While in Maasailand I hope to interview some Maasai women and feature each of them on The Bucks Underground Railroad during March–Women’s History Month. Susan is the first of five.
My initial meeting of Susan is in May 2005. She, along with Daniel Salau Rogei are special guests at a Meet and Greet in Peace Valley Park hosted by Phyllis Eckelmeyer. It’s at this event I purchase my first piece of Maasai jewelry. Susan doesn’t speak a word as she snaps the bracelet around my wrist. Nine years later, that quiet demeanor I witness blossoms into a confident and knowledgeable woman–born from her experiences of speaking in front of hundreds of people about her Maasai culture.
Beaded jewelry becomes the means by which Maasai women form their own micro-finance company: Olorien/SIMOO. Susan’s compound is the meeting place where as many as thirty women regularly gather to create traditional and contemporary pieces of jewelry. In addition to the income from their jewelry sales the women raise chickens to sell eggs at the market. Extra vegetables are also sold at market. Now when Susan travels to Bucks County she brings jewelry created by women from the co-op. She keeps a ledger of all sales so that the money can be returned to each specific woman.
Olorien also partners with HairZing, an American company owned by Francesca Kuglen and Hollie Montgomery. The women support female crafters in developing countries by offering their products for sale on Hairzing’s website. The partnership with Olorien becomes more solid in 2008 and 2009 when the two executives travel to Kenya in order to meet with the women and assist them in ways to improve the marketing of their jewelry.
We at MCEP were aware that Susan traveled to Washington DC last June; but we had no details. Now as I interview her and ask about her 2014 visit, there’s a backstory to her representing the Maasai culture from the Olosho oibor village at the Smithsonian Festival 2014.
“For forty-eight years, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival has gathered people from around the globe on the National Mall to celebrate the best of the human spirit.”
So begins the introduction on the Festival’s 2014 website about this event. Kenya and China will be the featured Nations where their cultures of “… song and story, movement and craft in tow, exemplars of traditional genres demonstrate practices that continue to resonate in our modern world.” This picture is of the Kenyan and Chinese participants also from the 2014 Smithsonian Festival’s website.
Susan’s adventure begins when a Kajiado County Cultural Coordinator (the County where Olosho oibor is located) comes to interview the singing group in her village. Susan is a member of this group and they are one of three Maasai singing groups from different regions that will be interviewed. All the singers travel to Nairobi for a second audition at the Sports and Culture House. As each singer is interviewed individually, Susan’s responses are noticed. They ask about the jewelry she wears and she thoroughly describes the meaning of the colors and designs.
Susan is asked to return to Nairobi, minus the singing group. She is asked to talk about aspects of her Maasai culture. She describes her jewelry, the tasks of building manyattas and Maasai wedding ceremonies. She shines brighter than the brightest star in the dark Kenyan sky! Her multiple travels to Bucks County are proof of what results after speaking many times before hundreds of students and academics at schools or colleges, and to professionals at organizations. These life experiences of her visits to America as well as her ability to speak distinctive English and having a valid Visa are the perfect resume that eventually take her to the 2014 Smithsonian Festival.
Susan speaks warmly about her two weeks in America. The Festival ran from June 22 until July 7. Each day from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m. she joins other Maasai on the Mall surrounding the reflecting pond. Each of the Maasai are sheltered in a separate tent and available to describe their unique cultural knowledge to tourists. Other Maasai representing their culture at the Festival include a woman and man storyteller, a musician, a carving artist, a weaver and a hair braider. The participants enjoy an outing to Williamsburg and when I tease Susan by asking if ‘room service’ was most fun, she giggles instead of answering my question. She keeps in touch by cell phone with the hair braider–having made a lasting friend from her trip to America.
Susan and Francis’ two sons Ezekiel and Amos mentioned in my previous post, The Compound in Olosho Oibor Village are continuing their education–one at a prestigious boarding school, the other in his first year of college. They represent the next generation that will continue the legacy of their Maasai culture.