The Work of Beads: Traveling in Kenya

Work of Beads

I've savored a restorative sabbatical this summer celebrating seven years of Ibu by stepping back to feed my creative imagination for the next seven. I'm grateful beyond words for the Ibu Team who kept everything moving forward with vigor. The culmination of my time away was an inspiring trip to Kenya to visit some of the women who create Ibu magic. Just back, here is the first of several highlights I am eager to share.  ~SHW

While being welcomed by a rhythmic, rippling call and response, a hand reaches out to grab mine and draws me into the dance—one that is hypnotic to watch and problematic to do if you're not a Samburu (watch here). I try to undulate like these beautiful women who make their massive collars bob about, but my body doesn't bend in the right places. It doesn't matter—I am surrounded by color and joy and my heart is dancing in all the right places.  

We get right down to the conversation I've come for—to ask, what difference has this beadwork made in your life?  Saranto jumps to answer:

"Before I began this work, I relied solely on my husband. I was sitting at home with nothing. My choices were to make illegal alcohol or charcoal to sell. 

Since joining BeadWORKS, I have my own source of income, and can decide what I want for my family. I feel like I am a queen in my own household. I support my husband, I pay for school, buy food, dress well—am supporting the whole family. I'm in a very different place."

Beatrice is translating, the statuesque leader of BeadWORKS, and in her grace and strength it is easy to see why these women love her. She is from this community; these are her sisters, she says, even as she works on her Masters degree at McGill University in Toronto, a world away.


BeadWORKS Cooperative Process from Ibu Movement on Vimeo.

Beatrice Lempaira, Director of BeadWORKS, introducing us to one of the nine community conservancies which she oversees, giving work to 1,300 women. BeadWORKS is an arm of the Northern Rangelands Trust, a non-profit supporting the people, the environment, and the wildlife of northern Kenya. Listen to Beatrice explain the way this works, in the video above.

The stories continue to tumble out and all the while, the women are beading necklaces for Ibu—a stunning design first worked out by Star Beader, Saina, which we've offered with great success—one of the only places in the US to do so, I learn.  Just a couple of hours prior, I was pouring over the samples made for Ibu with Saina, tweaking colors, adding cowrie shells, anticipating what will look great around your neck with jeans and a tee shirt.

Saina, master beader

Saina, left, overseeing the sampling of her design at the BeadWORKS Center. 

Another beader speaks up, telling us how she sent her son to college, saving her earnings paid through a mobile app and under her control alone—an expense her husband would not have approved.  Another speaks of her pride in contributing 5% of her earnings to the conservancy which helps sustain their community and wildlife.  

By the end of the afternoon, when we gather again to dance and sing farewell, I still can't bounce the way their bodies do, and I can't speak in the music of their language, but I do understand their eyes. I understand pride. I understand power. I see Boldness.  Ambition.  Entrepreneurial zest. And I bow before their beauty and grace. 

We move out into the sun, the heat bright and intense. We turn to one another, my eyes filling with the honor of standing with women of such fire and appetite. We feel connected to you and your friends, the women say.  They only thing they ask of me, as they send me away with their blessing, is to bring their stories back to you, and in the growing sisterhood that we are—hope they might be blessed with. . .  more work.  

This, I want to say, is the powerful rhythm of call and response for all of us. A hand reaches out and takes yours and draws you into a circle—where lives a dream. Beyond all barriers,  beyond all differences . . . together we dance. 

Susan Hull Walker

Susan Hull Walker with Samburu Women