Teach a woman to bead...

Friday December 21 2018

A Samburu woman works on her creations outside manyattas in Kalama Conservancy, northern Kenya. PHOTO | SUSAN MUUMBI | NMG


And the whole family she will feed.

The sounds of goats bleating and babies crying welcomed us to Kalama Conservancy in Samburu County in northern Kenya on a recent visit.

This part of northern Kenya is is generally dry and dusty.

A group of some 11 women welcomed us with song and dance.

We — myself and five media colleagues — joined in, flexing our knees to the rhythmic flow of the traditional music.

We sat on makeshift stools, and the women introduced themselves to us in their local language and in Kiswahili.


We introduced ourselves to them in Kiswahili.

Beatrice Lempaira was our host on that hot afternoon. She is the beadworks production manager of Northern Rangelands Trust Trading, a for-profit social enterprise which is the trading arm of the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT).

She explained what her work entails.

“We work with conservancies in northern Kenya to empower the communities to find business opportunities. We have a credit and co-operative society, and we train the youth and women in business skills. They save money and take loans to run their businesses.”

Lempaira works with more than 1,020 women in nine conservancies across four counties: Marsabit, Isiolo, Samburu and Laikipia.

'Star beaders'

The process of transforming traditional women beaders from makers of personal jewellery to beading at a professional standard for economic gain has not been easy.

Production assistant Agnes Lekoomet said when they started the project in 2014, the women needed training.

“We had to teach them and it was hard work. When they discovered that they could make a living from it, they took a keen interest in the work. Now, they have become proficient and are teaching others. They know the right colour combinations and sizes of the ornaments.”

The best of the lot are referred to as “star beaders.” They receive the materials from NRT, then share them with the other women.

The star beaders receive the payments on mobile money service M-Pesa and distribute the money accordingly.


Some of the completed beads. PHOTO | COURTESY

This work has clearly uplifted the lives of the women. Faces aglow with the pride of earning their own money, they narrated their stories.


Nompaiyo Lepartingat, a star beader from Kalama conservancy, said they have come a long way.

“In the beginning, we would spend all our money on food and clothing. Now we have learnt how to use M-Pesa. We have learnt how to save with the co-operative, keep some money in our bank accounts, and use the rest for our day-to-day needs. We have learnt new skills, like how to check the finished products for quality. Even if NRT left today, we have acquired the skills to continue on our own.”

In the deeply patriarchal communities of northern Kenya, how have the men reacted to the women earning their own money?

“The men are appreciative of our earnings. They know we are fine. Even when they have to travel long distances looking after the livestock, they don’t worry about us,” Lepartingat added.

It is whispered that some of the men help with the beading, but they would never admit to it as it is regarded as women’s work.

So what were the women doing before they started beading?

“We used to build our manyattas, fetch water, make the chang’aa (country liquor), burn charcoal and sell it. We have stopped distilling chang’aa because drunkenness brought many problems.

“We used to fight with our husbands. Now we have money for school fees, and we are contributing to the family income. We are rich!” star beader Margaret Lekaria said.

Beatrice Lempaira explained the sales process. “We look for local and international markets.


Some of the completed beads. PHOTO | COURTESY

“Most of our products are sold in the UK, Australia and the US, to gift shops, conservation organisations and zoos. Locally, we sell our products mainly to lodges and a few shops. We also sell our products online via our website

“We have high and low seasons. The women earn between Ksh5,000 ($50) and Ksh10,000 ($10) per month [a considerable amount in that area] in the high season, between August and December.

“Most of our products are ornamental, like Christmas decorations, keychains and jewellery. We also make bags, belts and dog collars. Dog collars are doing very well on the US market.

“We use glass beads from the Czech Republic. These are more expensive than the plastic beads from China. The quality is higher, and we want to maintain those standards.

“Our biggest success is that the women understand that this is their business. Our biggest challenge is that more than 10,000 women want to join, but we can only take them according to market needs.

“Another challenge is keeping up with international standards. We are competing against products from South Africa and South America.

In late November, Danish Princess Mary visited the Kalama Conservancy and saw the beadwork made by the Samburu women.

She was clearly impressed. By the time she had finished touring their stand, the stock was significantly depleted, especially the Christmas decorations.


Denmark’s Princess Mary admires beadwork from the Samburu women. PHOTO | COURTESY

Danish Minister for Development Co-operation Ulla Tornaes who accompanied Princess Mary on her visit said she was happy to hear that the women were using their earnings to educate their children.

“I’m impressed with what is going on in the area, especially the income activities by the women,” she said.

So, if you’ve been good this year and you end up on Princess Mary’s Christmas list, you may find a beaded gift from a remote corner of Kenya in your stocking.