Kenyan rug enterprise spells survival for women weavers

IN a shed adjacent to Joy Mayers's home, carpets at various stages of creation stretch across large cedar looms. A group of Kikuyu women quietly sing songs as ancient as the gray-green peaks of the nearby Aberdare Mountains. Their fingers move gracefully among the strands of earth-tone wools, knotting then pulling, knotting then pulling. The quiet color and design of the carpets are in sharp contrast to the neon colors the Kikuyu women wear.

The hot wind puffs through gaps in the shed walls. Sleeping babies are nestled in colorful kangas tied to their mothers' backs. Older children play among the fluffy wools piled outside the shed or among the hanks of wool drying in the sun.

This is Kufuma Carpets, a cottage industry in the tiny village of Ndaragwa near Nyahururu, or Thompson's Falls, in central Kenya.

Kufuma means weaving in Swahili. But to the women who create the beautiful carpets and to Joy Mayers, the founder of the business, Kufuma means survival.

Kufuma is an oasis in the midst of this desolate sweep of land. Mrs. Mayers and her husband, Roy, have worked hard to coax the nearby Pesi River through a network of pipes to irrigate the plot of land surrounding their home and business. The lush area stands out vividly against the dry, rutted countryside.

The Mayerses' home is situated on a cooperative in which the local Kikuyu inhabitants are shareholders. They receive small plots to farm. But even if the rainfall were sufficient, many of these plots are too small to provide an adequate living. So for these people Kufuma Carpets is also an oasis, a place to earn enough money to buy food and clothing. There is no other employment in the area.

About six years ago, Mrs. Mayers, now in her mid-60s, realized she and her husband, Roy, needed some way to support themselves. Previously, the two of them had done just about anything that life in rural Kenya could provide.

``There is never a dull moment in Kenya and I am used to this way of life,'' says the small, almost fragile, white-haired woman.

From farming cattle and sheep to managing large coffee and tea plantations to fashioning furniture from old packing crates, the Mayerses managed to survive in the harsh land where their British parents brought them as babies.

At an age when most people are contemplating their retirement, Mrs. Mayers, in her quiet, matter of fact way, decided it was time to get back to work.

About this time, Felicity Cossins, the Mayerses' daughter, returned to Kenya after many years in Ethiopia, where she and her husband worked with the International Livestock Commission for Africa. Mrs. Cossins learned the traditional weaving techniques used by tribesmen in Ethiopia to produce carpets.

Upon her return to Kenya, Mrs. Cossins taught the Ethiopian weaving technique, an ancient style known for its extreme strength and durability, to some of the women at the cooperative. Previously, the only weaving known to the Kikuyu women was used for creating their colorful carrying baskets, or kiondos.

As her daughter started working with variations and innovations on weaving themes established over centuries by the Ethiopians, Mrs. Mayers wondered about ways to make the trade uniquely Kenyan.

Together, Mrs. Mayers and her daughter worked with the women on the cooperative to develop a high-quality wool. By combining the strong hair from the Dorper sheep with the refined quality of the Corriedale or Merino sheep, they developed an ideal weaving wool in an assortment of natural grays, browns, and cream colors.

The wool is subjected to a series of washings and combings until it is ready to be spun into two-ply or three-ply strands.

Working with the Kikuyu women, Mrs. Mayers, whom they affectionately call ``shoo-shoo,'' or grandmother, designed carpets that incorporated the kiondo basket designs. The result: strong, flat-woven carpets proudly displaying traditional Kenyan designs.

The first few carpets were sold to friends. Gradually, their market expanded until now, almost six years later, Kufuma Carpets has customers all over the world as well as in Kenya. They recently completed an order for the Mount Kenya Safari Club. ``But they have a problem because the management says it is too nice to walk on,'' Mrs. Mayers says.

The woman who six years ago wondered if she could ever make enough to support herself has developed some impressive business acumen. Each of her carpets, she stresses, are personally designed. Every one of the thousands of knots that go into each carpet are hand-tied by the weavers. The company now offers a line of plush-pile carpets as well as the flat-weave kiondo carpets, all in a range of sizes.

``This,'' says Mrs. Mayers, waving an arm at the nearby sheds, ``was a challenge and a struggle. Now it is satisfying -- but a great deal of work.'' In a world where there are no deadlines and time is measured by the coming rains, Mrs. Mayers and the weavers must concentrate on keeping a schedule.

``I admire the women workers,'' she says. ``These women have never had an opportunity to earn their own money before. They enjoy their work, keeping a high standard and teaching and helping each other.''

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