Phoebe Lasoi had been making and selling her beadwork in Nairobi’s City Market for several years before she got the call from her local chief Nickson Parmisa.
The assistant chief in Kitengela wanted to know if she could adapt the traditional Maasai jewellery designs to make them more contemporary and potentially more appealing to an international audience.
Nickson had something specific in mind. He had heard about an invitation to show and sell contemporary Maasai jewellery at the International Folk-Art Market in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The invitation had come from the Kenya-born filmmaker Iki (aka Kenny) Mann who had recently moved to Santa Fe but still had close ties to Kenya.
“I was born in Athi River and my brother Oscar still lives in Kitengela,” says Iki who started something called ‘Acacia Moyo’: Where Tradition meets Technology’ in 2017 with the idea of assisting the Maasai community in building ‘robust’ and sustainable income-generating activities.
She’s been working closely with Nickson ever since.
“When I heard about the Folk-Art Market (the largest of its kind), I immediately thought of indigenous Maasai beadwork,” says Iki whose Acacia Moyo was able to bring Phoebe and the chief to the market last July.
It turns out, Phoebe who works with several other bead women, including the Olmakan Women’s Beading Collective, came to the market dressed in all her Maasai regalia. So did Nickson.
“They were like the king and queen of the event,” Iki says.
One benefit of their being there, apart from ensuring tremendous sales were made, was that the market organisers gave Phoebe a three-day training in marketing, branding, pricing and import-export.
“Apart from what we paid the beaders, the rest of the funds raised at the market went back to the community,” says Iki, adding that Acacia Moyo is now funding four years at Embakasi secondary school for seven girls and one boy.
“They were all selected by Nickson who chose among the most impoverished youth in the community,” Iki says. Sensitivity to the plight of the Maasai is the main reason Iki says she founded Acacia Moyo with Anthony Carlson whose also grew up in Kenya while his father worked for the UN.
“In recent times, the Maasai have often sold their land when they needed cash. But if they had other means of earning money, they wouldn’t have to sell it,” says Iki who grew up in Athi River near the Kenya Meat Commission, where her veterinary father, Dr Igor Mann first got a job as a meat inspector after arriving in Kenya as a refugee fleeing Nazis in the 1940s.
One of the other projects that Acacia Moyo is about to start with Nickson’s support, is bee-keeping.
“Nickson will soon select 30 youth to train with a local beekeeper. He has already allocated land where the 30 can set up hives,” she adds.
The third project Acacia Moyo plans to fund is in agriculture.
“There’s a course at the Santa Fe Community College that we want to take two students studying at the Rift Valley Institute of Science and Technology to,” she says.
Iki will attend the 2020 International Folk Art Market with another bead designer.
“This time it will be Naomi Teto who will go to Santa Fe in July,” says Iki who adds that Phoebe might already be in the US. In the meantime, all the beaders are creating new designs to sell at the market.
Many people who come to the market and appreciate folk art have been to Kenya before.
“They are often the ones who know traditional Maasai jewellery and especially like our beaders’ new designs,” says Iki who adds that the beaders have not only created new styles of chokers, long necklaces and beaded sandals.
The prices range from Sh1,500 to Sh11,000. Baskets go for Sh8,500.
They also created beaded bags that all sold out in Santa Fe in 2019.