Beading in Unity Village: Samburu Women Claim Their Destinies

Down a dusty, rocky road in northern Kenya lies a special village of women who have chosen to live communally for survival and solidarity. They are women of the Samburu tribal people, well-known for their elaborate and brightly colored beading, particularly their large and vibrant collars and headdresses. They are less well-known for the assaults made on them, which they suffer as another part of traditional Samburu culture.

ABOVE: Unity Village Members Beading; photo credit: Apin Yasin

Ngamasioi Lembwakita adding cowrie shells to a milk gourd; photo credit: Brett Bruyere

Ngamasioi Lembwakita adding cowrie shells to a milk gourd; photo credit: Brett Bruyere

Launched in 2011 by a core group of determined women, Unity Village is their effort to protect themselves from violations such as female genital mutilation, very young forced marriage, early pregnancy, rape, and spousal abuse. While their stunning beadwork helps earn them a livelihood and support their cause, reaching their goals of living safely and educating their children is a formidable task, especially given their remote location and lack of exposure on the world stage.

Beading for Income

Currently, there are 20 women and 77 children taking refuge and living in freedom at Unity Village. Their primary source of reliable income is selling their colorful beadwork through the Samburu Youth Education Fund (SYEF), based at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado. Although they find progress in achieving their goals extremely challenging, by local standards they have been successful. Since 2016, the average income generated by Unity women via SYEF is $400, equaling the mean annual income for rural tribal Kenyans!

Unity Village Beaded Products; photo credit: Apin Yasin

Unity Village Beaded Products; photo credit: Apin Yasin

As the village is located near the Samburu National Game Preserve’s main gate, the women also sell locally to tourists on their way to and from the preserve, but in recent years tourism and income from it have been unpredictable in Kenya. Tourism also declines during prolonged droughts, and just being able to feed their children then becomes a daily struggle.

With funds they have managed to save from the SYEF beading project, the Unity women have built a special hut that sleeps four, with beds and mosquito nets. This hut is reserved for tourists who want an authentic cultural experience, and it provides an additional source of revenue for the village. One of the group’s goals is to construct a second tourist hut in the coming year.

Beading for Security

Discussing topics relevant to each individual and the group as a whole as they work, the women draw strength from their communal way of life. They spend their days sitting on tanned cowhides spread out on the ground as they make their beaded products to sell in their open-air curio shop. One of their immediate goals is to save enough money to build a permanent structure for safely storing their wares. This building will serve not only as their new shop, but will also provide the women with shade from the intense sun as they bead and protection from rain and frequent windstorms.

Each woman in the village has also built her own small dwelling hut, weaving small saplings together to form the sides and top, then covering them with a mixture of dung and mud or cardboard and tarps. For safety, the huts are grouped close together, and each has a small doorway that can be locked.

Margaret Lepeesha & Ngamasioi Lembwakita; photo credit: Will Davis & Meredith Grady

Margaret Lepeesha & Ngamasioi Lembwakita; photo credit: Will Davis & Meredith Grady

The Unity women are also raising funds to be able to construct a security fence around the village. The fence will contain their animals safely at night and help prevent intruders or wild animals from entering.

Beadwork in Samburu Culture

Beads have been an integral part of Samburu culture since before Europeans arrived. Traditional body adornment was made from seeds, ostrich eggshells made into beads, and cowrie shells stitched onto hand-tanned leather garments.

Trade beads from Europe arrived in the early 1800s. The Samburu were drawn to a type of dark-pink glass bead that became known as a “Samburu” bead. These beads have mostly disappeared from circulation, though I managed to buy two strands through a dealer in Denver, and gave them to the women to use in traditional wedding necklaces. Small glass beads made in the Czech Republic continue to dominate the beadwork that Unity women make. They prefer to use colors with no surface decoration in shades of red, orange, yellow, turquoise blue, and black. These colors have spiritual significance. Red, for instance, represents blood, and black symbolizes their skin color.

Their products now include traditional broad collars using small-diameter wire, headdresses, bracelets and bangles, earrings, lidded baskets and open bowls, dog collars, and key rings. They work in a variety of beading techniques that include stringing beads with thread or wire, netting, and single-needle couching on leather. The women also make traditional items such as gourd containers for milk, jugs made from river grass, and ceremonial staffs. They are extremely productive and quick to learn new methods through observation; most of these women are illiterate.

Beads denote many things in Samburu culture: wealth, age, gender, and status. The women of Unity are proud to wear many layers of beaded collars, headdresses, earrings, and bracelets because it indicates their value and worth as independent women in charge of their own lives.

Beading for the Future

Having had little or no education themselves, the women of Unity place a high value on education for their children. Primary school in Kenya is free, though government-run schools do not offer much of an early education. Secondary schools are privately run and costly, often exceeding the women’s annual income.

Nchekiyo Lembwakita, photo credit: Will David & Meredith Grady

Nchekiyo Lembwakita, photo credit: Will David & Meredith Grady

Their strongly held vision is to provide their children with more educational opportunities than previous generations have had. They want their children to be able not only to go on to secondary school but also to college and university. They also hope that the children will one day return to assist these mothers who have shown such strength in improving all their lives. To achieve this impressive goal, they know they must broaden their efforts and increase the revenue they generate.

More About Unity Village

This article first appeared as Bead Buzz in the February/March 2019 issue of Beadwork.

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