Ochre is a natural clay earth pigment that is a mixture of iron oxide, clay, and sand. This pigment ranges in color – from yellow to orange to brown. Olkaria – or red ochre – is a variant of ochre in which the combination of iron oxide and minerals form a red pigment. Red and yellow ochre pigments have been used by civilizations across continents dating back to prehistoric times. Some documented uses of red ochre that span centuries include cave painting, sun protection, animal skin treatment, and insect repellent. On the African continent, red ochre has been used as a form of paint for over 200,000 years. Many Indigenous groups, including the Maasai, have used red ochre as a multi-purpose coloring agent for centuries. 

In Maasai villages, community members will venture to locations to dig up the olkaria, which is then brought back to the village to be used for a variety of purposes. This red pigment serves as paint in many Maasai celebrations, especially among warriors and women. After becoming a warrior, Maasai are permitted to use the olkaria to paint their face, hands, and legs. The warrior’s shields are also painted with red ochre. Elders in the Maasai community are less likely to use olkaria as paint. Aside from being used as a form of makeup, red ochre is also used to decorate Maasai homes. Check out the pictures below to see the beauty and intricacy of the designs created using olkaria!


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