For morani, fashion is a signifier of beauty and strength, and for mamas, the married women of the Samburu, this is even moreso.
A mama will spend her life in an intense system of hard work and triumph against the odds, not just surviving but exceeding in a challenging environment with finesse and grace.
Their fashion exudes the effortless beauty of their natural world, reflecting the intense inner strength required to maintain their family’s way of life in the manyatta.
Mamas will begin with bold fabrics, contrasting bright colours and strong patterns. Just like the morani, this seems to be influenced only by whatever is the most eye catching, and closer examination shows you a sophisticated and evolving fashion based on age (generations make their own statements) and geographical location.
Mamas are very particular about the way they mix their fabrics, colours and patterns. What an outsider may think is a clash of colour is actually a carefully selected and coordinated collaboration in tune with contemporary mama fashion.
Jewelry is what mamas are really renowned for, with bead and metalwork that represents and defines traditional African fashion worldwide.
Mamas will often have base strings of red beads, given to them when they were a girl by a moran in an abstinent courtship known as beading.
A mama’s main necklace is an explosion of colour that orbits her neck in a succession of dashes, strokes, and diagonals. There is a lot more to a mama’s necklace than would first seem.
One of the first things that alerted me to the sophistication of the Samburu was the way these beads grow around a mama’s neck.
A mama’s beads will show status and wealth (which is why at soko all mamas will wear their finest, and most).
6. mamas at soko
They will also refer to different periods of importance in their life as beads are bought for special occasions and certain patterns used for certain events. This means that a mama’s beads can be ‘read’ as a history of her life.
The beads around a mamas neck are a journey, a diary of her life, her boyfriends, her husband and her children. Beads will be given to her from birth by grandmothers, her mother and close family and friends.
7. a mama’s ‘Ngaiweli’.
Metalwork will involve bracelets and long winding anklets among other things, but nothing has greater importance than a mama’s ‘Ngaiweli’ chain that hangs from her ear, given to her on her wedding day by her new husband.
These will hand from a pair of brass earrings, given to her by her mother on the same day. These are what makes a mama and her most important items of fashion.
Fashion for a mama will change for each occasion and at home in the manyatta will be a much more relaxed environment than at soko or a ceremony.
A lot of special beads will be locked safely away while the daily routine is kept to at home, but the elegance and beauty will still be there.
The sisterhood of mamas mean that they will bead for themselves and everyone else in the community, and while morani become elders and take off their jewelry, now often wearing western clothing into old age, a mama will continue to wear her beads well into her grand and great grand-mama years.
NEXT WEEK: NOMAD EDUCATION
All Images and text ©2012 Samburu Trust. All rights reserved.
1, 4-6, 8-9: S. Kenyon
2, 3: J. Francombe