Community & Current Events

How fair trade jewellery is changing the lives of Kenyan women

Photography by Heather Greenwood Davis Image by: Photography by Heather Greenwood Davis Author: Canadian Living

Community & Current Events

How fair trade jewellery is changing the lives of Kenyan women

I am perched at the end of a bed in the kitchen of a house made of mud and sticks. The woman of the house has surrendered this spot, the most comfortable she has, to me, a stranger. Five people live in this space, and yet it is so small that if I stretched out my arms I'd hit three of them.

I am here to see a bride-to-be from my hostess's boma (village), and have stepped in out of the hot Kenyan sun to wait.
 
I didn't come to the Maasai Mara to meet a bride. The stop in this small rural village was to offer a ride to a mama, one of a group of Kenyan tribal women and mothers who are changing the future of their communities, one beaded necklace at a time. Instead, I've stumbled on a rare opportunity to see the fate that awaits many Maasai girls.

A different kind of wedding
Outside of the house, a crowd has gathered. Children poke their heads past the legs of cousins, neighbours and friends to steal a peek at the girl being primped by the women of the community for marriage. From my spot amongst them I can see her. Her headdress is intricately beaded and she has been draped with necklaces down to her waist. Her arms are covered in bangles. Her body is stiff, and tears stream down her face. Her mother cries, too, and in a few moments, when the girl departs with her new husband, her father will close the door on the outside world and let out an unnerving, inconsolable wail.
 
Tradition dictates that no one is certain of her age. Maasai don't keep track. But a daughter married into the right family, often by arrangement, can lead to an exchange of livestock that can change an entire family's future.

Having a large herd is like money in the bank: A cow can be sold for about $200, while a goat can bring in $50. However, for a bride married at a young age—removed from her family and lacking a formal education—it can feel like the end of everything. One of the mamas accompanying me notices my surprise at the bride's unhappy demeanour. "Don't you cry on your wedding day in Canada?" she asks. "We do, but usually out of happiness," I say. "Not here," she says, her eyes fixed on the car as it drives away. "We are always sad on that day. Everyone cries."

Making a living
When I recount this story to Roxanne Joyal in Nairobi, tears well up in her eyes, too. Roxanne is the founder of Me to We Artisans, a social enterprise dedicated to developing socially responsible global citizens. The organization helps support the work of its charity partner, Free the Children, cofounded by Craig and Marc Kielburger. While Free the Children works on issues like clean water, education, health care and food security, Me to We Artisans provides a source of alternative income to Maasai women, who in turn can provide for their families and communities.

It was in 2003, on a visit to Kenya, that Roxanne and special projects consultant Kim Mathewes first discussed the idea of working with tribal women to help turn their traditional handiwork into livelihoods. But it was a "kick in the butt" from Roxanne's husband and co-CEO, Marc Kielburger, that finally got Me to We Artisans going in 2009, she says. They started with 25 women; today, more than 812 women are earning fair wages using their traditional beading skills to make modern fashion accessories for the North American market.

"Our inspiration is the beauty and heritage of what the Maasai do," says Roxanne. The designs range from a simple $10 rafiki (friendship) necklace made from hand-forged glass beads brought in from the Czech Republic, to the popular 19-strand Turkana bracelet of antique trade beads, Venetian glass beads and brass charms, which sells for $149. Roxanne wants to prove that a business with a social conscience is both possible and profitable. "What makes me proud is knowing that everyone in the supply chain has gotten a fair chance to make a living."

The mamas are paid per piece for their work—often two or three times what they were earning before. Me to We supplies the materials and the mamas provide their labour. Fifty percent of Artisan's profits support Free the Children, the other 50 percent pays the mamas' wages and are reinvested into the program.  "This is a business," Roxanne continues, "but I know that what Artisans is doing will have a positive impact on those who produce [the products] and on those who will wear them."

About 100,000 beaded pieces were produced and shipped last year. For the most part, the work is done in mamas' homes or in community group meetings, but every day a group of mamas also come in from Kajiado—90 minutes outside of Nairobi—to work in Artisan's Atelier, a small work space that doubles as a gift shop. They work together around large tables beading, packaging or labelling the jewellery. There are typically 12 women there at any given time, each of whom work five days per week. The mamas vie amongst themselves for the sought-after trip to the big city via land cruiser, which they call the "Mama Matatu." (Matatu is their word for the minibuses that locals use as public transport.) As Roxanne explains, all of the women are eager for a few hours of child-free time in a clean, quiet vehicle. At the atelier they can also charge their phones—a luxury for many—and are provided with tea twice a day and lunch. "For once, someone is making something for them," says Roxanne.

Much of the organizing is done not by Roxanne, but by her agent in the field, Mama Leah. "We don't have a muse," says Roxanne, "but if we did, it would be her."

Sense of empowerment
Under the broad branches of an acacia tree, Mama Leah and Mama Gladys lie on their stomachs with their feet in the air. They look like schoolgirls on a picnic. Nearby sits a tray with a teapot and cups. "We'll take chai, yes?" asks Leah after introductions are made. Prior to the Artisans project, Leah, a mother of four, was like many other Maasai Mara women in that she would make the hours-long trek to the local markets with no guarantee of selling her work. Now, along with a guaranteed income, the Me to We Artisans project has brought her and the other women "confidence," she says, flashing a radiant smile.
 
"[Me to We] really empowered women," says Mama Helen, another community mobilizer, this time from Kajiado. She doesn't just mean that financially, either: Beading together provides an opportunity for the women to share issues they may be having at home, like an unsupportive partner. "At times, when we are sitting like this, I tell them some words so that they should get their husbands to respect them," says Helen. (Some of the more understanding husbands of the mamas have been enlisted to speak to those who are less inclined to support their wives in this project.)

The women have also learned new skills. "We provide financial literacy courses to the ladies who participate in our program," explains Roxanne. "So it's not just: ‘Here's your paycheque, good luck with that.'" Many of the women invest a portion of their monthly income in hair salons, small stores or the education of their daughters.

An opportunity for education
In rural Kenya, attending secondary school is the equivalent of winning the lottery. While primary school is free and mandatory, many children still don't attend because they are responsible for purchasing their uniforms and school supplies, which many cannot afford. Families often have to sell livestock to send a girl to high school. 

Free the Children built Kisaruni, an all-girls boarding secondary school, in the Narok South district and offered full scholarships to girls who went through a competitive process to ensure their spot. The girls' grades were considered, as were their extracurricular and community activities, leadership roles in primary school and their parents' support. Hundreds of Free the Children donors are providing scholarships for these girls to attend Kisaruni. Some of the students are the daughters of mamas in the Artisans program. Though a daughter in school means fewer hands at home to help carry water and tend livestock, there is no complaining among the mamas—only pride in the sacrifices they have made for their daughters.

Of the six mamas I meet in the Mara, all intend to send their daughters to high school and some are already at Kisaruni. Mama Gladys's daughter Irene is there. "When she was accepted, it was a happy moment. We wouldn't be able to [afford] this school," Gladys says.

Later, on the Kisaruni campus, I meet Irene, 15, and a few of her classmates, all in freshly pressed uniforms. The girls are clear on the difference that Free the Children and Me to We have made in their lives. "I'd like to be a lawyer," Irene tells me, noting that her education at Kisaruni means she'll be able to repay her family for the sacrifices they've made. "When a girl is educated, she can't forget her mother. The girl will bring a change to the family."

There are also plans for more high schools, including the recently opened Oleleshwa, which was funded in part by a $1-million donation from Canadian singer Nelly Furtado.

It's hard to imagine these eager, neatly dressed girls walking barefoot to school, hungry and in tattered hand-me-downs. It is harder still to imagine that some of them were expected to marry as young as age 13. These girls have different futures now and new dreams. They are future surgeons, tourism managers and teachers.

"The boys now can see that the girls are important," says Keatsy, 16. "They can see that our mothers can provide for us everything that we need. That makes me feel proud."

The girls at Kisaruni do not face the same future as the tearful young bride I encountered earlier. Their parents are not crying for them.

Check out how you can teach your kids to make a difference.
                                             
This story was originally titled "Mama Made" in the May 2014 issue.
           
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How fair trade jewellery is changing the lives of Kenyan women

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