East Africa is an altogether different landscape to the forested regions of West Africa. The Rift valley opens to wide grasslands. These grassy savannas are mostly inhabited by semi-nomadic pastoralist people. For the Nilotic cultures of Turkana, Rendile, Samburu, Pokot, Maasai, Dinka and others a lifestyle of herding cattle and goats is a common way of life.

 Portable Utilitarian Art

East African pastoralists
East African pastoralists

Being highly mobile means not wanting carry lots of furniture, statues and masks around with you. These pastoralist cultures and those like them tend to favour personal adornment and material culture that is highly functional. What’s interesting is the messages and signals these objects communicate…

If you want to get an idea of what these people look like check out the books of Angela Fisher & Carol Beckwith. These two intrepid women have spent years photographing the nomadic cultures of East Africa and their wonderful books bring to life the abundance and diversity of East Africa’s and the Horn of Africa’s material culture.

For collectors interested in truly authentic African artefacts, you are more likely to find items of ethnographic authenticity from these pastoralist cultures. Whereas many masks tend to be modern day reproductions, the art of East Africa is copied less. Being more utilitarian in design, they tend to crop up from time to time at auctions houses- often without the seller knowing what they are. The number of times I have seen a Maasai milk gourd being sold on eBay as a powder horn underlines this lack of knowledge.

Utilitarian objects used by pastoralist cultures

While the specific tribes or cultural groups from the East African grasslands vary hugely, a variety of items are made and utilised by the diverse cultures of this region including:Rendile African headrest

  • Milk Containers: Often gourds of varying shapes and styles and mostly adorned with beads denoting wealth, status or the clan affiliations of the owner.
  • Headrests: Mostly used by men to keep their carefully maintained coiffure (ornately braided hair) from resting on the ground. African headrest styles vary according to tribe, a wide diversity of styles can be found across East Africa.
  • Flywhisks: Often decorated with wire and beads denoting the prestige and status of the owner.
  • Stools: Larger stools are typically used by the Bantu farming cultures of East Africa although some pastoralist people do make and use stools. They tend to be smaller and hence easier to carry and transport. Pokot stools are especially beautiful.
  • Clubs: Commonly referred to as “rungus” in East Africa and carried by men. Used for protection and as tools. Styles vary according to the tribe from which they originate. These are seldom decorated and are mostly fashioned from wood. Sadly, examples can be found fashioned from rhino horn. Many are passed off as Zulu “knobkerries” although with alittle research you can easily verify the origins of a specific club.
  • Snuff containers: Carved from Buffalo horn, bone or sometimes ivory. Often decorated with beads with leather caps or stoppers.
  • Samburu headdress
    Samburu headdress
    Headdresses: Normally beaded and often made using giraffe hair, human hair, ostrich feathers or similarly decorative materials.
  • Spears: Made from steel and wood. Styles are specific to the tribe to which they belong. For example, the Maasai have two kinds of spear- a short “black” stabbing spear and a long “white” throwing spear.
  • Shields: Fashioned mostly from hide or thick leather. Some examples exist of shields made from metal plate.
  • Beaded collars: These denote married status or the age group to which the wearer belong as well as status and clan affiliation. Clans or tribes use a combination of bead colours to denote cultural affiliation.

The above is far from being an exhaustive list, other items include wrist knives, containers for fat or honey, cooking utensils, hoes, adzes, baskets and dolls. Multiple necklaces, coiled bronze armbands and bracelets declare the status of their owners, whether they have been circumcised (or achieved adulthood) and signal achievements and status.

Hima wooden pot
Hima wooden pot

A particularly charming aspect of the wooden containers found in Kenya and Somalia is many have been patched using aluminium cooking pots to repair splits or cracks in the wood. We like the irony of these pastoralists eschewing “modern” cookware, instead using them to patch and repair their traditional, mostly wooden, utilitarian items.

We can see then; that the wide plains of East Africa and the material culture found within it is largely a context for visual communication. The utilitarian objects favoured by these cultures convey meaning, learning, information exchange, social distinction and power.

Although customs vary from one ethnic group to another, one generalisation is that women from wealthy families owning many livestock will tend to have more brightly decorated gourds for carrying milk or animal blood. Beadwork has been described by some anthropologists as a secret communication form between women in an otherwise patriarchal societies.

So next time you see a beaded collar, gourd or walking stick from one of these cultures, consider what information it communicates. You may be surprised to learn that what we often perceive as simply a “necklace” or “headrest” is often so much more. Each item has its own unique story to tell.