Islam and Islamic Arts in Africa

by Allen F. Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles (formerly University of Iowa)

Swahili earplugs, Swahili coast, Kenya. Photo by Robert H. Nooter. Submitted by Allen F. Roberts.


Jewelry and other adornment reflected the opulence of Swahili urban life in 19th-century trading centers of the eastern African coast. Elaborate earplugs of gold or silver are known to have been worn from the 16th century well into the 20th by women of Pate and Lamu islands just off the coast. A girl’s earlobes were slowly stretched so that as a woman, she could wear the beautiful disks. The upper rim of the ear was pierced and decorated with small golden rings. Swahili earplugs always bear different designs on front and back. The fine filigree of this pair shows probable Indian influence; it is not known whether the motifs have symbolic significance. Simpler earplugs were worn elsewhere along the Swahili coast, made of buffalo horn, turtle shell, or other materials (Gagern et al. 1974).