Maasai Collections was brought to life by Elizabeth Warner, a true global nomad. Born in NY and raised in Africa, and now living with her daughter in Litchfield, CT, Elizabeth created Maasai Collections out of a love for Africa and a desire to support local craft. Here is a part of our conversation: about her work, how it came to be and how her life spent predominantly in Kenya has informed her purpose and passion.
Martha: How did Maasai Collections come to be?
Elizabeth: It was to really develop workload for local people in Africa more than anything. I deeply enjoy the creativity of it, and I loved getting it out to small markets in the US. I find an enormous sense of satisfaction to develop a product, work hands on with these people, keeping it unique to them, keeping the authenticity of it and then feeding it to a store that actually understands it.
Martha: I think there's been such a change in this idea of consumerism. I feel like people are so much more interested in understanding the origin story, the hand and the hand craft of it.
Elizabeth: People have come to a point where less is more. I really feel that there's been a total transition into that consciousness. I have felt myself go there as well. That’s why I love working with these traditional crafts made by traditional people.
Martha: I love having the baskets and now placemats and napkin rings in the shop. They are beautiful, useful, natural. Where specifically in Africa is the palm from?
Elizabeth: It's all coastal, the east coast of Kenya. This particular palm, coconut palm, that I've been working with is very traditional. The baskets and the people, they've been making and using them for centuries. I source them from just north of Lamu. It's a 20 minute boat ride to a tiny village with very little going on. It used to be a big fishing village, but now they just sort of eke out a living selling these baskets. They're woven by men and women who combine their efforts, and they weave them for the whole local market, up and down the coastline. Then you have the odd person like me coming along, ordering bunches of them, and they get shipped out of the country.
Martha: So this is first and foremost a very local industry?
Elizabeth: It's not even an industry, this is totally and utterly for local consumption. It's quite beautiful that a lot of this has not died. It's still very much a part of everyone's lives.
Martha: It really brings you to the essence of a thing and tradition that comes from utility, from actual need and purpose.
Elizabeth: Absolutely. The baskets are very traditional. I haven’t changed anything. When we decided to do the napkin rings or placemats, that was something designed to our specifications, but the baskets, that's what they make for themselves. They make all sizes, but the most useful baskets are large because the real purpose of them is to carry coconuts, fish, and vegetables. And, they often carry them on their heads.
Martha: How did you find this tiny and very remote village?
Elizabeth: Well, I grew up in Africa. I moved to Kenya in 1973 as a very young girl. I was brought up in post colonial Kenya, so it's very predominant in my life. We used to go down to the coast all the time. I really absorbed what Africa was, as one does at that age. And then I left Africa, and came back to Kenya 15 years later, and built a camp called Shompole with a former partner of mine. But I discovered Lamu in 1999 with my then partner. I've been going to Lamu every Christmas for the past 20 years.
Martha: This is a product that tells a story.
Elizabeth: Yes, a story of tradition, and symbolism and generational craft. It's coming from someone's hands.