Body adornment in Kenya

The oldest known bead works in Africa have been found in the Kalahari Desert, Sudan and Libya dating back to around 10,000 BC. (Dubin 1987, 122) The earliest beads were made of eggshell, clay, twigs, stones, ivory and bone.

Beadwork is an integral part of body adornment in East Africa just like in any other part of the world. Body adornment is done with the express intention of satisfying how the wearer wants to look. In some cases, beads are used to communicate and symbolise ideas.

Beads used in earrings, armlets, headdresses, aprons and bangles can signify the marital, economic and political status of the wearer. However, given the rapid rate of globalisation, and the resultant transformation, East Africa has seen a heavy influence of external factors in local expressions of beauty and body adornment. The following two communities have been picked to highlight the use of beadwork as an adornment.

Kikuyu and Kamba beadwork

The Kikuyu and Kamba peoples are Kenyan neighbours with a long history of cultural interaction and trade. Despite the geographical proximity of their localities, they independently developed different taste and preferences in matters relating to body adornment and decorations. The two neighbouring communities used beads of different materials, colours and sizes to decorate their clothing.

Types of beadwork

Before the advent of Indian Ocean Trade, beadwork was made from the natural and domestic sources: plants, animals, and naturally occurring minerals. These included cowrie shells, horns, ivory, seeds, precious woods, metals and bones. As the trade systems expanded with the rest of the world, industrially produced synthetic materials were introduced which included glass, and plastics.


(Left) A flat banded bracelet. Kamba, Kenya. Accession number 196/2007/34. Diameter = 70mm. Acquired by donor Sheila Unwin in the late 1960s for 10 shillings.

This flat banded bracelet consists of twisted tin and copper thread. This is an example of a piece of adornment made from industrially manufactured recycled material.

Reasons why

The most important use of beads in east Africa is in body adornment. Beads of different colours and materials are used to express beauty, social status, and power. Beads are equally important during rituals and ceremonies. The meaning of the colours and different shapes of beads varies with every community, and they can be thought of as visual dialects. Each bead, colour, and shape relays a different message depending on the giver and receiver. Hence beads were used in the making of necklaces, anklets, earrings, bracelets and headbands among many other uses.

Kimali(Left) Kimali (Imali), Kamba. @ NMK Cultural Heritage Collection. A red, white, and blue necklace with a square beaded panel in front.

The bead colours, as seen in the necklace illustrated, have cultural significance in relation to how it is used. The locals believe the red beads signify the female spirit, white ones stands for the male spirits. The blue are considered to be the spirit in general. This was worn by women possessed by the spirit of Kathambe to cure them of the possession, especially in Machakos, Kenya. In other parts of Kambaland, it is used as an ornament when dancing Kilume.  This kind of necklace is worn only by married women. Interestingly, it can only be made by a woman who is possessed, and only when asked by the spirit. If not, the eyes will water continuously.

196-2007-24(Left) Gitero (single) Itero (plural), man’s armlet, Kamba. Accession number 196/2007/24. Length = 210mm. Sheila Unwin collection.

Beaded armbands with cylindrical coloured beads, threaded on Muamba (baobab) thread with cowhide spaces, each one has a conus shell attached to its centre with red wool.

196-2007-63(Left) Nzeze. A woven bead pubic apron, Kamba. Accession number 196/2007/63. Width = 274mm. Acquired by Sheila Unwin 15 August 1974.

Woven with Muamba (baobaba) thread and sometimes additionally decorated with copper and/or iron chain at the hem. Designs called Kisyi and aprons are made by girls after circumcision using trade beads. They are worn by girls after circumcision, women, even older women. Aprons can be used everyday, worn underneath all other clothes and only shown to husbands and boyfriends.


(Left) Mirunguci, Kikuyu. Accession number 196/2007/37. Length = 800mm. Sheila Unwin collection.

This necklace-bandolier is made from the tips of a gourd plant, which has been cut and dried. Holes are bored through each one so that a length of string can be passed through all of them. Between each gourd piece there are two to three beads threaded together. This item predominantly uses old white beads (irunguci), with a set of red and yellow beads and a single blue one.


(Below) Musyondo, hip belt, Kamba. Accession number 196/2007/59. Sheila Unwin collection.

Hip belts adorned women especially for dancing ceremonies. Wives would often lure their husbands with the rattle of the beads, or use them as a means to communicate when they were ovulating. Some women use hip belts simply as a fashion statement, or to help them keep track of their growing girth.


(Left) Kenyatta, belt, Kikuyu. This Kikuyu name was adopted as a surname by the former Kenyan prime minister, then president Jomo Kenyatta (1897 – 1978). The metal buckle has ‘Made in Japan’ stamped on the reverse side. Accession number 10/2010/9. Length = 700mm. Sheila Unwin collection.

A beaded belt. Orange, blue, white and red beads sewn onto a man’s belt. This was made and worn by men for dancing. This is a prized example, and is said by Unwin to have been re-used by the Boy Scouts.

Beads as currency

The early history of trade in East Africa includes beadwork. During the barter trade system of exchanging goods and services, this included the neighbouring communities of the Kamba and the Kikuyu.

The Europeans introduced beads in East Africa in the 1880s as a trading material. Some of the beads got co-opted by the local communities and used as a form of local currency.

How beads are acquired today

Bead shop

(Above) A bead shop in downtown Nairobi @ George Juma Ondeng, 2018

Rapid urbanisation and the change in tastes and preferences has seen emergent new trends in the acquisition and use of beads. However, the only place to buy beads in Kenya is Nairobi. The whole sellers are mostly Kenyans of Indian and Asian descent. Bead-making and the entire process related to beadwork as commercial ventures is predominantly led by women. This provides them with income-generating opportunities from the hand-made beads to the commercially purchased ones.

Necklaces, bracelets and earrings are rich in colours and are made purely as fashion items for the locals and the foreign tourists market. Thus the beadwork for body adornment has lost its distinctive ethnic tags and identity as the production, distribution and consumption takes a purely commercial form. Several major types of beads are currently made in Kenya. The Batik Bone Bead is a handcrafted bead that is made by dying bleached and polished cow bone. Like other synthetic beads, these bone beads come from Nairobi, the capital of Kenya.