Bead­work

Rafiki bracelets help pro­vide fi­nan­cial in­de­pen­dence to the Kenyan ar­ti­sans who make them.

Fashion (Canada) - - The Market Moments - By Is­abel B. Slone

I

Amid a field of goats, women chat­ter as they dip sew­ing nee­dles into piles of tiny beads and thread them onto string, cre­at­ing jaunty coloured bracelets called Rafikis.

’m 45,000 feet in the air and fail­ing mis­er­ably at keep­ing my chicken cae­sar salad down as the small char­ter plane I’m belted into dips and twists like it’s per­form­ing in some dare­devil aerial stunt show. Forty-five min­utes and three barf bags later (I kid you not), I ar­rive in Maa­sai Mara, a re­mote area of Kenya on the north­ern­most tip of the Serengeti plains.

Maa­sai Mara is home to cacti that tower over my five-foot-six-inch frame and su­per­sized ba­nana trees, eu­ca­lyp­tus trees and aloe vera plants that look like they’ve been tak­ing growth hor­mones. Rhi­nos, wilde­beest and ze­bras are fairly com­mon sights, con­sid­er­ing the area hosts the largest ter­res­trial mam­mal mi­gra­tion in the world. But it’s also home to the Women’s Em­pow­er­ment Cen­tre, a com­mu­nity hub built by Me to We in 2014 that of­fers a place for women to ex­er­cise their en­trepreneurial spirit while uti­liz­ing tra­di­tional skills. Here, amid a field of goats, women chat­ter as they dip sew­ing nee­dles into piles of tiny beads and thread them onto string, cre­at­ing jaunty coloured bracelets called Rafikis (rafiki is Swahili for “friend­ship”) for brands like Call It Spring. Over the next three years, the Cana­dian com­pany has com­mit­ted to help­ing build 10 class­rooms in Kenya that will house 400 stu­dents. It’s also sell­ing cus­tom Rafikis

($3 each) to help pay for school sup­plies. It’s here that I meet Mama He­len, a Maa­sai ma­tri­arch decked out in the flam­boy­ant disc­shaped beaded neck­lace that is given to all girls once they reach ado­les­cence. She ex­plains the sym­bolic mean­ing of each colour of bead: Green stands for grass, red is for blood, black is for skin, white is for peace, or­ange is for build­ing a home and blue is for sky.

Mama He­len tells me that she used to take her beaded wares to sell at a mar­ket in Nairobi—a good four hours away—where there was no guar­an­tee of sales. “Now, we are em­pow­ered as Me to We ar­ti­sans be­cause we make beau­ti­ful things and they pay us a fair price,” she says. The Women’s Em­pow­er­ment Cen­tre is within walk­ing dis­tance of Mama He­len’s home, and she is paid a liv­ing wage to do piece­work that will be sold all over the world. The ex­tra in­come th­ese women make from do­ing bead­work can go to­ward chil­dren’s school fees, food or sup­plies and pro­vides a much-wel­comed sense of fi­nan­cial in­de­pen­dence.

As I ride back to the tented camps in an army-grade ve­hi­cle that has can­vas flaps in­stead of win­dows (which I’ve taken to call­ing the “bush bus”), the song “Africa” by Yemi Alade plays over the tinny ra­dio speak­ers. The lyrics of the song—“Any­where you go / Lon­don, USA / Nowhere be like Africa”—are par­tic­u­larly apt. No doubt, Kenya is a place I won’t soon for­get.

SLONE TEACH­ING A JOUR­NAL­ISM WORK­SHOP TO STU­DENTS IN MAA­SAI MARA

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