Adorned in layers of colourful Maasai beadwork, Lorna Saoei Pulei jingles with every small gesture. We sit in her kitchen in Kajiado County, Kenya to document her story from child bride to leading entrepreneur, with a ME to WE Rafiki Bracelet as her namesake.
Everyone who knows her calls her Mama Toti—mother of Toti, which was the nickname given to her eldest daughter. At 44, Mama Toti is in constant motion, peering out the window to ensure her goats haven’t strayed onto the adjacent property; returning a flurry of greetings as neighbours pass by her plot; stacking a bucket of nails and hammer atop a pile of wood as evidence of ongoing construction. A single mother of four, Mama Toti built this three-bedroom house with her own earnings, and she isn’t finished yet.
She never imagined all this would be hers, but then nothing about her journey was predictable. At the age of eight, Mama Toti was married off to an older man she had never met before, and for 10 years she suffered emotional and physical abuse at his hands. When her parents finally brought her home to live in Kajiado, she was a teen mother with no education and no work experience. Her parents built her a traditional mud manyatta house on the family compound, but could offer her no further support, as they had her younger siblings to raise. At 18, Mama Toti was determined to start over and provide for her family.
Like most Maasai families, Mama Toti’s parents were pastoralists who relied on the milk and meat of their livestock. But as frequent drought reduced pasture land in the region, this traditional livelihood was in constant jeopardy. When her father passed away due to illness, Mama Toti was left to support not only her children, but her mother and siblings as well. With no other recourse, she turned to the skill she’d learned as a child. Beading.
For Maasai women, learning to bead is a rite of passage. As a young girl, Mama Toti had helped her mother make jewellery for weddings and family celebrations. As an adult woman, her reacquaintance with the craft was more somber. She began to travel two hours each day to the nearest town, working for vendors who sold her beaded jewellery to tourists. But the market was flooded with similar products, and Mama Toti spent more money on transit than she brought home. Despite her growing talent, she was forced to sell her intricate beadwork at a loss.
ME to WE Artisans was founded in 2009 to support women in precisely this situation—skilled artisans who only needed access to a proper market to succeed. Kajiado, a traditionally Maasai region, was one of the first community areas the social enterprise approached.
This was the pitch: the women would handcraft jewellery and accessories inspired by their traditional designs but tailored to a North American audience, and ME to WE would pay per piece, providing the artisans with a sustainable income and an international market for their work. Many of the women were skeptical, slow to trust outsiders and their promises, but for Mama Toti, there was no debate: “I had children to provide for, so I just took the chance,” she says. She was one of the first women to accept, and her courage inspired more to follow.
From their first day on the job, Mama Toti knew working with ME to WE would be nothing like trying to sell her work to other vendors. For one, there was no commute to town. Mama Toti and her comrades gathered in a field steps from their homes and worked together in the shade of a familiar tree, with a ME to WE coordinator coming to them for pick-up. “We would talk, make jokes and sing while beading, and time would go by so fast,” she says.
The first piece they learned to make was called a “Rafiki”—a colourful single-strand bracelet named for the Swahili word for “friend.” It would be a symbol of the global connection forged by ME to WE Artisans—between women in Kenya sharing their craft and women in North America supporting their work.
Mama Toti made a name for herself early on. While most women averaged 30 bracelets a day, she completed up to 70. She was working toward a long-held dream: a goat of her own. She would no longer have to buy milk for her children, because she would have a steady supply at home, and in this way, the investment would quickly pay for itself. There was only one detail she didn’t foresee: because of her skill and speed as an artisan, her first paycheque was substantial enough to buy not one goat, but two!
News of Mama Toti’s success spread quickly through Kajiado. Neighbours came by to see her progress firsthand—the growing number of goats on her lot, the iron sheets for the roof of a modern house. Watching her rise, more women began to trust in their own futures, and ME to WE Artisans began to grow. While Rafiki Bracelets continued to be a staple product, new and more complex designs evolved. Mama Toti became a trainer for other artisans, learning the new patterns herself and then passing along the tricks to the rest of her neighbours.
Averaging a guess at how many goats she has today, Mama Toti says 35, give or take. She sold a few to pay for her children’s education, which she credits as her longtime motivation. “I never want them to face the challenges I faced, so I encourage them to work hard in school,” she says.
It shows. Mama Toti’s eldest daughter, Leah Matipe (nicknamed Toti!), graduated from Kisaruni Girls High School, a school built by WE Charity in the Maasai Mara, in 2017. She’s since taken a course in computer studies and is now waiting to hear back from college applications. She says her mother instilled the importance of hard work in her and her siblings, “I would see her work every day to make sure we had money for school, food and clothes. I couldn’t believe that one person could do all that.” Mama Toti says her children were the reason she pushed herself. Her second born son is now in grade ten, her third born in grade seven while her youngest, a daughter, is in grade four.
ME to WE decided to celebrate the strength of women like Mama Toti by naming a bracelet series in her honour. “I cried when they said they wanted me to help with the design and they would name the bracelet after me,” she shares, clearly touched.
Proceeds from the sale of Mama Toti Rafiki Bracelets will finance the dreams of women across WE Charity’s partner communities. Not only does the bracelet support the artisan who made it, but it also funds women’s groups to grow their own goat herds and create the futures they want for their families. While the design is more elaborate than what Mama Toti and her fellow artisans first started with, it is bound by the same thread.
Zeddy Kosgei is a multi-media content creator in Kenya with over three years’ experience as a broadcast journalist. She loves finding stories that matter and retelling them creatively and eloquently.