Maasai beads: the interplay between Europe and Africa

Maasai warriors wearing red and women wearing beads have come to be seen as symbols of ‘traditional’ Africa. These colourful glass beads and red blankets play an important role inMaasai culture.

For thousands of European tourists who travel to East Africa, a visit would be incomplete without buying beads and blankets. What few know is theintricate cultural interconnectionbetween Africa and Europe that resulted in these ‘traditions’.

Glass beads actually come from Europe. To this day, they areimported from the Czech Republic . The red blanketsoriginally came from Scotland .

Glass beads first arrived in Africa from the first millennium AD through thetrans-Saharan and coastal trade . Because they were produced in India they were very expensive and only used by royalty.

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

Although beads were readily available, the Maasai did not develop an interest in them for quite some time. The Iltalala age-set, who were warriors from 1881 until 1905, were the first to use larger numbers of beads to decorate themselves. An age-set is an institutionalised stage in life which is shared by people that are in the same age-category. Maasai age-sets are determined by the circumcision-ceremonies of boys, which initiate them into warriorhood. The time of circumcision defines who belongs to a certain age-set.

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