Jewelry brand ALAMA empowers the women of a traditional pastoral African tribe in the upland steppes of Tanzania through selling their handcrafted creations. Each of the one-of-a-kind pieces is a celebration of their ancestral traditions, their semi-nomadic lifestyle and their distinctive dress and jewelry customs. We sat down with Nini Gollong, founder of the exceptional brand, to talk about the roles of the Masai women, the meaning of fashion in the Maasai culture, and how supporting an NGO came into her life.
LASTING COLLECTIVE: Nini, how would you describe your brand and it's mission in a few words?
Nini Gollong: Alma is a culture to wear brand. We are not just showing fashion, we are showing culture. We actually try to bring pieces with a deeper meaning to the world, the western world. We want to to support the Maasai culture and AFRICA AMINI ALAMA, the NGO we are working with, and help the women to survive in a natural way, doing what they are used to do.
LASTING COLLECTIVE: What do you mean when you say "culture, not just fashion"?
Nini Gollong: It's both. Culture and Fashion. It's fashion for us, an exotic way to dress up, because it’s beautiful. The Maasai are very fashionable, they like to dress up, too. It’s important to them to be beautiful. They choose the jewelry to go with the fabrics they are wearing. And it's culture, because they also want to communicate something, a certain circumstance or the way they feel at this moment.
LASTING COLLECTIVE: How did the project start?
Nini Gollong: It kind of came to me. I went to Tanzania for work, as a set designer. After the job was finished I was invited to come to stay in a lodge on the mainland which was completely organized by Maasai. I met the doctors who worked there and who deeply impressed me. I wanted to make a change, be a part of it, do something to help, somehow.
LASTING COLLECTIVE: How do you work with ALAMA?
Nini Gollong: It started very basic, i visited the women, i selected the jewelry pieces that spoke to me. It's a challenge to order pieces done the same way. I tried it once, i would never do it again. They are all unique pieces. The women create what they feel, what they see in themselves, or in someone else. If a women feels e.g. sad or is in a very happy mood, she will choose colors and signs fitting to her circumstances.
LASTING COLLECTIVE: Please tell us a bit more about the production process.
We try to stay as traditional as possible with the production. In the Maasai culture the women, after having done their work with the cooking, the children, bringing them to bed, are sitting down in the evening on the fire place of her houses and are making jewelry for themselves, and for others, their friends, their men, their children. Often they meet and sit together. This is how they spend most of their free time, talking about their day, their feelings, and then expressing these feelings and wishes through their pieces of jewelry. The specific meanings are very interesting, some can be detected through the colors, some through the shapes, if e.g. a neck piece is long or short. When i get a piece the women tells me the meaning and i write down on a card. The customer who purchases the piece receives the card with the picture of the women who made it. Like this it gets a very personal touch.
LASTING COLLECTIVE: You said that each and every piece has a special meaning. Does this influence how you sell them to your customers?
Most people choose a piece without asking for the meaning and when i give them the card, they look at it and smile, saying it is exactly what they were looking for. To me it feels like every piece picks it's owner.
LASTING COLLECTIVE: How do the Maasai receive the financial support?
The Maasai we are working with, never had "real work" (a paid job, as we understand it), but in their current situation they need support, financially. They need money to survive. I personally like the idea to help them to buy essentials—cows, water, food, paper for the children so they can go to school, learn what they need to live their lives, but staying with what they always did in their everyday life, without having to leave their families, taking on jobs in the city….