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Handicraft Traditions in India and Kenya

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Photo: Ditte Isager

Soon, I hear a welcome song from beyond a screen of bushes. Tightly bunched, a dozen women walk toward the twig shelter where we are resting. They wear printed orange, turquoise, and lime-green cotton shukas (cloth, or coats) knotted underneath layered chest plates of wire and beads, an ensemble that demands elegantly erect posture. A tarp is spread in the shade and they sit solemnly, with passive faces, as we are formally introduced. Jacob, who purchases their trade beads, translates our conversation. In a society where wealth still grazes on four hooves, Newman has been encouraging this group to earn a little hard currency using techniques and patterns that are unique to the Samburu aesthetic. Two of the women, Peneten and Narika, nurse babies bundled close to their breasts. I am transfixed by the sayen enkwe (headdresses), stitched with leather and plastic buttons, on their shaved heads. The workmanship is exceptional, so I praise it. Overcoming their shyness, they unpack a pile of bracelets, rings, and neckbands.

Our visit is unhurried. We talk about husbands, milking cows, schooling for the children. Most of the women are in their late twenties, although they don’t keep track of years the way I do. Only Veronica, who wears intricate braids, has been as far as Nairobi; most have barely ventured to Sereolipi. The sun drops down over the mountains, softening the harsh foliage to a tangled silhouette against the pale silver and rose sky. Mason admires a pair of tanned goatskin bags and asks the price. That’s when the negotiating kicks into high gear and we find a stack of jewelry and bags in our laps. All the women clap their approval. At this point, I bring up the headdresses again and ask whether anyone would be willing to sell one. After I offer to pay whatever price is named, four ladies add theirs to the pile. Then, a woman called Priscilla surprises me. She proffers one of her own layered chest plates, requests 1,500 Kenyan shillings (the price of a goat, or about $22), but seems willing to settle for less. However, she grabs up her headdress and resolutely jams it back on her cropped hair. Not paying attention,

I look at other work on the tarp until Mason leans over and whispers that Priscilla has become very quiet, her body shaking slightly. Facing her, I ask if it would help to pay the original amount for her necklace and she brightens. Mason and I are careful to pick something from everyone in the group, even though the skill levels vary, as there is no singling out of talent in Samburu culture.

We settle up with Jacob while the women of Ndonyo Wasin gather around, chatting and giving us gifts of little rings and single-strand necklaces. Peneten rubs her bald head and wants to see what she looks like without her sayen enkwe. Using my digital camera, I extol her shorn beauty. She has a lovely smile. A full moon is rising and the women disperse, striding on recycled-tire sandals into the distance. Lemerketo, Mason, and I sit on folding camp chairs as his warriors grill a freshly slaughtered goat over wood. It tastes like wild herbs. Curiously, another headdress arrives by courier. It belongs to Priscilla. Afterwards, as I lie on the ground, covered in a thin wool shuka, the moonlight shines on my face. I can’t stop wondering why she decided to relinquish her headdress after all.

After we return to Sereolipi, Mason departs for Nanyuki and I fly to the highlands, where I will soon learn the significance of beads for the Samburu and for their cousins, the Laikipiak Masai. On a bluff facing south toward Mount Kenya, I look down at an ocher plain bisected by the muddy, rock-tumbled rivers that allow these tribes to sustain a way of life little changed for centuries.

As Kenyan-born Julia Francombe and I walk toward a beading workshop called Sampiripiri (Samburu for "butterfly"), at Ol Malo, her family’s farm on the edge of the Laikipia Plateau, she remarks, "Endangered animals get more funding than people here." An Oxford grad, Francombe started a charitable trust during a severe drought in 2000 as a way of supporting her neighbors, who were starving as their livestock died of thirst. She is blunt about how austere the lives of women can be in this environment, lacking such basics as medicine and primary education. When I bring up female circumcision, a rite of passage still practiced by the Samburu, she says, "I’m here to assist, not to change."

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