Tag Archives: Maasai people

Kenya: my mission to become the first female Masai warrior

Driven to test the tribe’s male-dominated culture Mindy Budgor went to Kenya … to become the first female Masai warrior

 

MindyMindy Budgor with tribesmen in Kenya during her training as a Masai warrior

It was 5.12am, deep in Kenya’s Forest of the Lost Child. Seven Masai warriors, standing with spears high in the sky and ready to kill, were huddled around me. I was nudged by one of the taut, muscular bodies, scantily covered in its tiny red tartan cotton robe, and I had to make a decision: be a warrior by joining the front line to protect my tribe from a snorting, slobbering 500kg bitch of a buffalo, or stay on the sidelines by hustling up a tree to watch from above as the true warriors went to battle.

A year before, my instincts might have said something else, but by this time I had seven weeks of warrior training under my beaded belt, and a renewed trust in my personal power. I looked the buffalo straight in the eye and with a flex of my muscles, I charged like the warrior I had trained to be, sprinting and screaming with the spear ready to strike.

The Masai are a semi-nomadic tribe living in Kenya and Tanzania. Their warriors are similar to a typical military force, but the main offenders in the bush are the lions, buffalo, elephants and hippo. While the goal of the tribe is to live in harmony with the land and the animals, the warriors will back away from nothing if the community is in harm’s way. Showing one hint of fear as a warrior is strictly prohibited.

One standard practice to prove a warrior’s strength is the circumcision, which occurs when a male is in his teens. The procedure is not a little snip snip – it is a complete skinning of the penis. One wince during this procedure could get you shunned from society. The Masai live in the wild in homes made of mud, sticks, grass, cow dung, human urine and ash, and their diet is animal blood, meat and milk. I was a 27-year-old Jewish girl from California, who had spent the past four years building a concierge service for college students. I spent four years building the business before selling it.

Masai manMasai man. Mara national park, Kenya Photograph: Angelo Cavalli

My most extreme backpacking excursion had been on a cruise ship to Alaska. I loved my manicures and pedicures, and driving around in my BMW and I believed that life wouldn’t be OK without a just-out-of-the-oven croissant and a cup of Earl Grey tea in the morning. But I wanted to test myself. After selling my company I started applying to business schools. Once the applications were submitted, I faced a significant time gap. I sent out an email to solicit ideas. A college friend responded, raving about a trip she took with a US-based foundation that sends westerners to places, including Kenya, to help build schools and clinics. The particular trip my friend mentioned was to build a clinic in the Masai Mara game reserve in south-western Kenya. This was the type of experience I wanted, so I submitted a check and the registration for the trip the same day.

On the flight from Nairobi, I peered down at the thin, twisting valleys etched through parched, dusty-brown land dotted with fluffy green treetops. When the pilot pointed out the volunteer centre, a pinprick of a settlement in the middle of the savanna, I knew that being left alone with my thoughts and nature was exactly what I needed.

For the next two weeks, while laying bricks and making mortar with the locals, I learned about the Masai. I took morning hikes with Winston, a chief from the tribe and also our guide while volunteering. His deep, almost spiritual sense of purpose and confidence was what I wanted.

Winston explained that his tribe was at a crossroads because the Kenyan government was taking away more and more of its land and because global warming meant continual droughts that caused their cattle (their main asset) to die. There was widespread fear among the tribe that the Masai culture will no longer exist in 50 years.

Losing the integrity of a tribe because of westernisation seemed unacceptable to me, but I felt one element of modern life – women’s rights – could help the tribe continue while remaining true to its practices and beliefs.

Maasai wedding, Loita Hills, KenyaWomen at a Masai wedding. Photograph: Kristian Buus/Corbis

Masai women are extraordinarily strong: they build homes, chop trees for firewood, walk seven hours a day to fetch water. But they are not treated as equals. I knew that the warriors had the utmost respect in the tribe and that they were given greater access to education and not married off when they were 12. I believed that providing women with the right to become warriors would broaden the tribe’s perspective of their personal power, which could only help them fight to maintain their customs.

On a hike I asked Winston the question that had been gnawing at me since I met him: “How many women are warriors?”

His reply: “None. Women aren’t strong or brave enough to do it.”

His response ignited a fire within me that made me want prove him wrong. I asked him to explain what was involved in becoming a warrior. He said: “You need to be a man. You need to go through rites of passage that only a man can do. You need to live where you can only eat meat and drink blood and herb soup that makes you lose your mind. You need to get circumcised and not wince from the pain. You need to be fearless. You need to protect and entertain your community and be able to face any animal head-on. You need to be able to throw a spear and use a sword with total accuracy. And you need to be a man

I said: “Don’t Masai women want to be warriors?”

“Of course they do. Who wouldn’t want to be like us?”

“And they’ve never had a chance?”

“No.”

“But everything you just said is something a woman can do – something I can do – except for the penis part,” I said.

The Chief wasn’t entertained. “Women aren’t built emotionally or physically for the work that warriors do.” He shrugged his sculpted shoulders and turned back to the mountain. Winston’s words and that shrug made me furious! I can take no for an answer if there’s a good reason, but the idea that women couldn’t be warriors just because they weren’t men wasn’t sitting well with me. Winston and I made a deal that if I left my stilettos behind, he would take me through the traditional rites of passage to become a warrior.

I was excited about this, and tried not to spend any time thinking about the dangers. But later that day Faith, a Masai woman who worked at the volunteer centre, told me that women in her tribe had been trying to get the right to be warriors for generations, and if for some reason a white, Jewish girl had the opportunity to make a change, I should take it seriously.

I went home to California to prepare for a longer stay with the Masai, but after reviewing myself in my bedroom mirror, I wondered if my pleasantly plump figure was going to be able to climb a tree if needed. Deciding not to wait until a hippo was about to swallow me whole, I started training to get myself fit.

Two months later, I returned to Kenya with Becca, a friend from the US. Becca and I had met in Kenya on the building trip and became friends when we agreed that women should have the right to be warriors. Landing in Nairobi, we travelled back to the clinic and found Winston, the chief.

“What are you doing here?” he asked. I reminded him of our deal. Clearly, he hadn’t taken me seriously, and despite our pleading, turned us down. He said he would not have the deaths of two Americans on his head.

Becca and I were back at our hotel in Nairobi. Our project seemed roadblocked when out of the blue a friend from California introduced us to the man who would guide us through the rites of passage: Lanet Danson Lekuroun, a university-educated Masai warrior who was raised to believe that women’s voices should be heard.

“I can’t promise that you will become warriors. I also can’t tell you that my tribe will accept you. There is going to be much danger. I will do my best to help prepare you, but there is no way to predict the future in my world or yours. All we can do is try.”

Masai warriors traditional jumping In the round … Masai men form a circle and perform a traditional ‘jump’ dance.

Photograph: Adam Jones/Getty

Within hours we piled into a taxi and were on the road headed into the bush – again. As the main road ended, my teeth clenched and my hands were in tight fists as we slowly crept over rocks and tall grass. On the way, Lanet explained that a new warrior class only happens every five to seven years, but the training that he would put us through would be exactly the same as what the Masai men do.

Lanet also told us that he had chosen six other Masai men to live with us deep in the forest while we underwent training. He said the men chosen were known as community leaders and also quite progressive in their thoughts about women’s rights.

For the next two months, we lived on a 20-square-foot patch of land in the forest and slept in a communal bed made mainly of oak leaves. On many occasions, I truly believed that I was going to die.

On day one, we were almost stampeded by elephants, and I had to suffocate a goat and then drink its blood directly from the jugular. On day two, my hands were covered with bloody blisters from learning how to use a spear and a sword. And a few weeks later, I was very nearly swallowed by a hippo. It was only a pull of my belt by a fellow warrior that yanked me back.

I had a daily urge to wave the white flag, especially after 10 smelly days without a bath. But just as the flag was about to go up, Lanet would remind me that this mission was about much more than my personal goal. And this reminder allowed me to transition to Masai life. I quickly learned that by just doing and not questioning, I would have a greater chance of surviving.

Hipp yawningOpen wide … one of Mindy’s most extreme experiences was nearly being swallowed by a hippo. Photograph: Manoj Shah/Getty

Initially, the tribesmen thought that Becca and I would last less than a day. Surely the nightly calls from the hyenas or the diet of raw kidneys and goat brain soup would make us bolt back to a five-star hotel. Once several weeks passed, however, we proved that we were able to live an authentic Masai life. Most important, though, our values adapted to those of the Masai, which revolve around community, courage, selflessness and living in the moment.

After a little over four weeks of training, we moved camp to a more dangerous part of the forest. It was a regular day of spear training and trekking until we purposely went to what the Masai called a “buffalo playground” so that we could test our mental and physical strength.

Just as we arrived, we saw a baby buffalo grazing on the grass. Everyone went silent as we knew that the calf would not be far from its mother. If the mother saw us, she would try to kill us to protect her baby. I stood petrified, as the ground started to rumble. The baby buffalo trotted to the edge of the field and the sea of green parted again to reveal the meanest animal I had ever seen.

Grunting and howling, I sprinted towards the beast and released my spear. As it rocketed through the air, the other Masai released their spears, but mine landed first, in the edge of the buffalo’s right butt cheek. The buffalo died, but only because it was going to kill us. I was able to claim the kill because my spear hit the buffalo first.

That night, the elders decided that Becca and I had proved we were strong and brave enough to be warriors. They felt that the training we had gone through and our fearlessness and selflessness were at an equal level to the male warriors. One of the elders, who was a senior leader of the Rhino clan, inducted us into his clan with a short ceremony followed by a long speech over the fire, which allowed us to be officially recognised as the first female Masai warriors.

We stayed with the Masai for another month. Our first major community interaction was at a wedding, two days after we left the forest. Lanet told us hundreds of people would be at the wedding. It would be like my coming-out party. Lanet had said from the beginning that he wasn’t sure if his tribe would accept us, and we were finally going to find out their true feelings.

At the wedding we sang and danced as warriors. I felt completely at one with the tribe until an elder male approached me, screaming and waving his sword. I was paralysed with fear and just as he swung his sword again, Lanet and another warrior whisked me away. I asked what happened. Lanet told me that the man was angry that Becca and I had been recognised as warriors.

He said: “This is now up to the tribal leadership to decide if Masai females will have the right to become warriors. There will be much opposition, but there will be, and already is, much support.”

While making this change is not unanimously accepted by men and women in the tribe, the vast majority believe steps towards equality will help sustain the culture in the long term, and one of those steps is allowing women to become warriors. And I am so proud to say that there are at least 20 girls in Loita who are ready to be part of the next warrior age set.

As a result of our training and advocacy, the Masai in Loita, Kenya, are leading the charge to change tribal law and allow all Masai women the right to become warriors.

-Mindy Budgor, the guardian.

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Kenya’s Cultural Symbol; The Maasai Tribe

Performing the adamu (the jumping dance – performed when a circle is formed by the warriors, and one or two at a time enter the center to begin jumping while maintaining a narrow posture), they stand tall and slender in somewhat stylish long ochre-dyed hair with Shúkà attire (red sheet-like material with hints of other colours e.g blue wrapped around the waist or over the shoulder) completing their overall look. On other occasions you’ll spot them with a spear clutched on one hand and right foot hooked on the crook of the knee of the left leg; these are the stereotypical images we’ve become accustomed to when it comes to the Maasai in the tourism world.

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They are undoubtedly the most known Kenyan tribe outside of Kenya, having grown into a brand in itself  not only for Kenyan tourism but also steadily for global fashion.  The maasai brand is all over; maasai carvings and merchandise are in display in numerous curio shops, the maasai market has also overwhelmingly grown overtime, the maasai themselves stand on display at many hotel entrances as an attraction to the guests, even the high-end fashion house Louis Vuitton has a maasai line that includes; hats, scarves, duffle bags and beach towels. The distinctive Maasai beading and decorative jewellery has become a fashion item in the West, and remain one of the most popular items taken home by visitors to Kenya. So popular has Maasai beading become that many modern functional items, including watchstraps, belts, handbags and even mobile phone covers are being produced in Maasai designs. There are currently about 80 companies around the world using either the maasai image or name; showing just how big a brand the maasai have become. Sadly though the ‘Maa’ speaking people aren’t part of the trade – anyhow, that’s a story for another day . But who really are the Maasai?

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Louis Vuitton maasai inspired fashion

Over the last one week, renewed effort has been put in, both in print media and on international websites such as BBC, on the pertinent issue of Who Really owns the Maasai Brand? The debate goes, Maasai brand is currently everywhere globally, and it is big money – but the community itself is receiving little benefit from their own brand. To quote from today’s issue of Daily Nation’s DN2 Pullout, “there are currently about 80 companies around the world using either the Maasai image or name. These include a range of accessories called Maasai made for Land Rover; Maasai Barefoot Technology, which makes specialty trainers; and high end fashion house Louis Vuitton, which has a Maasai line that includes beach towels, hats, scarves and duffle bags.” – See more at: http://northkenya.com/2013/05/who-owns-the-maasai-brand-in-kenya/#sthash.A77AID3U.dpuf
there are currently about 80 companies around the world using either the Maasai image or name. These include a range of accessories called Maasai made for Land Rover; Maasai Barefoot Technology, which makes specialty trainers; and high end fashion house Louis Vuitton, which has a Maasai line that includes beach towels, hats, scarves and duffle bags.” – See more at: http://northkenya.com/2013/05/who-owns-the-maasai-brand-in-kenya/#sthash.A77AID3U.dpuf
Over the last one week, renewed effort has been put in, both in print media and on international websites such as BBC, on the pertinent issue of Who Really owns the Maasai Brand? The debate goes, Maasai brand is currently everywhere globally, and it is big money – but the community itself is receiving little benefit from their own brand. To quote from today’s issue of Daily Nation’s DN2 Pullout, “there are currently about 80 companies around the world using either the Maasai image or name. These include a range of accessories called Maasai made for Land Rover; Maasai Barefoot Technology, which makes specialty trainers; and high end fashion house Louis Vuitton, which has a Maasai line that includes beach towels, hats, scarves and duffle bags.” – See more at: http://northkenya.com/2013/05/who-owns-the-maasai-brand-in-kenya/#sthash.A77AID3U.dpuf
there are currently about 80 companies around the world using either the Maasai image or name. These include a range of accessories called Maasai made for Land Rover; Maasai Barefoot Technology, which makes specialty trainers; and high end fashion house Louis Vuitton, which has a Maasai line that includes beach towels, hats, scarves and duffle bags.” – See more at: http://northkenya.com/2013/05/who-owns-the-maasai-brand-in-kenya/#sthash.A77AID3U.dpuf
“there are currently about 80 companies around the world using either the Maasai image or name. These include a range of accessories called Maasai made for Land Rover; Maasai Barefoot Technology, which makes specialty trainers; and high end fashion house Louis Vuitton, which has a Maasai line that includes beach towels, hats, scarves and duffle bags.” – See more at: http://northkenya.com/2013/05/who-owns-the-maasai-brand-in-kenya/#sthash.A77AID3U.dpuf

Predominantly a warrior tribe, the maasai are a semi-nomadic group whose lives revolve around cattle. They cherish these animals so much so that “I hope your cattle are well” is regarded a common greeting among the maasai. They speak ‘maa’, a language family related to Dinka and Nuer and they also have a common ancestral tie to the Samburu and the Njemps. The Maasai have a strong belief that God entrusted cattle to them and therefore to them, wealth is measured by how many herds one owns. This very belief is what has seen result to many cattle raids among the ‘maa’ speaking groups as they believe that stealing from other tribes is okay seeing as cattle was given solely to them by the creator.

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Maasai warrior standing on the edge of Suswa crater

Maasai warrior standing on the edge of Suswa crater

The Maasai as a cultural people, have managed to retain their beliefs and lifestyle despite modern world temptations to change and adapt with new technologies. They live in small settlements in Kraals, surrounded by thorn bush fences. Their manyattas ( traditional house/hut) are made out of  branches, grass, twigs and cement made out of cow dung and urine. Animal skin and cushions of dry grass serve as interior decor for the huts. For survival, the Maasai rely on cows blood, meat and milk although recent times have seen them adopt agriculture as well. The blood is obtained from the jugular vein of the cow using an arrow and after drawing of the blood, the animal is cared  for ’till it heals.

child-in-the-maasai-manyattaImage credit; towelspacked

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MaasaiVillage_zurukenyaThe Maasai tribe constitutes a highly developed system of initiation and age-sets. The highest ranked being the Oloiboni – a spiritual leader, who also takes the role of a political leader. Along with Oloiboni is alaigwanani, holding the political leadership role only, confined within clan parameters unlike the Oloiboni who has an added religious role that goes beyond clans to a larger community setting in Maasai land. The Maasai also consult diviners; Loibonok whenever misfortune hits the community who also double up as physicians treating diseases. The tribe’s clans are lead by Laigwanak (heads of clans) whose roles include settling land disputes, resolving conflicts between Maasai communities and other tribal groups, as well as serving as intermediaries between the Maasai community and the government.

 maasai elder zuru kenyaMaasai elder

The first initiation stage that the maasai go through is circumcision of boys who are considered junior moran afterwards. They then grow their hair into long braids, usually decorated with red ochre, which is also used to slather their upper bodies. A huge task that the morans previously undertook afterwards but is no longer in practice for wildlife endangerment reasons was lion hunting; Olomayio. This served as a testing for how courageous the young morans were and was a very daunting and daring task having to fight a lion and escape with their life. The victorious warriors would then perform a dance called Engilakinoto.

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Age-sets to the maasai are an integral part of the society. These are derived during circumcision where a group partaking in the exercise together form an age-group. Each group has a specific role in the community. For instance, boys (age six and seven) begin to learn herding from their older brothers before undergoing circumcision. There are four age groups in total; junior warriors, senior warriors, junior elders, and senior elders. The junior warriors learn about warfare under the tutelage of the senior age group, prepping to be defenders of the land. They also learn about the customs and traditions of the Maasai people as it will be their duty to pass it on to the next generations. The senior warriors on the other hand assume a tremendous responsibility of defending the land from all sorts of enemies. These two groups serve within a time period of about twenty years until another group gets circumcised. There are no age groups for women, instead they automatically fall into the age group of the men that marry them.

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maasai rituals zuru kenya

Women are the heart of the Maasai tribe, having to carry out many of the chores in the community. Aside from building manyattas; a task that takes them a period of about seven months to complete, the women fetch water and firewood, milk cows, pick calabashes and gourds decorating them with leather and beads, look after their homes amongst many other duties. Even though women in this society have a strong voice in their culture functioning as religious leaders and educators, they are on the other hand, considered a minority. They have no right to own neither cattle nor land and are represented by their fathers when it comes to sensitive matters and tough decision making and later on after marriage, their husbands. If unfortunately one doesn’t get sons in her marriage, the poor woman will be left on her own with no money, possessions or anyone to take care of her.

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The Maasai are not only known for their traditional beliefs but also for their exquisite artistry. To some of us it appears simply as fashionable but what many do not know is that beading to the Maasai is actually symbolic. This tribe has about 40 types of bead work that mostly feature the colours red (colour of the Maasai), blue (Godly and reflecting the colour of the sky) and green (colour of God’s greatest blessing, fresh grass after rainfall). The bead work is done by the women but is worn by both genders of the community. Unmarried women adorn one of the beautiful pieces created; a large flat disc that surrounds the neck, made up of rows of beads threaded onto wire, secured and spaced with cow hide strips. Married women on the other hand, wear long blue beaded necklaces, and also decorate their earlobes with long beaded flaps. This amazing bead work has gained the Maasai a large market for their creations with locals as well as tourists serving as big customers.

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maasai jewellery zuru kenya  maasai woman zuru kenya The Maasai tribe is crippled by a number of challenges today; competing with wildlife for their land, natural calamities such as drought causing loss of herds, illiteracy is another thing that short changes the community and constant cattle raids leading to loss of life and property. Despite being seen as a rigid society for preserving their traditional ways, their conservatism has undoubtedly gone a long way in bringing the Maasai a lot of fame overtime.  Today, they are revered as a community of beautiful culture that has earned worldwide respect.

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Wonders of the Mara

Doubling up as a wonder of the world as well as Africa’s greatest Wildlife reserve, the Masai Mara is a sight to behold. Home to the Great Wildebeest Migration, this reserve will offer you a safari of a lifetime; watching over two million animals cross-over from the Serengeti in Tanzania in search of greener pasture. This experience serves both as a ‘wow’/’chilling’ moment seeing this magical migration of wildebeests, gazelles and zebras in their thousands , while at the same time having to watch some of them make their last cross as the predators; lions, crocodiles and hyenas seize their opportunity across the Mara river.

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wildebeest migration in masai mara, kenya2011

The annual Migration has highly boosted Kenya’s place as a favorite safari destination and during June/July the reserve receives numerous guests ready to watch this natural spectacle. The millions of wildebeests spend much of the year grazing throughout the plains of the Serengeti and when the dry season dawns in June, they begin to gather, forming a single vast herd ready to head north. The experience is amazing as you anxiously await for the herds, one can envision the numbers hearing the sound of the approaching herd with the rumbling of hooves and low grunts; very awe-inspiring indeed. By July, the predators are set on the Kenyan side, Knowing the feasting opportunity that awaits.  The river crossing serves as a major challenge for the migration as many of the animals succumb to their fate either through drowning, being swept away by strong currents or by the wrath of the hungry crocodiles.

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Come October, the herds start their journey back to the Serengeti to the renewed grasslands. Out of all the calves born in the Serengeti before the migration, two out of three never return from this excruciating adventure. This is thus a test of both renewal and sustenance as well as life and death. The Mara aside from being host to the greatest migration ever seen, is home to the famed Maasai people. It is beyond amazing how man and wildlife share the same space of existence in utmost harmony. This co-existence probably makes Maasai Mara one of the most unusual and unique wilderness regions the world over.

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Other co-inhabitants include; herds of zebra, giraffe, gazelle,topi, an array of bird life, monkeys, elephants and buffalos  in the Musiara Swamp and numerous hippos and crocodiles in the Mara and Talek rivers. The Maasai Mara is also packed with a wide range of Accommodation for any budget and is a popular attraction with Safari operators. The reserve is ideal for game drives and there are select camps and lodges that will provide you with opportunities of safari walks as well as spectacular balloon safaris. You are bound to encounter wildlife at many areas of the Mara as they are allowed to move freely in and out of the reserve and through neighbouring Maasai lands.

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Outside the boundaries of the reserve there are many other small camps and lodges, some of which offer walking, horse riding and other safari options. One can also take part in high forest trekking in the nearby Loita Hills and the Nguruman Escarpment.

Pikolinos Maasai Campaign 2013

Meet William Kikanae Ole Pere; the Maasai elder whom thanks to his tireless endeavor in search of a better and quality life for his tribe, saw the creation of the  “Maasai Project“.

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The project which was successfully launched in 2008 saw the coming together of Pikolinos, the Spanish footwear brand & non-profit company and Alternative Trade & Microcredits (ADCAM). William initiated the idea of collaborating the Eco-friendly and socially responsible companies to create a footwear line that earns profits to further women’s development and additional projects in the Maasai Mara National Reserve.

ESTRADA FOOTWEAR - Spring/Summer 2013 campaign

The Maasai Project seeks to supply the Maasai people with  resources and tools  needed to better both their educational and medical needs as well as help in preserving their endangered culture. All the embroidery featured in the campaign footwear is hand sewn by the Maasai women showcasing their intricate designs and natural artistic talents; this has seen about 1,600 women gain employment.

The embroidered leather pieces – brought to Kenya to be worked on by the Maasai women – are flown back to Spain where the processing of the complete product is done. Proceeds are then distributed to the Maasai tribe.

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Olivia Palermo; model, fashion consultant and this year’s Maasai Project Brand Ambassador, got to experience first hand, the life and challenges  of the Maasai people during her tour to Maasai land in pursuit of getting to know the process of embroidery work as well as shoot the Summer 2013 campaign for Pikolinos.

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In her own description of the amazing work produced by the collaboration,

“Fashion and development, cooperation and fashion, fashion and Free Trade – this combination is possible.”

“Thanks, Pikolinos, because indeed another world is possible.”

Olivia Palermo’s look book on her work and experience during her project trip to Kenya…

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olivia-palermo-william-kikanae-pikolinosWilliam Kikanae and Olivia Palermo