Natural, sustainable Kenyan products.
In 2001, amidst a drought that killed off hundreds of cattle herds and forced the remaining cattle to be driven hundreds of miles away, the Maasai people of the Great Rift Valley were searching for a way to survive. With the men away alongside the cattle, the women were left home to figure out how to feed their families. The situation was made bleaker by the fact that the Rift Valley way of life is incredibly dependent upon the land: its much admired beauty is in many ways due to its utter isolation.
Enter Katy and Philip Leakey. The couple had been living in the Rift Valley and wanted to help their neighbors. The Maasai women are talented beaders, as seen in their many beautiful pieces of jewelry and the various details of their formal dress. Each beader was allowed to bring their children to work, thereby not disrupting their childcare duties, and they were paid by the piece for their work. What started as a design forward way of using the abundant dry grass soon became a popular accessory and way of earning a living for the women.
Known as Zulugrass, the strands quickly gained popularity for their versatility and simple beauty. Today, Leakey employs over 1,400 women to make the pieces that are sold worldwide. Though the drought has gone, the Zulugrass industry remains and continues to grow!
And yes, for those of you who paid attention in your anthropology classes, Leakey is in fact the same name of the famous archaeologist. Philip is his youngest son, and served as a Member of Parliament in Kenya for 15 years, a Deputy Member of the Cabinet for 14 years, and a Member of the Cabinet for 1 year.
Why we love them
We saw our first Zulugrass strands years ago—they were in a favorite gift shop in every color of the rainbow. The display told the story of the Maasai makers and we were sold right away. Beautiful jewelry with a really interesting lineage had us right away. Little did we know that years later we would be running Given Goods and getting to sell those very same strands as well as the extensive and incredibly lovely home goods line from Leakey.
The Leakey Collection story, taken from the start, is one we love to tell. The 2001 drought devastated Kenya, but out of it came a project that employed women, allowed them to keep up with their family care, and gave them the empowerment that comes from an independently made paycheck. Care has been given to the way in which the programs for the women work, and the job allows for far more than financial independence. Indeed, many of the Maasai workers go on better prepared to find other jobs should they want, but many stay with Leakey.
Mindful production, versatile and simple but elegant products and a story worthy of admiration make the Leakey Collection easy to love.