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