It was in the hills of the rift valley working for a Buddhist festival that I first fell in love with the Maasai blankets or Shuka as they are called locally. I had come to Kenya as part of a motley crew of artists, designers, makers and musicians. We were to bring to life this corner of the world for the Shinnyo-en Buddhists annual fire and water festival a faction of Japanese Buddhists. I knew little of Buddhism before the trip and felt inspired by the marriage of colours and sounds of these two separate cultures. The gentle chanting with the deep purples and oranges of the Japanese’s fused with the bright reds and deep drumming of the local Samburu tribe.
It is customary in many of the Kenyan tribes for the women to build the homes and I was fortunate to have a team of the Samburu women helping me make a sculpture of the reclining Buddha for the festival. They wore bright Maasai blankets in vibrant red checks and coloured beaded necklaces and bracelets. They taught me songs and dances as well as their hut making skills, many of which I applied to the structure of the sculpture.
Our hosts where Kuki and Sveva Gallmann of the Gallmann Memorial Foundation in the Laikipia region of Northern Kenya. This dynamic mother and daughter duo have dedicated their lives to the preservation of the wildlife and people who call the conservancy their home.
We were housed in old fashioned army tents and showered under the stars, at night we would sit around the camp fire, listening to stories while lions and elephants padded in the bush on the edge of the darkness. We ate mandazas (a delicious type of doughnut) drank sweet masala tea and gossiped in the early morning sun before the day’s work commenced. It was a truly magical experience.
After the festival was over, sad good byes had been hugged and said I found my way to the markets of Nairobi where I brought the blankets we have used in our African collection. The markets are bustling, loud places where extreme haggling techniques meet with the smells of side cart food stalls. The colour, heat and noise of Nairobi is an unforgettable experience and I hope some of its vibrancy and adventure comes through in the cushions.
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