While Kenya is known for its wildlife and landscape diversity, it’s also admired for its vibrant people and varied culture. The country has over 42 different tribes, all with distinct cultural identities, traditions, and dialects. This cultural diversity in Kenya has given rise to a blend of traditional attires. A number ethnic groups have managed to keep their traditional garments. However, most of the ethnic traditional dressing has been replaced by western clothing.
Compiled below are some of the traditional dresses that are still worn by different communities in Kenya.
Despite civilization and western cultural influences that have swept across most tribes in Kenya, the Maasai have stuck to their traditions and culture, making them a symbol of Kenyan culture. Their unique culture, dress-code, and placement along game parks have made them tourist attractions. The Maa speakers find pride in their culture and mostly express it through their dressing, rituals and ceremonies.
Their initial traditional attires were made of animal skins but today, the official wear is a red cotton known as shuka (sheet/loincloth). It signifies their earth, independence, courage, and blood all given to them by nature and is wrapped around the torso. To add more appeal to the look, loads of beaded jewelry are placed around the neck and arms. Grouped by age-sets, their dressing varies by age or group, clan, occasion, sex or personal style. Though red is their main color, you can find them in Shuka ranging from blue, green, stripped and checked.
Women make the colorful necklaces, bracelets, and pendants to show their identity and position in the society through body ornaments and painting. The decorative and colorful designs demonstrate social standing, creativity, beauty, and prosperity. Unmarried girls wear large, flat beaded discs around their necks. Brides wear elaborate and heavy jewels that hang down to their knees making it difficult for them to walk. Married woman wears elongated leather earring. Their necks are decorated with elegantly beaded collars which are higher in front and lower in back. However, the colors differ from one clan to another.
A young warrior hair is braided in sophisticated patterns and wear earrings, bracelets and beaded necklaces that hang down the front and back of their bodies. Symbols are worn to show their achievements. Errap, worn around the top part of the arm is made of leather with coils of metal wire in front and back shows a man killed another man. Olawaru, a headdress made from a lion’s mane, shows a man killed a lion. Enkuwaru, a headdress made from ostrich plumes shows a man fought a lion but never killed it.
The Maasai faces are decorated with white limestone chalk in elaborate non-symbolic patterns while the hair is colored red with ochre and animal fat. Red beads are connected with blood, blue to heavens and gods, while green to prosperity, fertility, and land.
The Samburu are related to the Maasai. They share a few traditions and speak the Maa language. However, the Samburu are more aggressive with their traditions than their Maasai cousins. The Samburu are yet to discard their traditional tribal attire in favor of Western-style dressing because it is unmanly and results in curses. Like the Maasai, they wear shukas and impressive jewels with beaded necklaces, elaborate headdresses, and tons of brightly colored bracelets. To add glamor to that, their faces are painted red with red ochre and they wear headdresses of a striking set of brightly colored feathers.
Circumcised men wear extravagant feather headdresses made of beads, polished ostrich shell and feathers and are not allowed to meet with women. The headdresses are worn with loads of bright beaded jewelry made by the women who wear giant amount of jewelry. The most famous of their jewel is the ornate beaded collars. They also paint their faces like men using portions made up of ground chalk and ochre. The body painting is used to highlight their best features.
Although mostly making headlines for drought and insecurity reasons, the Turkana are one of the tribes in Kenya that have managed to preserve their unadulterated culture identities. They are also related to the Maasai and are nomadic pastoralists with livestock keeping the core of their culture. Unlike the Maasai and Samburu, the Turkana do not have complex customs or strong social structures. However, they are as colorful with their dressings as their relatives. Turkana men decorate their hair with bright crimson dye blended from the special colored soil. Women adorn themselves with traditional jewelry and piles of beaded necklaces. The amount, style, and quality of jewels a woman wears determines her social status. Women also wear stunning animal sleeveless garments that are embroidered with polish ostrich shell to stress her look.
The Swahili tribe is rich in historical and cultural heritage. They came to be after intermarriages between the Cushites, Bantus, Arabs, Hindi, Portuguese, and Indonesian who gave rise to a new culture, people, and language. The Swahili tribe live in the coastal towns in Kenya including Mombasa, Malindi and Indian Ocean islands of Lamu. Due to the huge Arabic culture influence, Islamic traditions rules apply in their food, clothing, and lifestyle.
The Swahili tribe traditional garment is a long white robe popularly known as Kanzu in Swahili and a small, white, round hat with elaborate embroidery. On their part, Swahili women wear long dresses known as buibui and cover their head with a hijab and other hide their faces with a veil. In Nairobi and other towns in Kenya where western influence is more spread, Swahili men wear western-styled pants and shirts as every day wear only or them to revert to their traditional attires on religious ceremonies and Fridays which is the official Muslims prayer day.
Other tribes in Kenya tend to have a mix of the popular Kanga, Kitenge and Kikoi. Kanga is a Kenya traditional clothing used in almost all Kenyan households as a baby carrier, headgear, and a waist or torso wrap. It has multicolored designs and is loved for its educative Swahili and English sayings. Kitenges are similar to Kangas and serve the same purpose but are thicker and have an edging on the long side. They are also used to make contemporary clothing serving as material for shirts, dresses and pants.
Both women and men wear the Kitenge on special occasions like ceremonies. Kikoi is also popular among both men and women. It is also used a beach wrap, beach or picnic blanket, scarf, shawl, table cloth, table runner. While many predict a cultural drought in coming years, all is not lost as the as long as such garments are around and the likes of Maasai, Samburu, Turkana and Swahili hang on to their cultural dresses.