Maasai Story

The Beadwork Project – Il Ngwesi


The Maasai women are part of the Il Ngwesi community, living in Kenya’s high country to the North of Mount Kenya. Their community land covers 16,500 acres of open rangeland, forest, hills and savannah. The population of 8,000 leads a pastoralist lifestyle herding cattle, sheep and goats over large areas. In 1996 an Eco Lodge is build, which it totally owned and managed by the Maasai community. The money generated by the lodge, is used for all sorts of community development projects, such as water, education, health and women enterprises.

The Beadwork Project is one of the women enterprises that started in 2008 as a joint initiative by the Il Ngwesi Community and VSO Jitolee. The goal is to improve the livelihoods of the women and their position within their society. As the project developed and with the skills of the women improving some of the women also became trainers of trainees. They not only lead training within their own groups but also teach their beading skills to other villages. The project provides training support in different beadwork skills and basic business skills such as record keeping and costing through the micro finance initiative that is working to benefit the entire Il Ngwesi community at an interest rate of 5%.

The project covers almost the whole of this large and remote Il Ngwesi community from Chumvi in the south, to Lokuseru on the escarpment in the Mokogodo Forest behind the lodge, Ngarendare nearest the slopes of Mt Kenya and Leparua covers the area between the Lodge and Lewa Downs Conservancy. The project works with four umbrella groups comprised of women representing between up to 4 and 7 other smaller groups. It is estimated to be supporting up to 700 women.

All Maasai women are real artisans if it comes to beading and weaving. The products they design are all made by hand, an ancient skill that goes from mother to daughter. They use recycled glass beads in all colors, beaded on fabric, leather and wood or designed by itself as traditional and contemporary art. We are continuously designing new products and looking for new markets all over the world. The beautiful Maasai beaded products represent Kenyan culture and support the Maasai women just around the corner, creating economic & women empowerment.

Recently we started working with a Japanese designer through Ethical Fahsion Center in Nairobi. This is a social workplace, founded by Vivienne Westwood, where designer products are made by local artisans. The Maasai women form a part when it comes to beading skills and adding value to a fabric bag. We look forward to work with designers all over the world!

The Maasai women always made jewellery. They originally used seeds, shells and porcupine spines with elephant hair for thread. It is thought that glass beads from Venice were brought to the interior of Kenya around the 16th century, by the Europeans, being traded by the caravans coming in from the coast.

Nowadays the high quality recycled glass beads still come from Venice and also from the Czech Republic. There are wholesalers selling these quality beads in Nairobi. This is where the Maasai women get their beads. China and India are also producing glass beads, although quality is very low. We only work with the highest quality beads, which will last forever and never fade.

Colors are very important in Maasai jewellery. There are various modern stories about the meaning of each color, but these are not traditionally known by the community. However, there are eight Maasai colors: Red, Black, White, Dark Blue, Green, Orange, Yellow and more recently – Sky Blue.

Red is an important color worn by the men in their shukas or blankets and red ochre mixed with lanolin is used in ceremonies and worn in the hair by the young men or Moran. A dark blue and white belt is made for the first born baby which is passed on down the line.

Some of Kenya’s most important towns are called after Maasai colors. Nanyuki, near the Il Ngwesi community, is the word for red and Narok in the South, means black.

If you want to support the Maasai women you can make donations to the following Beadwork Project Account in Kenya:
Account name: Il Ngwesi II Group Range, Bank name: Barclays, Branch: Nanyuki, Account number: 202 4746731, Bank code: 030, Swift Code: Barckenx, Description: Beadwork Project Donation
Il Ngwesi Logo


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