On your next African safari, there’s one place you will be sure to find the best Maasai beadwork in Kenya. At Basecamp Explorer’s Enjoolata Information Centre in Maasai Mara. Beadwork is one of the most complex forms of artistry, certainly outstanding, perhaps even exclusive, since it involves a lot of creativity and uniqueness. But, often, we only come across the finished products without putting much thought into the process used to compose this eccentric form of art. At Enjoolata Information Centre in Basecamp, Maasai Mara, not only will you get the finished product, but you also get to watch and understand the fine art of Maasai beadwork.
To the Maasai people, beads highlight their dress code which is never complete without beaded decorations. Be it a belt. Bangles. Pendants. Bracelets. Anklets. Trinkets. Sandals. Necklaces. So forth. Beads are the main condiment in Maasai attire. Beadwork is, therefore, an activity accorded great importance in the community. It represents the cultural values and traditions of the Maasai and signifies age and social status. So important is the practice that women, who do the Maasai beadwork, are expected to learn and perfect the art for the benefit of the community.
Maasai Brand is a community project supported and housed by Basecamp Explorer at the Enjoolata Information Centre in the Mara. The community-based organization led by the project manager, Jemimah Sirowua, has 160 women from the Maasai Mara landscape who participate in the beadwork program. “We make different kinds of items. Bracelets, belts, bangles. We also do leatherwork like leather bags and wallets.” Explains a soft-spoken Jemimah. Basecamp began the project in 2003 with four main aims. First was a desire to empower the local women, give them a source of income, eradicate poverty, and modify the Maasai culture of beadwork. Basecamp Explorer buys the material used for the beadwork. The women go through capacity development and quality control training to maintain the standards and enhance their beadwork skills. They are provided with space for a workshop alongside a shop where they practice their skills and sell the art.
Here, at the serene setting of Enjoolata Information Centre, you will find the Maasai women of the Mara countryside busy doing what they love best. The women’s commitment to beading is so palpable. Their superb display of skill and passion comes with almost infectious energy. One cannot help but stare as their dextrous hands string the beads as if by magic chance. When you witness it first-hand, Maasai beadwork appears a craft as simple as it is complex. You get to watch, love and respect the effort put into the work, and marvel even more at the finished product. Most importantly, perhaps, you finally understand why beadwork deserves a higher pedestal in the world of art. In supporting the project, Basecamp Explorer Foundation must have seen and decided to cultivate this massive potential in the sole interest of the community.
The project manager, Jemimah Sirowua, says the project has gone a long way in uplifting the women. “They are paid for each piece they make. 75% of the cost of the item goes back to the lady who has done the beadworks. 25% of the cost of the item covers the administration costs of the project. We have eight staff members here working for the women. Some are working at the shops, and others are within the workshop centre. The project has impacted women in various ways. They can take their children to school, buy food, afford hospital bills and buy assets.” She explains. This Maasai beadwork empowerment has changed dynamics in a community where women were not allowed to own assets. “Because of Basecamp Explorer Maasai Brand project, most of the women have been able to own plots and cows. The main economic activity here in the Mara is livestock. Most of them now have cows that they proudly call their own,” asserts Jemimah, who has adorned herself with a beautifully beaded necklace made at the workshop.
On the job, the women train on how to get the sizes right, perfect colour combinations, and create contemporary designs. Some of them are able, albeit with lots of practice, to master complex patterns and teach their peers in the group. Apart from these work-related benefits, the Maasai beadwork project educates the women in other disciplines such as investment; how to save and apply for loans in banks. In addition to this, they have also benefited from the social empowerment they get from the project. “Some acquire leadership skills and become chair ladies of certain groups from the six subdivisions that we have within the brand.” Reveals Jemimah Sirowua.
The Maasai beadwork project by Basecamp Explorer sources materials needed for the work through recycling. A rice bag provides the thread used to string the products. The women pull a strand from it and twist it nicely, an activity that requires a lot of patience. It reduces the cost of production, and since the source is reliable, they get a constant supply of the thread. The project also relies on the tips of horns of dead cows to make a button for leather handbags and a twisted leather necklace. One of Basecamp Explorer’s other main involvements in the Maasai Mara community is a waste management project that involves the collection of plastics for recycling.
For the women of the Mara who have benefited from this project, the Maasai Brand beadwork is a golden chance to make something out of their lives. As the sun sets on the last day of our trip to the Mara, two beneficiaries of the Maasai beadwork undertaking tell me how much this opportunity means to them. “I enjoy beadwork, and although my passion lies in the fact that the venture is beneficial to me, I love coming here every morning.” Says a beaming Janet Rakwa. “Through the money I get, I send my kids to school, sometimes buy utensils and furniture. I can even start another business if I want.” Adds Jennifer Muronya. “If not this job,” she adds, “I would be staying at home, doing chores, being a housewife.” Both women agree that the project is a source of solace to them. They have a home at Enjoolata Information Centre, a place where they can polish their cherished beadwork skills, find shade, and make hay while the sun shines.
WRITTEN AND EDITED BY: Tim Njugi, Writer, Blogger, and Photographer
STORY COURTESY: David Macharia, CEO and Founder, Versatile Photographers