Young Turkana women find solace in beadwork

Kenyan beadworks are increasingly becoming popular in foreign countries. [Bakari Ang'ela, Standard]

A group of young women from Turkana County have found solace in beadwork, making ornaments that are now finding their way to markets in the United States of America and Europe.

They say they were running away from early marriages, and the devastating effects of drought and banditry when they discovered beading.

For the last four years, the beadwork business helped them fight early marriages and teenage pregnancies, and achieve economic autonomy.

The beads, commonly known as shanga, the women say, have become their source of income and have helped them shun nomadic lives and take their children, especially the girls to school.

The women learned to make anklets, bracelets, earrings, and Christmas ornaments among others.

Akeno Nachunge from Kaikori village ran away from early marriage to engage in beadwork. She joined tens of other young women turning beads into a stable income.

"I was married off at a young age and could not complete my education. I discovered that in our patriarchal society, I had no right to own any property such as livestock. I decided to quit the marriage to engage in beadwork and I don't regret the decision because I am now earning an income," Nachunge said.

Akusi Ekeno from Todonyang says she turned to beads after bandits raided her village, killed their father, and took away everything they owned.

Ekeno says, apart from helping her forget the ordeal, beadwork became her only source of employment.

"When we meet to do beadwork every day, it is not just work, for me but a form of therapy and solace. We joke and laugh the whole day and at the end of it we earn money and our children get food. Relying on livestock is no longer viable. There has to be an alternative," she says.

CEO of Ushanga and Turkana North MP Hon Nabuin during a skill-building programme on beadwork. [Bakari Ang'ela, Standard]

Mary Ajikon also from Turkana North says the drought turned their family poor, and she resorted to charcoal burning to get money for feeding her family.

"After burning charcoal for years, I discovered I was doing the wrong thing. Trees were diminishing, and the village was becoming bare each day. I settled on beading, and I am now cooking using gas. My income from beadwork enabled me to buy a gas cylinder," says Maraka.

In April, an organization trained the beadwork pioneers of Turkana on the international marketing of their ornaments in foreign markets and networking with women from other pastoral communities who found a niche in beadwork years ago.

Dorothy Mashipei of Ushanga Kenya Initiative said the organization had planned to take the Turkana North women for benchmarking visits to Kajiado and Samburu for networking, and the formation of a Sacco, which will boost their investment and marketing of bead products.

"Training has been done to enable women to understand the international market. Sensitisation to change men's attitudes has helped more women embrace the business because everything in their communities belongs to the men. The only property owned by women is beads," Mashipei said.

She said through beadwork, empowered women were now taking young girls, who would be married off in their teenage years, to school.

"We are also planning to incorporate men in the beadwork business because we can't leave them behind," she added.

Turkana North MP Paul Nabuin said the beadwork initiative promised to push for recognition of beadwork as one of the key cottage industries for support from the national government through the hustler fund SMEs programme to be launched later in the year.

"This initiative unites women from pastoralist communities. Kenyan beadworks are increasingly becoming popular in foreign countries and women want to capitalise on it. We will ensure that they have the necessary support for them to prosper and create more job opportunities," said the lawmaker.

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