We walk quite a ways from the Chief’s boma, stepping over and around thorny acacias, to reach the women who are already gathered under the single tree that casts even a hint of shade, a bit of protection from the blazing hot sun. These are the artisans of Tanzania Maasai Women’s Art, and they light up an otherwise dusty and colorless landscape. In this group, heads are adorned with elaborately beaded headresses; necks, chests, forarms and ankles are covered with colorful cuffs and bangles; and bodies are draped and wrapped with all shades of red, purple and blue kangas, kitengas and shukas. These women sit comfortably with their legs stretched straight out at 90 degree angles. Some nurse infants at their breasts and others tend to toddlers on their laps.
They appear as a force to be reckoned with, and the person they are waiting for is me.
I have arrived with my UNITE 2012 traveling team. There are six of us American women, and we are with our friends Tati Oliver, the director of the Tanzania Maasai Women’s Art program, and her associate, Margaret Gabriel. A lithe and lovely Swiss woman who has lived in Africa for more than 30 years, working first in tourism and now in women’s development, Tati has instructed me to talk to the women a bit about the importance of the quality and consistency of their work. I am their biggest client, and their only one selling consistently to an American audience.
“Asante sana kwa ajili ya kukaribisha sisi hapa leo,” I say, thanking them for their warm welcome of me and my team. And then, having used up my tiny bit of conversational Swahili, I continue on in English.
“As you may know, I run an organization called UNITE The World With Africa with my sister Kim,” pointing at my dadangu who, as the appointed photographer, is hard at work. “We are representing Tanzania Maasai Women’s Art in the United States, and we use the Internet and a site called The Ashe’ Collection to sell your jewelry.” I think the women will like this since ”Ashe” means “thank you” in their Maasai language, Kimaa, but no one responds or even smiles after Margaret finishes interpreting.
I continue and, not knowing quite what else to do, assume we all are on the same page. ”In the world of e-commerce, when people purchase items, they rely on photographs only, so it is very important that the actual products they receive look exactly like those in the pictures. This is why it is so important that you produce high-quality items that are consistent in their size, look and feel,” I said.
I pause for Margaret to tackle that mouthful. This time, the women respond, and they are getting increasingly animated. I think I have offended them. The conversation continues for quite some time between Margaret and the lead mama. Their expressions shift from concerned, to annoyed, to relaxed, to amused. I breathe. Margaret turns to me and says very simply, “She wants more money.”
“That’s all she said?”
“Yes, the price of beads is going up and they need more money.”
I turn to Tati, the big mama boss who is the one in charge of everything. She nods. Clearly she is not surprised by this turn of conversation. Each month, Tati and Margaret 4-wheel-drive it over harsh terrain more than one and a half hours out here to the village of Mkuru to meet with these Maasai mamas, along with dozens of others, who make the jewelry of their Tanzania Maasai Women’s Art. Tati and Margaret teach new designs, conduct seminars on health and leadership, and they buy. The women bring everything they have, and yet only the best pieces are chosen.
“The women will often beg for me to buy necklaces that are made with wrong colors or bracelets that are too long,” explains Tati. “As much as I want to, this is a business and in order for it to work, they have to stay true to the designs.”
But, she continues, it is true. The price of the beads has tripled in the past year. No one is really sure why. The traders are making huge profits, and the women are suffering. In the Maasai society, women bear children, service their husbands, and work. They haul water, build houses, clean, cook, and farm. They command little to no respect from the men and village elders. But today, through the work of Tanzania Maasai Women’s Art, things are beginning to change. These illiterate women who have no formal skills are being educated and trained, using their ancient craftsmanship, to become artisans who are earning money. When they are able to make bracelets, earrings and necklaces that are good enough to sell to Tati and Margaret, who can then sell them others, they are able to change their lives. They have money for school fees, shoes, soap, sugar, and supplies. Their husbands see value, home abuse abates, and a new story is to be written.
“Sawa,” I say to the lead mama, and turn to Margaret. “Please tell her that we understand, and we will see what we can do.”
As we leave, we embrace. We are two sets of women living in two vastly different worlds, and Tati, Margaret, and Tanzania Maasai Women’s Art are our bridge. Together with my commitment, I am energized and renewed.