Sure, you know about the wildlife and the birds of Kenya and you know about the warriors. You’ve probably seen Out of Africa (a few times). Well, the secret, delightful discovery for first-time visitors to the Maasai-populated areas of this east African country, is that men and women, young and old, the Maasai are profligate jewelry wearers and makers.
So, in addition your daily searches for the Big Five, plan to spend some time sitting in the shade with a willing Maasai teacher and learn to make something out of beads.
Elephant with baby at Maasai Mara National Reserve
Maasai women have some magical connection with glass balls and string. They turn ordinary objects like bowls and key chains into brilliant eye-catching objets d’art. And the jewelry, oh the jewelry! Men and women wear the finished products. Your ordinary bracelets, anklets and rings of course, but also elaborate, chest-crossing bandoleers for the men and for the single ladies, necklaces so large and curved they’re like capes.
This is why on my visit to Karen Blixen Camp in Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya last year, I jumped at the chance to spend a morning learning with 28-year old Doreen Sekento Kumum. She arrived for our session with a rainbow assortment of beads and the patience of a saint – ready to teach four American women the basics of her craft.
Doreen has been making jewelry since she was six. My travel companions and I didn’t have two decades to spend, just a few hours, so Doreen wisely decided on an easy, two-step necklace project.
After she emptied her case on the large table under a shady tree, we faced our first decision; What colors to use?
In Maasi culture, this choice has meaning. Blood is red, that’s the color associated with bravery. White symbolizes purity and green is health. That wasn’t really different from western color associations. Still, we just picked colors that matched what we were wearing.
Slowly, we started sliding the tiny orbs into the threaded needle. One by one. Then emboldened by our success, three by three, then soon we were loading the entire needed and the strands filled quickly.
Soon we were in the complacency zone, greedily filling strings without having to concentrate very hard. Naturally, we started to chat.
We asked Doreen to tell us about her life, which she generously did. She lives in a typical Maasai village with other women. But that was not always the case. She told us about her personal life. Some of her stories were funny and some were sad. All helped us get a small, slice-sized view into her very different world.
Soon, we presented our strands, now numbering half a dozen each to Doreen and she twisted and secured them so that they were transformed into eye-catching bundles of color.
We were proud of ourselves – far more than we should be considering our modest creations. But we left with more than what was draped around our necks.
Our morning cultural event had been transformed into the kind of gabfest women enjoy around the world. Eyes and hands engaged in one thing, our minds engaged in conversation and our hearts had been connected moment-by-moment, accumulated into something bigger and better like beads lining up to create something beautiful.
Back home in the States, I talked about the birds and the beasts we saw on the trip, but that morning under the tree with Doreen is what remember when I look at my beaded necklace.
Planning a trip to Maasai Mara and want your own beading lesson? Contact Doreen via Facebook https://www.facebook.com/doreen.sekesh
Author of The New York Times bestseller, The Crash Detectives, I am also a journalist, public speaker and broadcaster specializing in aviation and travel.