Shauna Mistretta was no novice. She'd been working in Africa for years to expand markets for women. But in 2010, when she agreed to help a group of 200 Maasai women beaders at the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro, she didn't know that her life was about to change. She didn't know that their one room thatched roof school would grow to an 8 classroom educational center with over 600 children. She didn't know that female genital mutilation, the accepted rite of passage when she began, would be completely eradicated, and the wounding that accompanies it.
Shauna didn't know, as she does now, that women earning income through their beadwork would find their voices, would educate their daughters, and, in learning about the health risks of cutting, become strong to resist. She didn't know that the community would become her family, inspiration, home.
For centuries the Maasai have been pastoralists - a lifestyle now in danger as climate changes impact their livestock and food source. Maasai women have always done beadwork as an expression of their cultural identity; connecting with other women between chores of gathering water and firewood, building and repairing huts, and caring for their children in the harsh conditions of the Amboseli bush where lions and elephants grace the land.
The women beaders of Esiteti live in traditional manyattas (villages) which are a grouping of small huts made out of sticks, mud, cow dung. They still gather each day under a small acacia tree to do their beadwork, but it now has become their main stream of income.
All 200 women in their cooperative group have agreed to give 50% of their bead sales to fund their local primary school and also (through a supporting non-profit) provide scholarships for them to attend university.
I met Shauna as she offered beaded jewelry from these artisans at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market. Their bangles I have worn for years - they're great fun and always a source of interest; but it was the dress she was wearing that really stopped me in my tracks. A traditional dress, she told me, worn in ceremonies such as weddings, rites of passages, communal celebrations. Is it possible the women would want to contribute their distinct style to the Ibu World Dress Collection?
With pride. The resulting dress is cut of their own cloth, a soft comfortable blue/black check (nicely mirroring fashion's rage for checks right now) and loaded with beads and jingles that create a pleasant weight and movement. The dress makes me want to dance.
1.Work hard under the acacia tree, amid laughter and friends. 2.Charge a fair price. 3.Share your cultural heritage with pride. 4.Create beauty. 5.Give half of your earnings so that not only your children but all children in your village can go to school.
It's a remarkable algorithm for change, if you ask me. It's a whole other way to do math. Where children are the sum of that incredible largesse. And girls are free from cutting. And women have voices and are heard.
I'd like to wear that dress everyday, and dance.
All the Best,
Susan Hull Walker