The headquarters of Sasa Designs by the Deaf doesn’t look like much from the outside: Not far from Kenya’s capital city of Nairobi, on the edge of the capital’s national park, this is a modest operation located in the suburban enclave of Ongata Rongai. Walk through the doors, though, and visitors will discover a refuge for its employees, a place where ingenuity, creativity, and self-expression are all celebrated.
As its name implies, deaf artisans create Sasa’s handcrafted jewelry, thoughtful pieces that reflect the unique attributes of the region while also exuding a distinct sophistication. Although the designs, such as their shimmering sea-inspired wrap bracelets, are covetable on a purely aesthetic basis, the compelling narratives behind these products render them even more beautiful.
Roughly 85% of the deaf population in Kenya is unemployed, owing, in part, to cultural discrimination. Deemed to be unintelligent and unemployable, these individuals —particularly women—have a grim outlook for earning fair wages in a healthy work environment. “They are often treated as if they are a drain on their families, and as a result, many women end up in vulnerable situations when they meet a man they think will take care of them as an alternative,” says Megan MacDonald, Sasa’s Director of Global Enterprise. “While deaf people develop incredible coping mechanisms to get by, they continue to face discrimination and limited work opportunities and are often relegated to solitary, manual and low-paying labor.”
Sasa, a subsidiary of DOOR International, was established roughly three years ago with the goal of alleviating these hardships by connecting deaf women in Kenya with sustainable employment. The venture was loosely defined at first. After approaching the community there, a consensus arose: They wanted to learn how to make jewelry. An initial launch team of 12 artisans was assembled and trained, and the enterprise began. The positive results, aside from a thriving business, have been incalculable. Participants have been able to master an entirely new, universally understood language: that of creative expression. The impact of this newfound “voice” has meant gainful, sustainable employment and, perhaps more importantly, a marked change in perspective and renewed sense of self.
They’ve also been given the opportunity to celebrate their heritage, a happy outcome given the culturally derived adversities they’ve encountered throughout their lives. Many of Sasa’s designs are inspired by Kenya’s magnificent natural beauty: from the white sand beaches of Diani, a southern beach town, to the serene turquoise waters of the Indian Sea. Using skills indigenous to the region, such as Maasai beading techniques, as well as materials local to the region (glass beads, leather, bone, horn and brass) artisans can honor their diverse, fascinating country.
We asked Nancy Omondi, Sasa’s lead artisan, to discuss her life since working with Sasa. “At first it was challenging, since I didn’t have many skills,” Omondi says. Now, as team leader, it’s helped me in many ways: I’ve learned computer skills, leadership skills, and things like creating payrolls, planning payments, teaching other artisans, and coming up with new designs.” She added, “I’ve also learned disability is not inability.”
Megan MacDonald, Director of Global Enterprise
How do you develop and ideate new designs and how do your artisans contribute to this brainstorming process?
Historically, I managed the bulk of design, creating sketches and mock-ups that our lead artisans would then put together. For our next collection (Fall / Winter ’14) I worked much more closely with two of the artisans, and they really co-designed the bulk of the wrap bracelets.
It was wonderful to collaborate, and see how their design aesthetic has developed. They are really beginning to understand how to design for trend-savvy consumers, while still utilizing traditional materials and skills.
What kind of morale-building have you witnessed as a result of Sasa Designs?
This has absolutely been the most encouraging part of Sasa Designs’ evolution as an organization. I could go on and on about the community of women at the heart of this work. But suffice it to say, they continue to grow as individuals and a group in a multitude of ways, from seeing Nancy and Penninah become true leaders—learning to lead both through positive encouragement and example—to seeing the joy with which Merina arrives at the workshop, flashing the lights to make sure everyone sees she has arrived and can offer the team an energetic “Good morning!”
Any specific anecdotes you could share on how Sasa has been life-changing?
We prioritize hiring single moms. Primary school is “free” in Kenya but there are uniform, book and transport fees that many cannot afford. One of the most recent artisans has a nine-year old son she had never been able to send to school, who is now enrolled full-time.
Another had experienced extreme trauma in the year preceding her joining Sasa, and while we don’t like to share the specifics of these stories, we do want to share the transformation we see in women who are finally learning what they are capable of—all in the company of peers. When I go to Kenya now, I am always overjoyed at the professionalism and confidence that has evolved over the last couple of years in our team.