Black, white, and red all over: Tereneh Idia on the meaning of color in Maasai culture | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Black, white, and red all over: Tereneh Idia on the meaning of color in Maasai culture

click to enlarge Nepetia Jemimah with OMWA members - CP PHOTO: TERENEH IDIA
CP photo: Tereneh Idia
Nepetia Jemimah with OMWA members

In Olorgesailie, Kenya in the South Rift Valley I have seen OMWA: Olorgesailie Maasai Women Artisans of Kenya artist, Tale Leah, wear four different layers — a skirt, over a dress, with a shuka (vibrantly-printed fabric) as an apron and a shuka draped over the shoulders.  Each garment a different color and pattern, all coming together elegantly.  

Working with OMWA and The Beading Wolves of the Oneida Indian Nation, I have had to unlearn my ideas of the meaning of colors. In the United States, we sometimes believe that our response to color is “hard-wired,” but our reactions are more socialized than inherit. 

What would it mean to gain a multicolor language in the same way many are multilingual? 

Let's look at the three basic colors — black, white, and red. 

Black

Black is the absence of light. However, in discussing her book, The Secret Lives of Color on the wonderful design podcast 99% Invisible, the author Kassia St. Clair notes that while we have many words for the various iterations and shades of white (ivory, eggshell, cream, pearl), there's a dearth of language for describing the varieties of the color black.  

But anyone who has tried to match black clothing knows that there is an endless range of shades, despite a lack of words to describe them. Black, for the Maasai in Kenya and fashionistas the world over, is an important color. 

The word for black in Kimaasai, the Maasai language, is narok. Narok is also one of a dual non-anthropomorphic non-gendered creator entity in their traditional spirituality. Narok as a god is benevolent and has strong healing powers. To that end, black has restorative powers and is worn for strength. It was also one of the first seed beads made by the Maasai, hence it is key to their design language as well as their heritage. 

This is in contrast to the idea of black as a color of mourning, sadness, bad omen, or negativity.

White

The color white in parts of Asia is the sign of death and mourning. Think of the “color leaving your cheeks” if you’re sick. Contrast this with the traditional meaning for the Maasai, which is health. White is the color of milk, traditionally key to the Maasai diet so closely linked to cows. This is key to their culture as their most valued possession, their wealth.

In terms of fashion and design, the white beads, made from bone or shell, paired with the black bead, was key to establishing the iconic black and white pattern of the Maasai beaded jewelry.  

Red

To many, red is the color of passion and love. To the Maasai, the color red is nado. Nado is also the name of the second part of the dual creator entity. Passionate Nado may test you or make things just a bit more difficult. Maybe this pairs with our idea of red as seduction — red lips, red dress? 

But it doesn’t end there, red is the most iconic color for the Maasai. Red is the color of the cow’s blood, also key to Maasai culture. It is essential to life. 

So as you consider colors, take a look around the world to discover other meanings, histories, and heritages. In a connected world, we can have multiple color languages similar to our multilingual human language. It opens up so many exciting possibilities in style and substance.  

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