How I co-created an eco-fashion collection with an amazing group of badass Maasai women
By Safety Pins
January 27, 2014
I am an AfroPunk and I have the tattoos, piercings and Afro to prove it. But the most punked out thing I have ever done is live in a hut in the rural Rift Valley of Kenya and design an eco-fashion collection with an amazing group of badass Maasai women. Yes I said badass, I hope they don’t mind. Actually they probably will mind, they are very elegant women, but super badass too.
By Tereneh Mosley, AFROPUNK Contributor *
Olorgesalie, South Rift Valley in Kenya is so obscure even most Kenyans have never heard of it. I had to hire a driver to take me and even he asked to see it on the map. It wasn’t there. I promised him that it did in fact exist, I had actually been there before. “How could some American girl know about a place in Kenya that I don’t?” His look said, but I paid him before we hit the road so that was enough incentive to get us going.
Range Rover Defenders are hot. They are the iconic dark olive green SUV you see in every good African safari image, though I wasn’t driving, in my heart I felt like a cool nomad on her way to a great adventure, though truth be told I just looked like a passenger. After about two hours we arrived and I started to unpack. So I had about 10 minutes…
“We are ready Tereneh,” Elizabeth Kilakoi called from outside my banda’s door. Okay I had 3 minutes. I threw everything down and walked over to the corrugated roof shack the women of OMWA – Olorgesailie Maasai Women Artisans use as a shop to sell their beadwork. But given the remote location there are few visitors that was one reason why I was there. Elizabeth was one of only two women of OMWA who spoke English and she was my interpreter.
Before that day I had spent the past few weeks visiting with the women 2-3 times a week. I would sit with them, observe, and bought when I could. I generally wanted to prove my worth in the hope they would be willing to work with me. People show up with promises they don’t fulfill, I did not want to be one of those people. So I let them touch my afro, they have elegantly feminine shaved heads; my hairy arms – they have the smoothest skin on earth and my tattoos, well most of them. They pointed at my tattoos and laughed. One of the ten or so I have is on my ankle, it is of a Maasai woman. They thought that was hilarious.
Earlier I had shown them the recent Maasai-inspired collections from Christian Dior and Givenchy, with each image, they pointed at my laptop screen and said “Maasai!” They were surprised and excited, they had no idea that capital F, fashion was so inspired by Maasai design. Now I wanted to develop a way for the Maasai themselves to benefit.
On our first design day I laid out a couple dozen sheets of paper and colored pencils. Through Elizabeth’s translation I told them I wanted to spend a few hours a day brainstorming ideas for a collection. The women all started laughing, again. So I waited nervously at first for an explanation or at least directions on how to walk back to Nairobi. Was something literally “Lost in Translation?” Then Elizabeth said, “You see most of us did not attend school and have never even held a pencil.” I stood for a minute not knowing what to do, I was looking at women ranging in age from 16 to 80, trying to imagine my own life if I had never held a pencil.
“Okay ladies, you’re talented, you’re smart and beautiful. Just put the color of the pencil, where you would put a bead,” I said with confidence. I am an AfroPunk, remember? But in my mind I thought, ‘I have the driver’s cell number he is probably only about 20 minutes away. ‘At first they all huddled around one sheet of paper, with only one or two women actually holding that foreign object, the pencil. But by the end of the first day we had covered each and every one of those pages, beginning an amazing process that continues to this day.
After that first day, I was thrilled, excited, and ready for the next day’s design meeting with the women. What I was not ready for was life in a hut – alone, with no running water, no bathroom and no electricity. My friends who had loaned me the Defender had also given me a camping cooking stove and other things I needed for life in the ‘bush.’
A quick summary of my daily tasks included, walking in a sarong to the shower hut, where you pull a string to get cold water poured on your head– you get used to it. An outhouse which during the day is not too far away but at night might as well be on the highest peak of Kilimanjaro. Daily or twice daily trips to the water tank to get water to wash clothes, face, dishes, pots, pans in a wash basin – no not the same basin, but I got pretty good at using water over again. For example if you boil pasta that is damn good water to use to wash the pots too. The romance of colorful clothing hanging out to dry is lost when the winds are so high the clothes you just cleaned (well got soapy and wet anyway) are now lying in volcanic ash and dirt. The phrase ‘Well that is clean enough’ was repeated in my head over and over again. Okay out loud too.
The first day was portentous because by the end of our design sessions we literally had run out of paper. OMWA and I, had our solid first collection, a true design collaboration called The Tomon Collection – tomon means 10 in Maa the Maasai language. It is a sustainable line of clothing and accessories for men and women using local and sustainable materials. In order to get the resources we need to make the collection we have launched an IndieGogo campaign.
* Tereneh Mosley is a fashion educator, designer and creative nomad. She is currently in New York, but hopes to return soon to Olorgesailie Kenya discovering new reuses for pasta water.