Every few days, Naitalala Nabala lays out a container of multicoloured beads on a blanket outside her house. Her mother, Nashilu Dapash, joins for this distinct mother-daughter time that forms the fiber of Maasai culture in Kenya.
Side-by-side, Naitalala and Nashilu create beautiful strings of bright colours that are worn with love and deep fondness—known internationally as Rafikis.
When they bead, the pair falls into synchrony, a perfect unison formed through years of beading together. Their gestures mirror each other as they scoop up beads and thread them (seemingly effortlessly) onto a clear string. For the first few minutes, quiet descends on their homestead—only interrupted by the rustling of beads on the tray. Once they find their rhythm, they talk as they work. An intricate Rafiki necklace design takes them roughly ten minutes to complete. “We can do it in our sleep,” Naitalala beams.
Naitalala was 12 when she first made a beaded necklace. She was taught how to bead by her mother who also learnt it from her mother. As far as the family can remember, every girl was taught how to bead by their mother. It’s a ritual, and duty, in the Maasai community for every girl to learn beadwork. And it carries great significance.
The beadwork embodies the Maasai culture, representing beauty, tradition, strength, and sometimes even social status. “Women met up in groups and beaded jewelry worn by both men and women during different events and occasions,” Nashilu shares. “Beads are a symbol of beauty,” she adds.
But for this generation, beading is playing a new, and needed, role. For years the Maasai practiced pastoralism—livestock was their only source of income. They would rely on milk from their cows and goats as well as the sale of livestock to sustain their families’ needs. But hot and arid conditions affected the pasture land. Faced with drought and unproductive dry lands, Maasai communities turned inward, to women, and looked to repurpose one of their most celebrated assets—beadwork.
For Naitalala, this became urgent as soon as she had kids. She had to find a way to earn an income. Until then, the family’s only source of income was selling cow milk. She realized she couldn’t solely rely on it if she wanted to feed her children, clothe them and take them to school. So, she innovated.
Naitalala and her mother decided to start selling their beadwork to their friends and neighbours. But they were met with limited success—with everyone beading in their community, and the market being far away, there was little opportunity to make a sale: All supply, no access to demand.
When WE started working in the Mara, hundreds of women brought forward this conundrum. So, after much consultation and community planning, the organization set up the Women’s Empowerment Center in Narok County, where women can come together to bead and find an international market for the beadwork. Now hundreds of women earn an income through beading at the center. And hundreds more, like Naitalala and Nashilu, bead from home and have their beadwork delivered to the center. To date, more than 1,400 women are able to earn a living through beading.
Naitalala says the biggest impact Rafikis have in her life is allowing four of her five children to get an education. The youngest is yet to start school, but with the income she earns from beading, she knows school fees won’t be a problem.
Nashilu on the other hand has built a bigger house for herself with the income she gets from beading Rafikis. “When people visit, they wonder how such an old woman like me has a beautiful house!”
Both women hope to continue beading into their old age. As custom dictates, Naitalala has passed on beading skills to her daughters. While her daughters help out occasionally, she says their priority is school. “Beading is part of our tradition, but I want more for them. They must go to school.”