I will never forget her beautiful smile the first time I met Kimiri.
She was sitting with her friends on the warm brown earth under neath the magnificent tree that shaded the area where everyone was working. A recent college graduate, I was twenty three and had traveled to Kenya to visit my aunt and uncle the summer after graduation. My aunt Kate and uncle Philip had started their company The Leakey Collection nearly ten years prior to my visit and it was the first time I was exposed to a Fair Trade company. That summer I saw with first hand experience the incredible magnitude of how a Fair Trade company actually changes peoples’ lives for the better. On one of my first mornings while staying with Katy and Philip, I had walked down to the area where the workers had gathered to assemble the beautifully colored Zulugrass jewelry and watched how their products are made. Mariam is an employee with The Leakey Collection and speaks multiple languages making her a vital asset for me to converse with the Maasai between English and their native language Maa. Mariam and I walked over to the bundle of women sitting under the tree that shaded from the warm morning sun. She introduced me as Katy’s niece and said that I was very happy to meet everyone. I was slightly intimidated standing there as they blankly stared at me. Strange I was with long blonde hair, fair skin and blue eyes I could tell they didn’t really know what to say. Kimiri out of everyone smiled the most beautiful and warm smile I had ever seen and said something I couldn’t understand. Everyone broke out into enormous laughter and as I too smiled I looked at Miriam desperate for a translation. Miriam laughed and said, “She is wondering why your hair is yellow.” I didn’t really have an answer. There is something about Kimiri that warms my heart so much she has a radiance about her that emulates the sun. She’s beautiful, warm, loving and intoxicatingly funny. I’m proud to be able to call her my friend.
We may have heard the term Fair Trade float around here and there but what does it really mean?
Fair Trade is trade between companies in developed countries and producers in developing countries in which fair prices are paid to the producers. But it goes beyond this definition. Materials used to create the products are harvested and made in ways that are sustainable for our environment as well. Fair Trade companies often seek areas in the world that are ready for work opportunity. Fair Trade companies produce benefits to the world in ways that far exceed the benefits that any charity aims to influence because Fair Trade companies offer employment to those who wouldn’t have employment otherwise. Fair Trade companies generate wealth. And when we’re looking at rural areas in developing parts of the world, generating wealth is the most beneficial thing that can be done.
The Maasai are pastoral people living in the areas of Kenya and Tanzania. They are a group of people that date back more than 800 years living off the land, prospering from cattle and working together for their survival. Their traditions are rich and have persevered throughout their existence in Africa. Katy and Philip have lived neighboring a community of Maasai for over two decades and have built and together have maintained wonderful relationships throughout the years. When weather conditions brought on more and more severe droughts, Katy and Philip began to see the devastation that was becoming of the landscape and to the Maasai. Cattle were having to be herd farther and longer leaving families with less and less income disrupting their system of living. So they started their company The Leakey Collection. Beautiful strands of beaded jewelry made from cut grass and vibrant glass beads, they began employing the women in hopes of providing income while their husbands were away tending to their cattle. The success of selling their products over seas and generating wealth to the Maasai women and their families catapulted everyone successfully away from relying solely off the land. Because of this success, families are able to educate their children, they can afford health care and are now starting their own businesses. But it doesn’t stop there. Two years ago I found myself wanting to know more about the benefits of Fair Trade companies and the details behind the success for their employees. So I went back to Kenya and spoke to the Maasai working with The Leakey Collection to learn how life has changed since the beginning of this new form of opportunity. What I learned completely blew me away.
There are two key points that I loved learning and if this doesn’t make your ears perk up in favor of Fair Trade then I’m not sure what will. Here it is: One interesting fact that I learned is that traditionally the Maasai will typically only educate the boys. And if money is tight then they elect their oldest son. Daughters are traditionally married off to another Maasai family in exchange for a dowry around the age of twelve. But since work opportunity has generated more wealth within the community, families are now finding it more beneficial to educate all of their children. Young girls are now continuing higher education alongside their brothers and bypassing marriage until they are ready for it. Following now in their working mothers footsteps it is becoming more common for the younger generation of Maasai to now chose when and whom they want to marry. From this, what we’re seeing in this particular area of Kenya are young adults choosing education, work opportunity and entrepreneurialism. This new found cycle of capitalistic mindset is perpetuating strength and livelihood more than ever. And this is just to say the least.
In my most recent visit back to Kenya, I had the pleasure of speaking with Sitoi Ntalamia, the Head Master of the local Primary School since 2011, he informed me that in 2012 the number of girls graduating to secondary school was 1. By 2015, five girls were graduating school and now in 2018 nine girls are graduating school. This is exponential growth.
The other really imperative change that I learned is that maternal and infant mortality rates have nearly stopped within the last decade due to the education Maasai women now have throughout their pregnancy. Before this education was accessible it was taught that towards the last term of pregnancy it was important to heavily reduce food intake to ensure that the fetus would not grow too big making it difficult and perhaps even dangerous to give birth for the mother. But what this was doing was malnourishing the mother and unborn child making them weak and unable to survive during child birth. Child birth mortality was very high as a result prior.
Since the ability to educate mid-wives and expecting mothers surfaced, the mortality of child birth has nearly stopped and mothers and their new babies are now stronger than they have ever been in the history of their culture.
What presses upon me is that this would never be possible without work opportunity, without the generating of knowledge and without the generating of wealth.
Upon my trip back to Kenya in 2016, Kate put me in touch with Anne Mpoke, an incredible woman married to a Maasai man who brings her educated mind and background to aiding the community in the direction of health care and education. Working with the NGO, World Vision, her passion lies within her community. Anne quickly became a vital asset to me in moving forward with my research and just as quickly became one of my dearest friends still to this day.
When I went back to visit I got to meet Anne. Also, I had not forgotten about Kimiri and how wonderful of a presence she has. I wasn’t sure if she remembered me at all but it brought so much happiness to my heart when I learned that she did. She invited Anne and me to her home one day for tea and it was then that I saw she was pregnant with her fourth child. Beyond excited, the three of us sat drinking tea and sharing stories just like we had been friends since childhood. Kimiri asked me what I would name my daughter if I were to have one. I always knew that if I had a daughter I would name her Evelyn after my grandmother and this is exactly what I told Kimiri. She looked at me and said, “Evelyn” with a smile. The day that I was leaving, Anne came to say goodbye to me. She told me that Kimiri had given birth to a very healthy baby girl and that her name is Evelyn. Tears filled my eyes as I smiled. I know tears would’ve filled my grandmothers eyes too.
A couple months after I had returned home, I learned that Kimiri’s husband had tragically lost his life in an accident. My heart shattered for her especially knowing that she just had Evelyn and I immediately worried if she would be ok financially aside from her sorrow. I don’t even really want to talk about this within my writing out of respect to her and her family but what Kimiri has done for her life and her family is beyond triumphant and I really want to share her success. Because Kimiri works for The Leakey Collection she has the money she needs to support herself and her children. And this is incredible. This is something that would have never been possible without work opportunity. Isn’t this true for us all?
So here is why I feel so compelled to talking about this. When we support Fair Trade companies we are supporting the growth, the health and the prosperity for people in pretty rural areas that otherwise wouldn’t have much opportunity to make the money they need to live.
And supporting Fair Trade companies is actually a really convenient and easy thing to do. Next time you’re at the grocery store buying tea, coffee and maybe even some chocolate look for that Fair Trade certified logo. These products are equivalent in price and I guarantee it will even taste better too. When you buy these products at the store you’re absolutely helping someone’s life be better. And weren’t you going to buy coffee anyway? I can also say that clothing, shoes and jewelry that are made by Fair Trade companies are also amazing. The quality is by far better than anything you will find at the mall, the pricing is favorably comparable and the time it takes to ship to your house is conveniently quick. Last week I had a thought that buying black ankle boots was a great idea so I Google searched Fair Trade shoe companies and a list of nearly twenty Fair Trade shoe companies popped up on my search. Able, a company based in Tennessee with production in both Ethiopia and Peru, came to the top of my search. I immediately found the exact look I was wanting at the price I could afford and one week later I was already wearing them out while meeting some friends. No joke, thirty minutes after arriving at my destination I had already received two compliments on my new boots. My point is… I was in the market to buy shoes. I could have bought shoes from a company who disregards health, safety and fair payment to it’s employees over seas or I could have bought shoes from a company like Able. Fair Trade companies that builds opportunity to generate wealth in areas hungry for opportunity. Choose to purchase shoes from a Fair Trade company and as a result – everyone wins.
I’m so proud to have friends like Kimiri and Anne in my life. People who teach me about life outside of what I’m able to see. People who work hard and care about their loved ones. Next time you’re looking to buy something look to see if it can be found from a Fair Trade company. Your contribution goes farther than you will be able to directly see. For your purchase helps perpetuate the radiance within peoples lives. If there is one absolute way to make a difference in this world, the answer is found in supporting Fair Trade companies. Kimiri is proof.