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Kenya's Pastoralist Basket Weavers

Written by Darla Saarela


Posted on March 18 2021

Head about 300 miles north of Nairobi, Kenya, and you'll find the remote village of Ngurunit nestled in the plains of the Ndoto mountain range. In this dry yet stunning landscape, pastoralist Samburu and Rendille herders tend cattle, camels and goats, moving their herds when needed to the best sources of water.

Laura Lemunyete is a well-known resident of Ngurunit and a tireless force of development for the region's pastoralist population. To this end, Laura and her husband Reuben founded P.E.A.R. (Participatory Education, Awareness and Research). A native of Wisconsin, Laura is an absolute joy to know, and one of the most inspiring women we've ever been graced to meet.

So how did a Wisconsin girl end up a Kenyan citizen, loving her remarkably different life in Samburu County? After earning a degree in animal science at the University of Wisconsin, Laura spent three years with the Peace Corps in Nepal before attaining her Masters in Tropical Livestock Production & Health at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

While studying in Scotland, Laura met a Samburu warrior named Reuben who was pursuing the same degree. The two would eventually marry, settle together in Ngurunit among Reuben's family, birth their children and found P.E.A.R. The organization serves as an umbrella, under which the Lemunyetes respond to immediate needs that arise in their community while envisioning strategies for greater long-term stability in the region.

 For the pastoralist communities of northern Kenya, life pivots on the coming of rain and the survival of livestock. When the skies open, the landscape becomes lush and fragrant. Cattle and goats drink and forage near home and families stay together. In times of drought, warriors must travel far to find water for their herds, leaving women and children at home alone to endure dry seasons of unknown length as the streams, earth and trees dry around them.

The Samburu Camel Project is one of P.E.A.R.'s most successful efforts to provide stability for Ngurunit families. When asked to think of solutions to hunger and need during drought, the women chose camels–traditionally herded not by the Samburu, but the nearby Rendille. Even during the driest times, camels produce milk after giving birth, and just one camel can provide food security for a family during drought.  Camels also provide meat and leather, which can be sold to earn income. Together, P.E.A.R. and Heifer International have placed hundreds of camels and chickens with Samburu families.

 When Laura was approached by a local woman to help her sell a basket she'd made so the family could buy food, the roots of the Ngurunit Basket Weaving Project took hold. Another of P.E.A.R.'s umbrella endeavors, the project centers on giving women located within a 25 mile radius of Ngurunit the ability to sell their hand woven palm leaf baskets. Traditionally used for storing milk and other items, each basket is intricately woven and constructed to last for many years.

Where they were once only allowed to own milk, Samburu women now own camels, plus they earn income by making baskets, processing meat and hides, keeping bees and refining honey. Through this shift in property control and a general increase in literacy in the region, Samburu women have become valued contributing community members. P.E.A.R. empowers rural women to also own the process of positive change through education in animal husbandry, marketing, business management and group dynamics.

Leslie returned to Kenya in March to visit Laura and the Ngurunit ladies weaving baskets to sell through Swahili. We celebrated our joy to work together and designed some new baskets, being sure to include the beautiful beadwork so central to Samburu beauty.

Thanks to a generous donation of reading glasses facilitated by Stacey Horowitz at Shopping for a Change, many older Samburu women and men saw clearly for the first time in years. Their faces lit up as they tried on glasses and felt their world come into focus again. We are so grateful to Stacey for taking action to meet this often overlooked need.

The Lemunyetes know too well the tentative balance currently felt by global citizens living closest to nature. Laura was writing of her concerns years ago:

No significant rains expected until October 2017 the learned meteorologists report. These few showers may just be teasing us. The cycles are all messed up.

It makes me sick to listen to the news from USA about all the detractors of climate change. We are living the climate change. Have been since 2005/6.  Since then, there haven’t been 3 consecutive years where at least one rainy season didn’t fail. Just as livestock starts to revive from a rain short period, which can take over a year, another one fails. Our last really severe drought was 2009/10, but there have been several ‘extended’ dry seasons since where not quite enough pasture was grown due to rain failure. 

Our cattle haven’t been back to Ngurunit for over 2 years as the warriors have had to travel several hundreds of kilometers looking for enough pasture. The camels and goats get by near home, but just barely. 

 What will come of the pastoralist lifestyle if climate change continues unchecked? What we are doing now is working hard to adapt and adjust. PEAR has been doing things for years to sort out some of the issues related to climate change. Introducing and promoting camels and alternative livestock, developing new water sources, improving education so that kids can grow up with the tools needed to drive positive change and bringing communities together on environmental rehabilitation and conservation. Some things have worked well, some have had astounding challenges.

I will not give up. My big push at the moment is to discover new activities and measures can help face this challenge of changing rain patterns, enhancing and improving pastoral lives along the way. Where will this journey take me?.....