Kenyan man hopes to use skills learned in Indiana to transform lives back home
NASHVILLE, Indiana — James Simiren Ole Nampushi, a Kenyan warrior from the Maasai Mara region, intends to return to his homeland next summer with two looms and skills gained in Brown County he believes will transform people’s lives.
Recently, Brown County’s Chris Gustin taught Nampushi how to weave rugs, tote bags and drink coasters out of those discarded plastic sacks from retail stores. You cut them into strips, tie them together and weave them into carpet warp threads stretched on a wooden loom.
The result: durable, machine-washable products made from reused plastic bags that Nampushi said often end up being ingested in Kenya by cows and wild animals, such as zebras and gazelles, that graze on the tundra. The bags get twisted inside the animals’ digestive tracts and cause death, he said.
Nampushi, who 10 years ago fought and was injured in Kenya by a lion in a test of bravery, identified this problem when he cut open the gut of a cow he owned that had died. He decided then he could do something to alleviate the danger if he could collect the plastic bags that get blown around from cities and dumps and transform them into something else.
He got a college degree, the first of the Maasai to do so, then went on to graduate school at South Carolina’s Clemson University. He is now working toward a Ph.D. in parks management there, The Herald-Times reported (http://bit.ly/Yv7Cvx ).
Last year, Nampushi completed a class project outlining his plan to collect discarded plastic bags and then train native people to weave them into items to sell to tourists. The project keeps animals from eating the bags and also keeps the plastic out of landfills. It also provides a skill that can be used to manufacture something useful, and employs native people so they can improve their lives.
There was a problem, though: Nampushi knew nothing of weaving. He had never seen a loom.
An online search using the words “plastic,” ”bags” and “weaving” led him to Gustin, of Homestead Weaving in southern Brown County, who years ago noticed the bags caught in trees along rural roads just as Nampushi had seen in his own country.
“I wondered what I could do to make a statement, to turn something as unsightly as a ‘bag in a tree’ into something usable,” her website explains. “After some experimentation, I came up with a technique to attach bags together so that they could be woven into outdoor rugs.”
Nampushi called earlier this year seeking advice and guidance. Gustin’s suggestion: that he travel to her studio and learn how it’s done, how to create a 27-by-39-inch rug from a wad of HDPE(hash)2 blue Walmart bags salvaged from the local recycling center.
He arrived on a Monday, and had woven his first plastic-bag rug by the end of the day. He was well into a second one the next afternoon, and was experimenting with weaving strips of cotton T-shirts into rugs as well.
But he had to stop so he could catch a plane back to South Carolina.
“This is my first experience to see and touch a loom,” Nampushi said, his hands using a wooden shuttle to weave the long strands of plastic through strong polyester warp and his feet working the treadles. He was slow, but exact, in his work.
“This is amazing, and as I learn this new skill I am fascinated seeing it all set up like this,” he said, praising the loom and its abilities.
“When this finds its way to Kenya, it will not only save wildlife from plastic but it will transform communities, improving the quality of life so that people can buy food, send their kids to school,” he said. “The goal is to get people making a long-lasting product.”
There is plenty of fodder for his dream: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that more than 500 billion such bags, maybe as many as a trillion, are distributed to shoppers around the world every year.