Nashilu Moriaso is seated on the grounds of the Maa Trust in southern Kenya, sewing a traditional, decorative Maasai beaded design onto a wide, thick tote-bag strap. Speaking through interpreter Resian Letoluo (who is also the Maa Trust’s Maa Beadwork project manager), she explains how her life has changed since joining the organization five years ago.
Moriaso, who learned the skill of beading from her mother, earns money monthly from beadwork, supplementing the family’s livestock-based income and enabling her to pay for food, cookware and school fees for the children. Just as importantly, her work supports the wild animals of the Maasai Mara region—where the Maasai people, semi-nomadic cattle and goat herders, have lived since time immemorial.
“I talk to my children about how I have this job as a result of the wildlife,” Moriaso, who has a light blue batik shawl tied casually around her shoulders, says with a broad, engaging smile.
Moriaso is one of 576 Maasai women in their 20s to mid-50s who utilize traditional bead working skills and jewelry making to enhance the family income. All of the women are mothers; a few are widowed and, as a result, single parents. Their work is tied directly to an innovative model of conservation that not only boosts economic development but enhances the ecosystem and wildlife.
The Maasai Mara region—with its extraordinary range of iconic animals like elephants, giraffes and lions, which attract thousands of tourists every year—is part of a vital African wildlife migratory route that runs from the Serengeti in neighboring Tanzania. Every year sees the Great Migration, when upwards of two million zebras, wildebeest and other antelopes travel from Tanzania into the Maasai Mara in search of green pastures.
The Maasai Mara region is also home to nine conservancies, all of which are owned by the Maasai people and provide them regular monthly lease payments, in exchange for setting aside their traditional lands to support wildlife and ecotourism. The Maasai live in large communities on the periphery of the conservancy lands and graze their cattle and goats on carefully managed, rotated pastures. This has doubled the wildlife habitat of the Maasai Mara ecosystem, ensuring a steady income for the tribespeople and enhancing sustainability.
The Maasai patriarchal culture dictates, however, that the land-lease money goes solely to the men, Letoluo says. The Maa Trust, through the Maa Beadwork project, facilitates the sale of the bead ware and jewelry to visitors who stay in safari camps within the Olare Motorogi and Naboisho conservancies, helping Maasai women benefit from conservancies. Maa Beadwork also finds overseas markets for the handmade items by partnering with international fashion designers such as Kushukuru, a company that specializes in luxury home decor.
“As Maasai women, we don’t have ownership rights over the land or the livestock,” Letoluo says, “but we own the skill of beadwork.”
Letoluo, 30, a Maasai, is an example of how education can change the trajectory of a woman’s life. As a result of a bursary derived from local wildlife conservation funds, Letoluo was able to attend school and achieved a Bachelor of Commerce degree and a post-graduate diploma in human resource management, giving her the skills necessary to mentor nearly 600 women. But even a basic level of education is invaluable. Although the artisans affiliated with the Maa Beadwork are illiterate, they are being trained in quality control, says Letoluo. The women are also taught basic mathematics and microfinance, ensuring they can properly count rows when beadworking. Basic financial skills help them to negotiate in the marketplace.
Of equal importance, Letoluo says, is having the women gather together, and exposing them to new ideas. Here’s one example: Traditionally, Maasai girls undergo female genital mutilation or cutting (FGM/C), and then are married off—leading to a life of childbearing and wifely duties as well as physical complications including hindrance of urination and menstruation, infection, scarring, dangerous labor and excruciating sex. Gathering together at the Maa Trust has provided opportunities to educate the Maasai women about the negative health effects of FGM/C.
Before, the women didn’t associate the mutilation with complications during child birth; by bringing in a Kenya Ministry of Health-trained nurse who speaks Maa, the language of the Maasai, Letoluo says the women are beginning to “connect the dots.” That shift could prove powerful in Kenya, where FGM/C has been prohibited by law since 2011, but the Maasai community continues to have one of the highest cutting rates of girls.
The Maa Trust also nurtures other development projects and education—including teaching women about nutrition, proper water and sanitation, menstrual hygiene and how to start a business. It supports Maa Honey, made possible by women harvesting, packaging and selling locally sourced honey, and also further enhances community infrastructure through school constructions and the creation of rainwater harvesting water projects for human consumption.
Noolarami Kapirontoi joined the Maa Trust in 2014. She had never beaded before, but caught on quickly. Kapirontoi—sporting braided hair, a red skirt, a green batik shawl and a beaded choker decorated with dangly metallic medallions—lists the household items that have enriched family life thanks to her beadwork sales. Besides paying school fees and clothing for her four children, she also purchased a solar panel for electricity, beds and a cooking gas canister for cooking. Before, she would have to gather firewood from the Maasai plains, exposing her to possible attack by wild animals.
While the livestock—cows, sheep and goats—are still the main source of income, Kapirontoi’s contributions is recognized in the house. “[My] husband is proud of me,” she says. “I am proud and happy.”
For Kerempe Moriaso, dressed in bright red, beadwork means more than the ability to buy household items, such as school fees and supplies, clothes and food. It has also given her more power in the family. Now, says Moriaso, she and her husband, who owns cattle, sheep and goats, will discuss her earnings and plan how to spend it.
“I have more decision-making power,” Moriaso says. She also has high aspirations for her daughter, Naleke, now that she can afford to send her to school. “I want my daughter to be a career woman,” she says.