The Maasai are a semi-nomadic tribe in Africa, one of the oldest cultures of Kenya. Distinctive colorful glass beadwork is a trademark of the Maasai and a tradition that spans centuries.
Now, 280 women from the tribe are using their extraordinary beadwork to educate about the dangers of female circumcision.
Beads are a symbol of beauty to the Maasai women and are of extraordinary value in weddings, ceremonies, and special occasions. It can take two women 40 to 50 hours to complete one caftan dress. The intricate pattern of this decorative beadwork is important to these women, and they have mastered their craft.
Maasai women of the Esiteti-Embarinkoi Hill region sold their beadwork, including bracelets, necklaces, rings, ceremonial dresses, and tribal necklaces, at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market in New Mexico last month. Many shoppers were intrigued with the craftsmanship and interested in the mission behind the beads.
“The sale of the Maasai beads has the power to transform entire communities, one village at a time,” Teri Gabrielsen, founder of African Schools of Kenya (ASK) says on the ASK website.
The women, who live in Kenya, outside Amboseli National Park and near Mount Kilimanjaro, now command an international flow of income for their beadwork. They dedicate most of their profits to the Esiteti Primary School in Kenya. The school follows the standard Kenyan curriculum along with added studies in health and HIV, environmental sustainability, animal and wildlife conservation, and cultural diversity.
The school’s general health course centers around the effects that circumcision has on their young women. Despite being made illegal in Kenya last year through the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act, the practice continues to be prevalent there.
Also known as female genital mutilation, female circumcision is considered to be a rite of passage in Kenya that prepares a young woman for marriage. During the ancient procedure, girls as young as 12 to 15 have their genitalia cut off either partially or completely, depending on the region.
As many as 140 million girls worldwide have undergone some form of female circumcision, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women’s Health.
There are many side effects of the practice, including heavy bleeding, pain, infection, and trauma in the short term. In the long term, there may be even more problems, including problems urinating, menstruating, having sex, and getting pregnant, as well as greater susceptibility to HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases—not to mention the psychological damage.
As a result of the new education program, parents of the Esiteti community have requested an alternative rite of passage without circumcision for their girls. It begins this month.
Forming the School
Teri Gabrielsen, co-founder of the Africa Schools of Kenya (ASK), established the curriculum at the Esiteti Primary School based on respect for the culture of the Maasai. She hopes to address the issue at the village level by implementing alternative rites of passage.
“Love for Kenya ran deep within my family,” Gabrielsen said. “When my children were 8 and 10 years old, my mother shared Kenya with us by taking us all on a safari.”
Their safari guide, Tim Melesi, worked with a spotter named James Ole Kamete.
“[He was] a smart, yet quiet and humble Maasai man who believed in education and dreamed of starting a primary school,” recalled Gabrielsen, who was an elementary school teacher at the time.
One day, Gabrielsen saw Ole Kamete sitting under an Acacia tree teaching elementary school to eight students. He wrote three letters of the alphabet in the dirt: A, B, C.
“Although he lacked formal education, it was then that I looked upon this young chief as having great wisdom. He was wise beyond his years,” Gabrielsen said. “I promised him that day that when my children grew up and entered college, I would come back to Kenya and help him start his school, and I did.”
Ten years after that safari, ASK was formed in 2006 by Gabrielsen and Ole Kamete. In 2011, the new six-room building for Esiteti Primary School was finished.
“ASK believes education is a key component in eradicating poverty and creating hope, dignity, and opportunity for these children,” the ASK website states about its mission.
In addition to curriculum on female circumcision, the school offers a cross-cultural pen pal program with schools throughout the United States and England. Although the students of Esiteti rarely have supplies to do art projects, the U.S. schools supply them with what is needed to write back or do art projects of their own.
“The Maasai students love this program and feel an important connection with other friends around the world,” Gabrielsen said.
Since founding the school, she said that things have changed there.
“When we visited Kenya, traditionally, the men came out to perform the welcoming ceremony. The women are usually behind the men to await their guidance.
“This year when we arrived, the women came out first, and they welcomed us to the village and ushered us in,” Gabrielsen said. “I saw the change, and it was very beautiful. It felt incredible.”
The Epoch Times publishes in 35 countries and in 19 languages. Subscribe to our e-newsletter.