News Column

Folk Art Market to help boost village that aids young Kenyan widows

July 8, 2014

By Anne Constable, The Santa Fe New Mexican

July 08--Meeri Tuya grew up in a traditional Maasai family in Kenya, where girls didn't go to school -- or at least not for long.

Tuya's own parents only allowed her to attend to the fourth grade. "A girl child was not counted as a member of the family," she said in her application to the 2014 Santa Fe International Folk Art Market.

Tuya dropped out to be circumcised, a traditional genital cutting that is illegal in Kenya but still practiced in some places. After a year of healing, she was married off to an 80-year-old man, becoming his fifth wife. Tuya said she was mistreated because she was not strong enough to work with the family's cattle.

Within a year, Tuya was pregnant, and then her husband died. "I was powerless and hopeless," she said. All of her possessions, including her traditional bridal dress made of ox leather sewn with white beads and small metal discs, were taken from her.

Tuya decided to run back to her father's house, but she was not welcome there. She said her father told her, "I don't want to see you in my home." The next morning, she began a three-day walk through the bush, sleeping at night in the tops of the trees.

Tuya made her way to the Maji Moto Widows Village, a sanctuary for Maasai widows established in 2007 on land provided by Salaton Ole Ntutu, a more progressive tribal chief. Many of the widows are young women whose much older husbands died soon after their marriages. In Tuya's culture, widows are not allowed to remarry and do not have the right to own or inherit property. They often become homeless.

At the village, Tuya returned to school. A medicine woman and other widows have taken care her daughter to allow her time to attend classes and study. She is now in high school and said she is "developing a passion of empowering and developing the community."

Tuya is one of the beaders in the Maji Moto Widows Project, who make bracelets and wedding collars to sell to tourists who visit the tribe's eco-village. They've been accepted into this weekend's 11th annual Folk Art Market, and Tuya is representing them. She is among 96 women artists and art cooperatives who will be in Santa Fe for the event, which is expected to draw large crowds to Museum Hill.

Historically, more than half of the 700 artists who have participated in the market are women.

The market has always preached -- and there are studies to back it up -- that women are the change makers in their communities. With money in their pockets, they are more likely to not only lift themselves up but also to raise the quality of life for their families and communities.

According to the United Nations, women in developing countries spend up to 90 percent of their income on food and health care, housing and education, investments that promote both social progress and economic growth.

A United Nations Foundation study ( says, "In both developed and developing economies, savings rise and spending shifts toward food, health, education as women gain power over household income."

The stories of market artists often support this.

"Each story shows the way women seized opportunities and turned them into enterprises," said Judy Espinar, one of the market's founders. While their work is varied, the creators have similar impulses. "All these women want to respect their traditions," Espinar said.

Due in part to their participation in the Santa Fe market, some of the artists are becoming world players in cultural preservation.

But more are making big differences in their families, the lives of their children and their communities.

Market artists have been able to use sales revenues to send their sisters to school, provide basic water and electricity to their villages, buy mosquito nets for the community or purchase chickens for food during times of drought.

Many of them work together in groups. Mary Littrell, head of the Department of Design and Merchandising at Colorado State University and chairwoman of the market's artist selection committee, said she often asks applicants about the benefits of being part of an association of artists. The first response, she said, is that "the income helps them create a better life for their family and enables them to educate their children. The second is that they gain strength from the support and collective knowledge of the group."

Their success "gives women increased self-respect and self-confidence," Littrell added. "They learn to speak up in a group and make decisions at work and at home."

While they are improving the future for their children, the artisans also are teaching them about the past -- cultural traditions such as weaving, basket-making and pottery.

As they bring income to the family and gain self-confidence, sometimes husbands or in-laws find the changes difficult to accept, Littrell said.

"Change does not happen overnight," she said, "but I know of numerous examples where husbands and other household members have gained a new and powerful respect for the women artisans as they see the impact of their work on household income, nutrition and health. There are a number of cases where the men actually begin helping women in their businesses and even pick up some household duties so that the women can complete their artisan work."

In many cases, the women have formed close ties to Folk Art Market organizers and representatives, including Santa Feans, both during the market and during the training that the artists receive prior to the market on pricing their goods and making works for U.S. consumers.

"We know these people. We've visited them in their villages," said Littrell, co-author of Artisans and Fair Trade: Crafting Development.

Among the new artists:

Meeri Tuya: Maji Moto Widows Project

Santa Feans Tony Folton and his wife, Terese Lyons, met the Maasai chief Salaton Ole Ntutu, heard about Tuya and the other beadworkers and suggested they apply to the market.

The group was accepted, and the market is covering the travel costs for Tuya, a first-time participant, and Salaton, who will serve as her interpreter. Folton and Lyons have helped raise some seed money among their friends for supplies, arranged to pay for some of the work up front and loaned the women the money for the booth fee.

The Kenyan widows typically set the beads in high-contrast patterns meant to reflect the opposites that occur in the natural world, Folton said.

Until now, the women sold their jewelry only to visitors to Salaton's cultural camp. Each woman receives a portion of the sales for what she personally creates, and the rest goes into a pool of funds, which the women collectively decide how to spend. In drought years, the money might go to pay for flour, cereal, sugar and tea. Sometimes the women might decide to pay school fees for the children of families facing hard times.

For the last nine years, Folton and Lyons also have been subsidizing the costs for a Maasai girl to attend school. She's graduating in June, and the couple plan to be there for a party in the girl's village. "We wanted to demonstrate that girls have a right to education, and they can do this," Folton said.

Ya-Lei Chiang

Ya-Lei Chiang is a Paiwan indigenous bead artist who has worked for more than 25 years with her husband to revive traditional glass beadmaking and embroidery. The beads are used for rituals, gifts and weddings. They are worn as jewelry and are used to decorate traditional costumes.

The beads, according to one story, were a gift from the sun. Each bead carries a different name, gender, character and social status. For example, a special bead with yellow and blue lines is the king's bead and can only be worn by the major chief families.

The beads are made by rolling, mixing, cutting and firing a mixture of glass and metal.

Bani Mondal and Priyanka Ghosal & Mukti Mahili Samity Collective

Kathleen (Nura) Loeks of Santa Fe, a founder and director of the 30-year-old nonprofit Link Hands for Humanity, met Onima Mondal during a lecture tour of India. Mondal was running an association that provided medical care, legal aid and nutrition for battered women in India. The women earned money selling jute, but the market was drying up. Mondal needed help with funding and organization, and Loeks was looking for a textile project.

Loeks proposed to teach the women West Bengal's Kantha tradition. The two women then arranged for two members of the collective to train with a prize-winning quilter for a year. They then trained women in other villages. The Nebraska-based Mammel Foundation also provided funding to the collective. Girls earned living wages while in training, and today all members of the collective decide how much they should be paid.

The art form involves layering remnants of old saris and other fabrics and stitching them together. The stitching designs draw upon religious motifs from before and after the Vedic scriptures: the lotus, the tree of life, swirling cosmos, the sun. The women make wall hangings, bags and pillow cases. Kantha are even used to separate rooms, cover dishes of food and hold babies, who often don't wear diapers.

Materials include undyed Indian handwoven Tussur silk and Bengali muslin. The women also make saris, duppattas (shawls), blouses, shirts and children's clothes as well as bedding, table linens and towels.

Today, about 35 members of the collective are doing embroidery, often working in multigenerational groups on individual projects, while others are serving in health education and other jobs for the collective. The collective, Loeks said, is about "changing the lives of women affected by domestic violence."

Each of the women was a victim of domestic abuse. Some were beaten and thrown out of their homes, some cast out by in-laws after the death of their husband.

Kantha is both an essential art form and a "means to an end," Loeks said.

Their success has had an impact, she said. There are fewer divorces in the village, she said, and some are alcohol and drug free. And newly empowered women have confronted their husbands about domestic violence, she said, telling them to "straighten up or we're going to move on."

Yolanda Sebastiana Calgua Morales/Cooperativa de Alfombras de Mujeres Maya en Guatemala

Over 50 women living in the Guatemala highlands are part of a rug hooking cooperative. They use recycled materials, including discarded clothing from the U.S., and turn them into hooked rugs, a new art form.

Yolanda Calgua lives in an adobe home in small village called Quiejel, an hour's walk from the main road. When potable water reached her village, Calgua was able to buy faucets and pipes for six families to tap into the system as a result of income from the sale of her rugs.

The people there grow vegetables, fruit, corn and beans and raise chickens, turkeys and pigs, which they sell at the village market or in the nearby town of Chichicastenango.

In the co-op's application, Calgua said, "For me it is a privilege to be a rug hooking teacher and bring this opportunity to women in our communities. My hope is that they can make a better life for themselves and their children."

Calgua and her sisters have been weaving as long as they can remember. She learned from her mother and grandmother and has taught her daughter to weave. "It is as much a part of the day's domestic duties as cooking, cleaning and caring for children," she said.

In her group, all the women own at least two looms. In addition to rug hooking, they weave huipils, fajas and cintas. The rugs, she said, are like canvases, "which we fill with colors, symbols, designs that represent our Mayan culture."

The women learned rug hooking from May Anne Wise, an American who came to help them after sales of their weaving became stagnant. A core group of seven women began training others. Some of their work is sold through Wise's Wisconsin-based business, Cultural Cloth.

Littrell began tracking their progress and saw their products were getting better and better. But being accepted into the Folk Art Market was a long shot because rug hooking was not a traditional skill, even though the rugs still had a strong Mayan aesthetic. Both Wise and Littrell helped with the application.

Sona Rani Roy/Living Blue

Sona Fani Roy, who lives in the rice-growing area of Chirirbondor, is known as a master of white-on-white quilts, which can take her five to six months to complete because she is also responsible for many of her family's domestic chores. A typical quilt can take 11 kilometers of white thread.

Roy, who learned to quilt from her mother, works with a company called Living Blue, which specializes in Kheta, the name for traditional Bengali hand quilting. She is one of more than 300 rural women who make the quilts for Living Blue, which also provides training to women interested in learning the art form.

The women combine traditional quilting techniques with the organically grown True Bengal Indigo, called indigofera tinctoria, to dye the cloth.

In addition to quilts, the women make indigo-dyed stoles and shawls.

The art form was almost extinct when Living Blue revived it as a way of generating income for rural women.

The adult men in the family are farmers, and the women work as farmers during the harvesting season and as quilters at other times of the year.

According to the application, the Living Blue artisans earn a fair wage and have control over the business and the profits.

Contact Anne Constable at 986-3022 or


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