Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Learning from the best: beadworking with the Maasai in Olduvai

Learning the art of beadwork from the Maasai in Olduvai Gorge was one of the highlights for the OGAP conservation team this season (see details about our team here).

The team was very interested in engaging more directly with local Maasai women to learn about Maasai culture from them. First-hand understanding of manufacturing techniques is essential for a conservator's work, as is a deeper understanding of the cultural significance they carry. At Olduvai we learned from the best. And it was so much fun!

Colourful beads and other materials were brought from the Maasai Market in Arusha (Image by R Peters)
We organized several beadworking sessions and were introduced to the basic techniques. A small fund was provided by the UCL Conservation and Development Research Network, and beads and other materials were brought from the Maasai Market in Arusha. We had several sessions with Pendo Melau and Nairoshi Zebeday. Pendo and Nairoshi came over to the Leakey Camp at the end of the day and patiently showed us what to do! Needless to say they had to undo/correct our work very often!

We also had the chance to observe Siteyo Lembele and Sekwai Babai beadworking (they were working for the OGAP excavation but would sometimes come over to our lab during their lunch break). Siteyo and Sekwai showed us their techniques, and sold the end-products of the demonstrations.

As you probably know, beadworking is exclusively carried out by women in Maasai contexts. They start learning as little girls and devote a lot of attention to the use of colours and creation of designs - at some point they will have developed their own personal styles (usually influenced by their mothers). Their skills achieve nothing less than perfection and they are very critical of small defects.  It was fascinating to see how the four of them produced completely different patterns even though they were using exactly the same raw materials.

Here are the wonderful Pendo Melau,  Sekwai Babai and Nairoshi Zebeday discussing different techniques to produce a necklace (in the Laetoli Lab at the Leakey Camp).  (Image by Eri Ohara-Anderson)
Siteyo Lembele and Sekwai Babai showed us how to make beautiful bracelets and necklaces, and also how to wear them! (Image by R Peters)

In the following sequence Sekwai Babai shows the final steps for a perfect bracelet. Feel free to reproduce the bracelet at home, if you dare! Be patient, be brave, and start again if you have to!  You probably will!  ;-) 

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