Beauty, Beads, and Maasai Mamas

Sarah Crawford is a Noonday Ambassador, a mom to two young girls, two old dogs, and one adventurous rabbit, and wife to an Australian who was crazy enough to move to Virginia with her. She is an animal welfare advocate and a self-proclaimed tree-hugger with a passion for clean water. Although she has spent most of her life helping animals and protecting the environment, she has come to realize that the key is empowering people. It was this awareness that motivated her to join Noonday in 2016. She loves telling a different type of story with Noonday and making an impact beyond her little corner of the world.

The view of Mount Kilimanjaro from my camp with the School for Field Studies in 2002.

“I feel stuck between two worlds. I haven’t completely left Kenya, but my mind is so far from home. Maybe home will never be the same. I am sitting here at Gate 11 wearing a bandana over my unwashed hair, a long-sleeve t-shirt, my elephant sarong, and of course, my hiking boots. I would have never been seen like this before the trip, but wearing this outfit makes me a little less sad about leaving. I guess because it’s a visible reminder of where I’ve been and how I’ve changed. I’m glad I don’t look like everyone else around me.”

I wrote this sixteen years ago as a college student returning home after spending one month in Kenya. Although it was my mind that felt “stuck” as I wrote this last entry in my journal, I was also literally on a plane headed back to the U.S. and was feeling all the feels.

Posing right before we went shopping with the mamas behind us.

Right before I left Nairobi I had gone on a game drive through Nairobi National Park. A very dusty game drive. And by the time I arrived back home in Virginia it had been three days since I had taken a shower. I had swapped out my long-sleeve tee for an “I love NY” shirt at JFK, but let’s just say I was looking very well-traveled. And not in the good way. In fact, my mom, who was meeting me at the airport, didn’t even recognize me walking down the hallway until I was right in front of her. That’s when I knew it wasn’t just in my head. I really did look different. And I felt different. And I wasn’t ready to let go of Kenya. It was quite the moment to have while my mom was greeting me with uncontrollable laughter. Love you, Mom.

Visiting a boma, a group of small homes made from mud and cow dung.

What I know now, but I had only just begun to explore back then, was that I wasn’t stuck between two worlds. There is one world. One big interconnected world and finding my place in it doesn’t mean having to choose. “Home” can change. And how we live our lives in our own little corners of the world should change as we are exposed to the rest of it.

If you’ve read my previous blogs you know I’m a bit of a tree hugger, so spending a month out in the bush learning about wildlife management was right up my ally. I spent most of the time in my hiking boots covered in red dirt with a view of Mount Kilimanjaro. We were studying the Amboseli-Tsavo ecosystem and our camp was basically in a wildlife corridor between national parks. I slept in a mosquito net and took cold showers and loved it. But as I read back through my journal, these are the memories I documented:

“I got to interact with a few Maasai women today. They were by a stream washing clothes. It was so cool – they had on tons of beads and bright fabrics. The people here fascinate me. They live so differently from everyone I know. They are such beautiful people.”

I was fortunate to get to meet many Maasai families in Kenya, including this mama and her baby.

OK, full disclosure, there are actually quite a few entries (every one) that include references to my boyfriend of four months who I “missed soooo much.” Apparently my 20-year-old-self felt the need to document every thought, which has both pros and cons. But my point is, it was the people that made that trip so life-changing for me.

Maasai warriors performing a traditional dance.

And that is why, 16 years later, I am practically in tears over Noonday’s new Maasai Earrings. The Maasai people are indigenous to the lands along the Kenya and Tanzania border where I spent my time. They are traditionally semi-nomadic pastoralists, and move their herds around in search of water and pasture. Their culture has clashed with the notion of private land ownership and other modern paradigms through the years, but many have clung to their traditions, making them a symbol of Kenyan life. The Maasai men, or warriors, tend the herds, which leaves the women to do pretty much everything else. The mamas take care of their children and homes, provide food and water for their families, and somehow find the time for amazing beadwork.

Trying my hand at Maasai beadwork. I needed quite a bit of help.

Showing off my finished Maasai bracelet, which this mama basically had to make for me.

The skill for beading is passed from one generation to the other with young girls learning from their mothers and aunts. They tried to teach me and let’s just say, I’m no artisan. I was nowhere close to being able to create something as beautiful as Noonday’s Maasai Earrings, which are all made by Maasai women through Noonday’s partnership with an Artisan Business that, in addition to impacting Maasai communities, also impacts people living in the Nairobi slums.

The Maasai Earrings look great with a chambray shirt, my wear-anywhere closet staple.

I love wearing my Maasai Earrings from Noonday with my maasai bracelets I bought in Kenya. Would you guess they were purchased 16 years apart? They also pair well with Noonday’s Leather Loop Wrap Bracelet made in Ethiopia. 

These Maasai women are even more excited than I am about this partnership, partly because they are creating authentic pieces that are true to their colors. Their beadwork embodies the whole of Maasai culture, representing their beauty, strength, tradition, warriorhood, marriage, and social status. All of the colors used in our earrings mean something to the Maasai tribe and you won’t know which color scheme you’ll get until it arrives on your doorstep.

But they are not just authentic, they are game-changers. These earrings are helping Maasai mamas put food on the table for their children, and our goal is to help them grow sustainably so that they can send their girls to school for years to come. When I asked Anne Nzilani, the founder of Noonday’s Partner Business, what this partnership meant to her, she told me, “When you educate a girl, you educate a nation.”

I no longer pair a sarong with hiking boots (or my recycled tire shoes, which I still have), but having this little piece of Kenya is all I need to remind me that we are more alike than different. I can almost smell the bomas and the burning acacia when I wear them. They are true statement earrings. And not the why-is-my-mom-laughing kind of statement. The kind that says I am beautiful and proud and fierce. Just like the Maasai women who made them. Deep down we all want the same thing: A place to flourish. Let’s share this beautiful culture and get more girls in school so they can show the world how truly connected we are.