For the past five years, the San Juan Weavers Guild has supported the Ngurunit Basket Weavers in Kenya by paying their membership in Weave a Real Peace (WARP). With the help of Laura Lemunyete, our go-between with the basket weavers, we have had the privilege and delight of offering some of their baskets for sale at our annual Show and Sale.
Here are some of their stories. You will be amazed and inspired!
And you can find more information and pictures at nomadicbaskets.com.
Nkagas Lenawachingi is 26 years old. She was married quite young and has now 5 children: 3 girls and 2 boys. She and her husband are pastoralists depending on livestock for their livelihoods. They have few livestock so making ends meet has been a challenge. Along with the little milk and income from selling a goat when having one to spare, they also produce charcoal to sell, which in the Samburu society, is considered a last resort economic activity and does not bring much income. She saw that the women of the Ngurunit Basket Weavers Group were selling baskets and earning good income so she started to learn to weave and joined the group in 2013. Since then, she has found life getting easier as she is earning significant income from the sale of her own baskets. Her older children are now able to go to school as she has income to purchase their uniforms and pencils. She is also more able to purchase needed household commodities.
Early on, Ngilen Lecharkole recognized the benefits of joining in women's groups in order to empower herself and improve her livelihood. She joined Star Gille Women’s group around 2000 which had many activities to improve the lives of its members. One such project was providing female camels for their members through a Heifer International project implemented by PEAR Innovations, a locally-based non-profit which also facilitates the Ngurunit Basket Weavers. Consequently, Ngilen was among the first members of the Weavers group when it was started through PEAR Innovations in 2003. With milk and income from her project camel and the income she receives from her basket sales, Ngilen is able to make a huge contribution to helping her husband support their four girls, two of which are attending school, with all the expenses associated with that. The other two are traditional herders, also learning to weave the baskets and have a skill that will help them earn a good income alongside their traditional pastoralist activities.
Mariana Lepitiling, pictured with her youngest girl, Naitupun, has four children, two boys and two girls. When she married into the Lepitiling family, she found many of the women were weavers with the Ngurunit Basket Weavers. Seeing that they were able to make a good income, she also learned how to weave and joined the group in 2011. Since then she has sold many baskets and been able to improve household livelihood greatly as she and her husband have no other business and have few livestock. She has also joined a young women’s group named Namayana Women Group (Namayana means “blessings”). The group works together to help empower the members and many are also members of the Ngurunit Basket Weavers Group, encouraging each other to find new ways to improve their livelihoods.
Ngetian Leurich is in her late forties with six children. She has been a widow since around 1998, struggling to raise her children without a husband. Upon being widowed, she moved back to Ngurunit to live with her mother who had been given a camel though her Salato Women Group Heifer camel project. From drinking the camel milk, her children’s nutritional status greatly improved and she was able to start sending her children to school on the income from milk sales. To help supplement the camel products and support from her mother, she joined the Ngurunit Basket Weaver’s Group at its beginning around 2003, which has proved to be a lifesaver for her and her family. When her mother died in 2010, the camel was taken over by another branch of the family and Ngetian left with basket sales as her sole income, along with a small goat herd she was able to build from the basket profits. As well as for food and other commodities, the income from the baskets assists greatly in paying school fees for one of her boys who is in High School and helps buy uniforms for three of her other children who are in Primary School.
In 2001, the traditional style of Rendille baskets weaving was a dying art. Only about 10 old Rendille women still wove the traditional camel milking baskets used by the camel herders. This state of affairs for traditional weaving in Ngurunit changed when one old member of Salato Women Group gave one of her baskets to the manager of PEAR Innovations (Laura Lemunyete) and asked her to sell it for her as she was very poor and had no other income. When the manager was able to sell the basket quickly in Nairobi and was asked for more, this led to the recognition that basket weaving could become an income generation project for the Rendille and Samburu women living in Ngurunit, and save a dying art in the process. Nkerisaba Lewano, Nkarin Lepitiling and Ntomulan Lesainia were three of the members of Salato Women Group that set out to learn to weave in the traditional Rendille style, but put their own Samburu designs and colors into the baskets in order to make them a more usable art form. From their efforts, more and more women in Ngurunit started to learn to weave baskets with PEAR Innovations facilitating finding markets and getting advice from a professional weaver living in Nairobi (Janice Knausenburger) on how to help the women improve design and quality. These activities led to the establishment of the Ngurunit Basket Weavers group in 2003. In 2009, PEAR Innovations posted an American Peace Corps Volunteer, Grover Ainsworth, to the business improvement program. He helped the group, having grown to over 200 members, to organize into quality control units under selected Master Weavers who showed great skill and had been members of the group for many years. Nkerisaba, Nkarin and Ntomulan were three of these spearheading Master Weavers. In 2011, along with three others, they traveled to Washington DC for the Smithsonian Folk Festival as part of the Peace Corps 50th year anniversary exhibit. They proudly showcased their amazing basket weaving skills and taught the many people passing through their tent how to weave in the now well-revived camel milking basket weaving style.
One of the challenges of the Ngurunit Basket Weaving Group is the high level of illiteracy. Over 90% of the members are not able to read or write. While this does not affect their ability to weave, it does make it difficult for them as a group to keep records of basket inventory, finances and orders. In 2008, PEAR Innovations was able to secure donor funding that assisted the basket group to build a Basket Design House as a focal point for the group and a place to assemble for meetings and for storing their baskets. This development also tied into the work of dividing the group into quality control units under Master Weavers. These new activities required more on-the-ground management than PEAR Innovations was able to provide alone. Thus, Lilian Lekadaa (on left in picture) and Kalindi Loibor (right) started to act as managers for the basket group and assist with all things that required reading and writing. Lilian and Kalindi have proved themselves very valuable to the smooth running of the basket weaving business. They keep records of basket intake into the store room, assist members with quality control on basket order filling, help PEAR Innovations Manager with payments to members from basket sales and generally help the group to care for and maintain the Basket Design Center.