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Handicraft Traditions in India and Kenya

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Photo: Ditte Isager

Landing at the wrong airstrip is excusable in the chartless desert of Kenya’s Northern Frontier. After banking steeply around Ol Donyo Sabachi, a sandstone peak where wild elephants roam, Rick the bush pilot drops his Cessna 210 from the dry blue sky, kicking up clouds of pink dust on the short runway. I begin to worry when no vehicle appears to be waiting for us. Climbing out of the cockpit, my friend Anna Mason, a safari guide and equine therapist, looks around at the vacant hills and decides we should probably be elsewhere. The pilot radios for directions. Sure enough, we are just shy of Sereolipi, one degree north of the equator between the trading post of Isiolo and the Ethiopian border. Our journey into the Kenyan bush will begin there, as Mason and I head off to meet a collective of Samburu tribeswomen.

I credit my fascination with handicrafts to faulty DNA: I belong to a creative gene pool but can’t draw a straight line. (Imagine being the child of artist parents with a studio full of supplies, and having no clue what to do with tubes of Winsor & Newton oils.) To compensate, I collect. My taste tends to wearable trophies, and I also have been interested in supporting female artisans in Kenya, India, and elsewhere.

Think of women’s collectives as a global quilting bee. In remote societies that share no obvious cultural denominators, women are gathering together and employing traditional craft skills to sustain their communities’ welfare. Whenever other tasks—herding goats, fetching water, nursing babies—can be set aside, the women in these collectives create one-of-a-kind baskets, rugs, bracelets, shawls, pottery, anything that can be made by hand, for small sums that offset daily expenses such as medicine, food, clothing, and school fees. The only drawback when a family’s breadwinner happens to be a woman, rather than a husband, brother, or son, is surmounting—or circumventing—hidebound conceptions about who holds the purse strings. These self-improvement initiatives have also started to afford some members certain freedoms that women in the West largely take for granted (such as choosing their own husbands).

Touching down for the second time, at the correct airstrip, we spot our contact, Chief George Ilpaliwan Lemerketo, in a pickup. The local government administrator, he invites us to ride in the truck, which belongs to Jane Newman, a retired ad executive from Britain who worked in New York. She first visited this settlement eight years ago, when a friend’s Land Rover broke down during an expedition to Addis Ababa. Since then, Newman has adopted Sereolipi as her personal mission, badgering her friends and former colleagues to sponsor dormitories, libraries, and solar-powered computers for the area’s primary schools. She also convinces me to visit neighboring Ndonyo Wasin, near the Matthews Range, where the locals living in mud-hut manyattas (villages) produce colorful bracelets made of glass beads and recycled tire rubber.

Lemerketo climbs into the cab and Mason and I sit down on an improvised cushion under a canvas canopy in the back. Two Samburu home guards sit on top of the baggage behind us. One clutches an AK-47, necessary protection on this frontier.

They begin a call-and-response journey song that wavers whenever we hit ruts in the unpaved road. (In Swahili, Mason politely asks them to point the gun outside the truck.) Scraping past thorn trees, we turn off the main track to bump over rocks in dry creek beds. Spotted guinea fowls and their chicks scurry out of our way. Spindly dik-diks, deer the size of newborn lambs, rest under dusty shrubs. It takes almost two hours of rough driving to reach Ndonyo Wasin.

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