Beading with the Masai tribes women

Marilyn Phipps worked in graphics before studying Fine Art in 1993. She continues to paint in watercolours and it was her love of colour which drew her to bead work. Marilyn spent some time last summer in Nairobi teaching and learning techniques with the local tribes women. Read more about her exciting trip.

Help Masai out of Poverty

I was asked to design some jewellery for the tribes women to make in the Masai Mara and the 'guys who recycle bone, horn and metal' in Kechwa - the 1m person slum in Nairobi - by a charity called Help Masai out of Poverty.

I flew out to Nairobi in July. My first stop was the only wholesale bead shop in Kenya, after a 12 hour journey, then on to meet up with some of the re-cyclers with Andrew - in the photo below - who runs Bawa with his wife Ann. Bawa is a free trade company who will sell the pieces we have designed especially, through fairs around the world. I was occompanied by Ann, Cheryl and Martin, the "Born Free' driver, who were my guides during my stay.

We met six tribes in total and ran workshops together. You can see from the photographs that they are wonderful beaders - very inspirational. The tribes live in mud huts that the women make.

Everyone was really keen to learn new designs and I was happy to teach them, and learn new techniques from them too. We looked at new colours, for them to use - getting away from the traditional ideas. I bought the chosen colour beads in Nairobi before I came home and those are the colours I used for the next three months, making up designs for them to copy. I had taken my own colours for them to play with - the pink went straight away.

We worked together in small workshops and the language barrier seemed to drop away. I taught them the word 'perfect!' and they taught me 'Zupa!' in return.

Their extraordinary pieces are beautiful but my designs had to be simple and more commercial for European tastes, to ensure they would sell. I made 16 designs in all and they are now being 'focus group tested' in Malindi, Mombassa and Nairobi. A quarter of the designs had to incorporate the local recycled materials of bone, horn, metal and beads.

You can see the designs we made in the gallery below.

Marilyn will share more of her designs on her next short course at West Dean College. Beaded jewellery - inspired by Maasai beadwork (15 - 18 February Three days £325 Beginners/Intermediate). To book

Daily life

Their days are busy fetching water, cleaning, cooking and looking after the children. I don't know how they find time to bead as well. This was inside a guest house, in their village.


On my first night at the hotel we fixed one of my beaded buttons onto Maisie's collar - she loved it!

Andrew and Ann

Andrew who runs Bawa with his wife Ann. Bawa is a free trade company who will sell the pieces we have designed in support of local charity Help Masai out of Poverty.