Vibrant beads made into geometric patterns are a hallmark of Maasai people.
From the time a Maasai girl is born, she is exposed to the traditional art form, watching multiple generations of women create intricate jewelry for families and visitors of their tribe, in either Kenya or Tanzania.
“It’s a skill for every woman in our community to know,” said Phoebe Lasoi of the Kitengela Women Olmakau Cooperative in Nairobi, Kenya.
This week, Lasoi will bring her craft to the 16th annual International Folk Art Market | Santa Fe as one of 190 craftspeople selected from around the world to participate, including 45 first-timers.
The opportunity to come to the United States and sell beadwork from her region, Lasoi said, is an honor. More than that, it’s a way to bring a type of traditional art into the modern world, ensuring it is never lost or forgotten.
“We have to keep the tradition going,” said Lasoi, 30. “It’s very important to keep beading as a cultural thing — not just for centuries, but forever.”
The history of beadwork for the Maasai dates back hundreds of years, when they first used natural resources such as clay, wood and bone to make jewelry. Since the tribe began trading with Europe in the 19th century, their main material has been glass beads.
In Maasai culture, beaded wearables not only are a source of beauty and history, they’re also symbols of age and social status. Unmarried Maasai girls often wear large flat discs around their necks; on their wedding day they decorate themselves with heavy and elaborate necklaces that hang to their knees; once wed, they wear Nborro, a long necklace with blue beads.
Men similarly wear bracelets, necklaces and headpieces in ceremonies and rites of passage. The more colorful the designs, the more powerful they are believed to be.
The bead colors have their own meaning as well: Red symbolizes bravery and unity; white stands for peace and purity; and black represents struggles the Maasai people endure.
Today, Lasoi said, there are more hues of each color available than ever, and the items are more contemporary than in the past. From over-the-top statement pieces worn for special occasions to simple handbags and footwear, Lasoi said, it’s becoming more common to implement Maasai crafts into everyday wear.
One of the newer, more modernized items Lasoi creates is a beaded sandal. The shoes, she said, are her most popular product.
“I’m very shocked,” she said with a laugh.
Modernizing designs in this way is the primary goal of the Kitengela Women Olmakau Cooperative — a group of 24 female beadworkers located just south of Kenya’s Nairobi National Park. The women generally meet at least once a week under an acacia tree by the river to make products not only relevant to them, but to cultures around the world, Lasoi said.
“[Our items are] 100 percent Maasai, but the only thing [different] is design. … It’s a mix of Maasai and modern,” Lasoi said.
“They’re pushing the envelope,” said the market’s creative director, Keith Recker. “Isn’t that how we keep tradition alive in the 21st century?”
Kenny Mann, co-founder of Acacia Moyo — a Santa Fe-based nonprofit focused on helping Maasai people, also responsible for bringing Lasoi and a Maasai Chief Nickson Parisma to New Mexico for the market — said the ability to cling to culture while adapting to change is what makes the Maasai people so fascinating.
“A lot of times, we expect traditional communities around the world to remain exactly the same, to remain frozen in time,” Recker said. Lasoi and others from the collective, he said, remind buyers that different cultures “get to decide what they look like and how they embrace their identity in a way that is best for them right now.”
But beading is not just about looks, Mann said. It’s a lifestyle — and it’s survival.
Many Maasai women live in poverty, making between $1 and $2 a day, said Mann, who was born and raised in Kenya. Many are forced into marriage at a young age and have limited rights, sometimes being sold to men in exchange for cattle. While Mann said this is changing, a majority of beadworkers rely on the craft to survive.
Leading up to her departure for New Mexico, Lasoi said she created ample sandals, handbags and pieces of jewelry.
To make a pair of sandals, Lasoi said, requires at least 500 beads and about 1½ hours of work. A simple pendant or pair of earrings, she said, takes about two to three hours, depending on the size. And the most complex jewelry, she said, can take up to two days.
Lasoi said she typically beads six days a week in her Nairobi-based shop or at home. She uses fishing line to thread the small glass beads, often adding shells, bones and pieces of silver to her designs.
She never beads on Sundays, she said, because that day is dedicated to spending time with her 4-year-old daughter, Nyaliny. As the girl gets older, Lasoi said she plans to teach her how to bead, just as she was taught by her mother and grandmother at 8 years old.
“She is a digital girl, but she has to know how to do it,” said Lasoi. “But if she doesn’t like it, it’s up to her. I won’t force her to do what she doesn’t like.”
As for Lasoi, she said she plans to bead for life. “It’s part of the culture, and I take pride in that,” she said.
“And we look good,” she added with a laugh. “I love it. It’s addictive.”
This story has been amended to reflect the following correction. A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that the creative director's name is Kevin Recker. It is Keith Recker.