The highlight of our excursion up North was a mid-morning visit to one of the NRT (Northern Rangelands Trust) community conservancies, Kalama Conservancy. Tall, lithe, ebony, shaven heads which glistened in the scorching sun, bold and vibrant ornate accessories which provided just right splash of colour to the dry and arid land, the most graceful of dance moves coupled with a knack for looking perpetually posed for a photograph, we were there to meet all the skilled Samburu women involved in the BeadWORKS Kenya project, and I was immediately awestruck.
I am an ardent lover of bold colours and even as I was pulled into their threshold of melodious ethnic chants and singing accompanied by rhythmic clapping and dancing (oddly only from the neck up. Hadn’t these women watched that ridiculously popular Bazokizo video? Ah, I kid), wearing my yellow dress which had earned me the moniker “butterfly” from Rupi Mangat, I couldn’t help but feel right at home. Well, at least until Mr. David Lekoomet, the chairman for the NRT Council of elders and head of Kalama asked me if I had a boyfriend. Apparently, that’s what stacking multicoloured beaded bangles on one’s arm means, and I had been going through life not knowing this fact! I then realized that while my dress choices were purely coincidental, there is a whole significant culture around the ornate beaded jewelry of Samburu which I honestly had no idea about!
Culturally, these people have been creating statement jewelry long before the first foreign traders even set foot in the country. Today, the beads are typically made of plastic but these skills were honed on readily available raw materials like shells, seeds, bone, clay, sticks and more, which were naturally coloured using ochre and other plant extracts. A chat with the women revealed that each vibrant colour stringed around their long elegant necks had a significant meaning, each tying back to their main livelihood: cattle.
Red- The colour of blood in cows which are slaughtered during celebrations to bring the community together. This therefore signifies unity.
Green- Rich healthy grass which provides food for the cows.
Blue- The colour of a clear Northern sky which will occasionally open up to rain, which nourishes the cattle.
Orange/Yellow- In case of visitors, guests are often shown to rooms whose beds have skins in these colours, and they thereby signify hospitality.
Black- The strong and resilient Maasai people.
White- From milk, and signifies purity.
Different colours and different types of ornaments are worn in various occasions to signify marital status, age, celebrations, whether one has male or female children, etc. While these beads are worn by both sexes, they are primarily made by women who, in what I like to refer to as a “beading happy hour” will curve out a portion of their day to sit and chat in from of their manyattas as they create. It is around this seemingly social practice that the BeadWORKS Kenya project has emerged.
As aforementioned, Kalama Conservancy is part of NRT, one of the biggest beneficiaries of Safaricom Marathon in Lewa which has raised over $6 million over the past two decades. Part of these proceeds are being used to change the face of conservancies under NRT, and one such way is through NRT Trading, an enterprise that creates economic opportunities for the locals. Let’s face it, given their semi-nomadic lifestyles within the semi-arid parched lands of Samburu, income-generating opportunities are limited for these women, which has over the years led to traditional gender roles: the men as the breadwinners who go out to graze while women look after the children and the manyattas. With over a thousand women involved, this beading project has empowered them through not only diversifying the family’s income avenues but also equipping them with practical skills like product development, quality control as well as basic finance and marketing skills.
The beads have to be imported and so NRT Trading provides the group with raw materials and they are then compensated when the products are collected to be sold in gift shops around the world. Are the men happy that the women are now making their own money? “The wazees have become so content that they have now started relaxing, which has led to women complaining all over again!” jokes Mr. Lekoomet.
Greeting- Eserian? (Mko na amani/ Do you have peace?)
Response: Oiyee! (Tuko na amani/ We have peace)
This year’s Safaricom Marathon in Lewa Conservancy takes place on Saturday June 24th. More details on their website here.