07 November 2007

Standards of Beauty:
The Beauty of Kenya

By Jennifer Mueller

Everyone always hears of the beautiful landscapes and the abundance of wildlife that fill the national parks of Kenya. Iconic names that fill your mind with images even if you've never seen them in person. Maasai Mara perhaps the most well known, the Kenyan side of the Serengeti. But the standards of beauty in a country where you're surrounded by the Rift Valley and Lions, and Elephants are just a different as the land. With 42 tribes making up the Kenyan fabric, though, saying one is all there is rather leaves out a lot of the story.

The Maasai and their cousins the Samburu are perhaps the most famous of the Kenyan tribes. Every movie it seems uses them to represent Africa. They are the ones who used to drink the blood of the cattle they raised instead of eating them. The men covered in red ochre, often with long plaited hair, were once known as the fiercest warriors. When killing a lion with nothing more than a spear was a test of manhood, the fact that the men often sat around preening, as many might call it, give a whole other impression. At the stage when they would be fighting, that is their only role protection. They spend several years as the guards before moving to the next age set, when they are of age to marry. If there is no protection needed they spend, their time on their looks to attract girlfriends.

They are one of the more traditional tribes in Kenya, and finding the men and women in traditional dress isn't hard, even today. The women are known for wearing many layers of beads around their necks, and while red is still a favored color, it now comes from dyes instead of ochre.

Here's an excerpt from my novel, Samburu Hills:
Celeste lay in bed as the contraction hit hard. She was going to die in the middle of Africa without anyone knowing she was gone. Damn good thing Nicholas was already dead. Breathing hard, she started laughing as the pain eased. If she died, she could go kill his ghost.


Celeste opened her eyes slowly, not recognizing the voice. Had Zahra actually spoken to her? She was the only one there. No, not the only one there, an older Samburu woman in her fifties with a closely shaved head stood there too. She had never seen one of the Samburu up close before. Two bottom teeth missing and long distended earlobes. She wore only a skirt and cape of skins dyed with ochre, iron band necklaces and bracelets that coiled on her fore and upper arms. Sayid had told her about them and the many inches of mpooro engiro, the elephant hair necklaces the older women wore, even though European beads were becoming popular. They were received at marriage, and hers were thick enough to support her chin.

"I brought someone to help with the toto kuja. The child to come. Her name is Nakadi Lelepokachau," her husband's mistress said.

Celeste closed her eyes as another contraction hit. Lying there when it was over, she was lifted up and a cup forced to her mouth. She was too exhausted to fight it.

In the Kikuyu, the largest tribe and the one that played the biggest part in Out of Africa, the brides wore a headdress made of large hoops round their whole head, while the older married women would have the hoops all in the bunch at the back of their heads. The men could usually be identified by the colobus monkey fur that they wore. The Kikuyu speak Bantu a groups of languages that make them cousins to several tribes in the area. The Embu, Ndia, Meru, Chuka, and Mbeere, the last of which I lived with for two years.

I can say without a doubt that the traditional dress is gone from the area. The woman would be scandalized to wear it. There are pictures of them in the 40s, and even then they had trouble finding the traditional clothing. They would often pluck their eyelashes to give them a modest look and a natural gap between their front teeth was one sign of beauty.

Kenyan 50 Shilling NoteTo the north of the country, there are a number of tribes that don't fit the typical mold when you think of Africa. The Gabbra and Borana, as Joy Adamson put it, could have stepped straight from the Old Testament. With straight plaited hair unlike any other tribes in the area, even now they wear necklaces made of squares of aluminum to simulate the older version where the small squares were cut of stone. Leading camels about, they dress in flowing clothes wrapped around them that blow in the wind. The women in the colorful robes are found everywhere. The men, however, are all in white with a turban. The iconic picture of the north of the country depicted on the back of the 50 shilling note is actually still to be found.

Arab, Somali, Ethiopian, and Kenya all merge at the coast. Where Islam flourishes, women wear buibui like in the Middle East. Arab traders established routes down the coast of Africa, and the Portuguese set up a fort in Mombasa in the 1500s. There are Chinese names in the island of Lamu off the Kenyan coast from shipwrecked sailors. The beauty of Kenya takes many forms.

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