The Origin of Plastic beads

A turkana lady adorned with the beautiful plastic beads

Women and girls from the Turkana community have a great affinity for and attachment to beads. Traditional Turkana women and young girls adorned themselves around the neck as well as wrists with seeds from plants. This was the period before the arrival of the colonial power into the Turkana land. They wore the dry seeds extracted from ng’ikadelio plants, emeyen, ng’akalalio and ng’imusio plants which are Turkana exotic plants. To make the ornament colorful and attractive, the Ostrich egg shell known as ng’akirim and the shells from snails referred to as ekame were blended with the seeds while in some instances were worn without blending.

The different Turkana clans and brands had varied preferences as they chose different plants for their girls and women and with time, they became accustomed to the different seeds which were later assimilated into their customary attire. Since these plants were locally available in the nearby bushes, and mountains while others along the river banks the Turkana continued to wear the seeded ornaments.

However, as the Arab long-distance traders infiltrated and gained roots in the African continent through the North and the horn of Africa, the Turkana culture was not safe either. The Arabs came with plastic beads which were more attractive that came to replace the traditional necklaces and wrist bangles that were made from seeds and shells. These beads were commonly referred to as shanga, a Swahili name for the beads while the Turkana call it ng’akoromwa.

During the early 1930s the decade marked by the advent of the colonial era, the plastic beads infiltrated Turkana land through the Borana, Rendile, and Samburu communities where the commodity was traded alongside other goods like the cotton sheets that were acquired from the Somali long-distance traders. During that period the form of trade was a barter form of trade where the bunch of beads was traded with livestock.

image of the plastic beads

However, even after the introduction of the beads, some of the Turkana brands have reserved the use of the seeds as part of their ornaments. These brands/clans include; ngidocha, ngisalika,ngipucho and ngikatap. Although they have maintained this custom, only the married women are allowed to put on the plastic beads while the newly wedded or married women put on the seeded blended with ostrich or shells from the snails for decoration. Contrary to the other brands, all were allowed to put on the plastic beads around their neck and wrist regardless of the age or the marital status.

The plastic beads have become so much of a necessity to the modern Turkana tribe that has created a room for a lucrative business avenue that has attracted many from the Turkana urban areas as well as the rural to venture into. Since the beads are worn by all the pastoral communities, it’s role in the batter trade succeeded to maneuver into the heart of the Turkana land where a bunch of the beads was exchanged with livestock. A business that has become viable to date.

The Turkana men value the color and the blends of the beaded ornaments and find a girl or a woman more attractive when adorned with a colorful beaded ornament during courtship and even during marriage. A girl with more plastic beads around her neck is worthy more dowry while the one with less beads attracts lesser and unwealthy suitors. In a nutshell, the girl with more beads attracts more men which raises her status and value in terms of bride-price while the one with less and unattractive beads attracts lesser suitors and less bride price.

Other than the cultural impact of the introduction of the beads, modern Turkana community has invested so much in bead works where it has dominated in the tourism industry where most feminine ornaments and costumes are decorated with different types and colors of beads attracting customers both local and international due to the beauty and art of the Turkana culture.

Nowadays the use of the beads is not only for women but men also where they are used making bangles and belts are embedded with the beads. In the past, out ancestral elders decorated the elephant’s claw, the warthogs and lions as well with beads which were worn around their necks, a practice done even today. Finally, not forgetting children where their playing toys and potteries were decorated with the plastic beads. Indeed, the art of the use of the plastic beads forms the foundation of the beauty of the Turkana culture.


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