays doum palm frond fibres are used instead of animal hair.
Mariam: “Many people tried to buy my mpooro engorio necklace but I want to keep it; this is the only one left in my village and even for 200 euros I won’t sell it! It may also bring bad luck to me if I sell it.” A hairstyle in the form of an elegant crest (doko) is worn by Rendille women whose firstborn is a son, and they keep it until the death of the son or of the father.
In former times, the doko was made with women’s own hair. Nowadays they wear a removable version, made of woven fibres, red ochra and butter.Women like to wear a cross-shaped ornament on top of their heads, which has no religious significance, even if most of them are now Christians.
The beads refer to different important periods in the women’s lives, as certain patterns are used for certain events. A necklace can be read as a personal history, or as a diary.
Each colour has a meaning: white is purity and health, representing cow’s milk; black is hardship; yellow and orange, the colours of animals skins on guest beds, are for hospitality; while red signifies danger, bravery and unity.
Necklaces can even have magic powers. If a woman is sterile, she must see a witch doctor who will give her a collar of pearls. She must go to the firstborn man of a house, tie him with the necklace, and then leave with it. Three months later, she may be pregnant. On the other hand, the man that she tied up with the necklace will become crazy or sick (the fortune of one will be the misfortune of the other).
A few years ago, plastic flowers became part of the daily decorations worn by young people!