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Handicraft Traditions in India and Kenya

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Photo: Ditte Isager

As we observe stragglers hurrying toward the workshop with red plaid shukas flying, Francombe tells me their jewelry is "like a diary." Pointing to a woman wearing a harlequin collar, she continues, "There is a language to the beads. I can tell how many suitors she has had, how long she has been married, the sex of her children. Westerners have nothing like it." Bead colors and shapes have significance: green for grass or infants, red for blood or young women, white for purity. Clued in to the visual messages of their jewelry, I can now read these women’s lives. It makes me feel guilty to think that I treated their headdresses, redolent of woodsmoke and perspiration, as mere objects.

The earliest known African beads, discs fashioned from ostrich eggshells, date to 10,000 B.C. The first glass beads were apparently imported from India around 200 B.C. Subsequently, European and Arab traders bartered beads for ivory, gold, and slaves. In many African societies, beads are still highly prized for both everyday and ceremonial ornamentation. For nomads like the Samburu there is little point in decorating their households, so they concentrate on personal adornment. And, it seems, the men are just as vain about their appearance as the women. When I meet Kandari Leparsulan, a Laikipiak Masai who was given the saintly name of Boniface at missionary school, he is wearing an ndarasha headdress of plastic flowers. His friend Dominic has an equally flashy bead necklace with a bow-tie motif. Both work for Nairobi-based designer Anna Trzebinski, who operates Lemarti’s Camp on the Uaso Nyiro River, a two-hour drive south of Ol Malo, where it’s verdant enough for scented acacia and fig trees to bloom. The men escort me to a gathering of warriors and unwed girls who dance for hours in the midday sun. I want to watch the spectacle, but the married women have laid out an equally attractive display of beaded baskets, walking sticks, and jewelry. They ask me questions about how to deal with wily traders from the Kikuyu tribe.

Back in Nairobi, I visit Trzebinski’s studio. She adopts African motifs in her clothing line that uses materials from around the world (suede from Germany, pashmina from Nepal, Kenyan ostrich and flamingo feathers). Her second marriage, to Samburu tribesman Loyapan Lemarti, has raised eyebrows among the uptight "Happy Valley crowd," the descendants of the European whites who settled in the Great Rift Valley. She couldn’t care less. Trzebinski allays my concern about Priscilla’s change of heart. Standing among leather samples and art supplies, the designer insists, "It’s no blunder. They find it easy to refuse unless they really want to sell. And they will always make new ones." She employs 45 women who earn between $200 and $400 a month on beaded piecework. They wear Western clothes, carry cell phones, and speak English. Sitting at one of the tables, I ask these big-city women to show me how to bead. One, a soft-spoken, fine-featured young woman named Kerubo, is decorating a leather bag strap with a handsome woven pattern. About five years ago, when she dropped out of secondary school, she learned beading from her mother, who also works for Trzebinski occasionally. Now she is a mother herself, with a five-year-old daughter to raise. Kerubo hands me a hole punch for piercing the cowhide and a bowl filled with purple beads. Capturing precisely 10 of these on a needle takes a ridiculous amount of time. I can barely see the holes. The others duck their heads, trying to hide broad grins at my lack of dexterity.

Across the Indian Ocean, and on the threshold of a society the diametric opposite of Kenya’s nomads, I climb into the backseat of a cream-colored Birla Ambassador car where Vijay Khan sits, shielded by silk curtains from her driver, Waseem. He closes the door and gets behind the wheel to navigate the congested streets of Lucknow, the 18th-century capital of Uttar Pradesh, in northern India. We drive out of the city across the broad Gangetic Plain, passing fields planted with wheat and lentils, drying dung heaps shaped like stupas, and faded brick temples. The dusty road is shaded by exhausted mango and eucalyptus trees waiting for the late-summer rains to revive them. At mid morning, it is already 90 degrees. A petite woman with amber eyes and expressive hands that emphasize her points, Khan self-consciously crosses out the title of rani on her calling card. She is married to Mohammad Amir Mohammad Khan, known to his family as Sulaiman, the Raja of Mahmudabad, a city in the Sitapur district. His ancestral holdings include a massive 600-year-old fortress, where the family continues to observe purdah. As practiced by both Hindus and Muslims in India, purdah requires women to remain modestly veiled in public and to maintain separate living quarters from the adult male members of their household. Unless her two sons find wives interested in adopting the custom, she may be the last rani in the family to practice the "protocol of the unseen."

Being a "purdah lady" in the 21st century, especially after attending Smith College and Cambridge, means Khan is adhering to a doctrine established 1,400 years ago while she wrestles with modern issues such as e-commerce and trunk shows in London and Manhattan. "I am deeply privileged," she says to me, as Waseem leans on the Klaxon to urge along a Brahma bull blocking the road. "I can cross worlds. Others can’t." Khan has invited me to visit her embroidery collective, called Qilasaaz ("the fort and its wherewithal," in Farsi), to meet those who belong to this partitioned world. We talk about her motivation for founding Qilasaaz. "My purpose is to contribute to their life, not to give them a lecture," she explains. "They are employed with the full knowledge of their husbands, so it has not been subversive."

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