I’d like to introduce you to a strong, modern (yes, modern women live in East Africa!), and independent woman named Esther Okeno. I first met Esther in 2015 on my first trip to Kenya with Roger Dery. Back then I knew her as the wife of Gichuchu Okeno, the charismatic figure in the documentary Sharing the Rough, who along with Roger was my guide on this trip. It seemed that Okeno knew everyone, knew the gem trade, and had an almost spiritual vision for how gemstones in East Africa could be a channel for education, growth, and change.
At the time Esther was a stay at home mother of three young children. She was sweet, but rather quiet, as she knew little english at the time. Her husband, Okeno passed away almost a year after that trip. I couldn’t fathom how Esther would care for herself and the kids.
The next time I saw her a year later a lot of things had changed. I learned that she had to sell their home and was challenged to keep his daily mining operations alive. This proved to be impossible with a three hour distance between the mine and her new home. In order to support her young family, Esther learned to be a gemstone dealer with the help of Okeno’s network of friends. In addition, she gathered some other women and formed a new mining company called Precious Women Mining outside Mwatate, Kenya. These four women work alongside the men with picks and shovel in a tsavorite garnet mine, also owned by a woman.
When you feel like the walls are closing in on you it would be easy to give up, but Esther is rising to the new challenges of life with hope and determination. I call this "polish and grit"....a theme I use throughout my designs. I named my removable colored gemstone pendants in honor of my beautiful courageous friend and business colleague, Esther. When you purchase any Esther pendant or piece from the Watu Collection, we donate 5% of net proceeds to Gem Legacy, benefiting people in the East African mining communities just like Esther.