How the women of Kalama are changing their community one bead at a time
By, Peter Muiruri
The open plains of Northern Kenya are among the most stunning places in Africa. Scattered acacias jut out of the Earth, breaking free of the parched red Earth that has seen little rain for months. Rocky peaks stand out of the expanse, creating the perfect stage for hiking enthusiasts. With its fame as a wildlife haven, Northern Kenya looks like a tiny paradise.
But behind this vaunted beauty, Northern Kenya is haunted by conflict, mainly driven by a lack of sufficient resources that have marred this serene environment. Poor rains have turned the region into a dry landscape where little in the way of food crops grow.
Yet, Northern Kenya is full of stories of resilience.
A couple of weeks ago, I joined a team of scribes on yet another trip to the North. We pass a group of women driving a herd of donkeys laden with domestic goods — beddings, cooking utensils, basins — everything. They seem to be on the move to establish a new settlement in another part of the jungle.
Our first stop was Laresoro village in Kalama Community Conservancy. Like any other Samburu village, Laresoro consists of a cluster of traditional huts woven around a central courtyard. Few children were loitering here, some herding goats. On the other end of the courtyard, Nabiki Lesuper’s shop stands out like a desert rose in a parched land. Two elderly women find the shade of the veranda irresistible.
Lesuper has had no formal education but is a beacon of hope to her community. One of the star beaders of the group, her shop is constructed out of the proceeds of a thriving beading industry that incorporates close to a dozen other women here. On this day, Lesuper’s compound is a beehive of activities. She is a champion and group leader of the local women, and her commitment to seeing her fellow women succeed is evident. She reminisces about the days when she began beading in a nearby manyatta when hope was all but gone.
The women noticed her determination and followed suit. Today, these women, once at their wit’s end, have turned their small-scale beading industry into a thriving enterprise. With the support of the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), they are turning their traditional skills into a viable business model that has seen children go back to school and community restock after vicious drought cycles decimate their herds.
“The drought has killed our livestock, our principal means of living,” she says. “Beading has come in to fill the void. It was a hobby. It is now serious business. We can pay for our children’s education, and have some money for food and water.”
Lesuper and her group, along with 1,300 women, are transforming their communities through beadwork while earning decent earnings through the local and export market. In the greater region under NRT control, beading artisans earned Sh12 million (79 lakhs INR) as labour payment in 2021, a 28 % increase compared to Sh9.3 million (61 lakhs INR) they earned in 2020.
Although beading is a painstaking task that involves meticulous stitching and passing a thread through the tiny beads with a needle, the women of Kalama have found a way that helps them go through the rigours of this chore with ease– they sing. In Samburu, there is no shortage of good music. In fact, singing is part of any pastoralist community’s life. They sing during birth rites, initiation and marriage ceremonies, and when performing any group task.
In Lderkesi, they sang, including one elderly lady sitting towards the back of the pack. She was not beading, but her voice carried well over those of her fellow women. Perhaps she no longer beads because her eyesight is not good enough to put the thread in the bead hole. Or her hands are a bit shaky to pass the thread through the bead holes. But by singing, she contributes to the task by giving moral support to the rest of the team. It is a battle against poverty. In a battle, those who go to the battlefield and those who watch over the baggage are valued members of the fight.
As we head to our pit stop in Isiolo later in the afternoon, we could not help but admire how these resilient women of Kalama are changing the fortunes of their community, one bead at a time.