Bead work is an integral part of the life and culture of the women of the Melako community in Northern Kenya. The women relax and bond with one another whilst doing their bead work and the beads represent who they are. Beads tell a woman’s marital status, age and number of children. Now these women have turned their bead work into their livelihood.
As business partners of the Melako, Werribee Open Range Zoo in Melbourne, Australia, sell the intricate bead work made by the women of families who have had no other source of income in times of drought. The beads can also be purchased online (see the link below) and among them are some charming Christmas decorations. About 500 families benefit from this relationship. It’s not about “aid”. The women will not accept aid, they want to be considered professional business partners.
The parched land in semi-arid scrub where the Melako live has little to offer grazing cattle – and Grevy’s zebra. The “Grevy’s zebra” also known as the “imperial zebra”, is the largest and most endangered of the three species of zebra in the world. Compared with other zebra, it is tall, has large ears, and its stripes are narrower. The Melako respect the Grevy’s zebra and there is a mythology within their culture built around the zebra representing their deceased ancestors.
Grazing of cattle by humans however, particularly during periods of drought, has depleted the food and water supply for the zebra. Its population has declined from 15,000 to 3,000 since the 1970s. As of 2008 the population is stable: partly due to projects such as “Beads for Wildlife” involving the Melako community directly in the zebra’s protection.
Each purchase of a beaded product is direct income for the Melako people, empowering them in their community and enabling them to rely less on livestock – leaving more resources for local wildlife. Before “Beads for Wildlife” most of the women had dreams of getting food on the table and getting their children to school. Now they want to open their own shops, fund a water-filtration system and send their kids to high school. Their lives are changing for the better.
Zoo visitors have bought more than 20,000 pieces of beaded jewellery this financial year (Mar 2014) through the “Beads for Wildlife” program.