James Nampushi is strong enough to have speared a lion that killed cattle — villagers’ main source of food — in his native Kenya several years ago. But now he has learned the delicate art of weaving rugs, which he hopes will save wild animals on his homeland’s Maasai Mara Natural Reserve, one of the largest natural habitats in the world.
On a recent afternoon, he sat at a small loom at Brown County’s Homestead Weaving Studio learning the craft from Chris Gustin, a 40-year veteran weaver who sells her work nationwide.
Gustin, who pioneered a method for turning discarded plastic bags into colorful, durable rugs, is teaching Nampushi to do the same.
Nampushi had been mulling over the plastic bag issue for some time when he and a professor did an Internet search for “plastic bags” and “weaving.” Gustin’s name popped right up.
“When my community finds out that a professor-to-be is busy learning mama’s work ... .” Nampushi stopped and broke into a wide grin and a laugh.
The 29-year-old Clemson University student is pursuing his doctorate in parks management, and the work he is learning is truly life-saving for both wildlife and his people. On the reserve and elsewhere, lots of animals, including precious cattle, are dying after ingesting plastic bags left by litterers.
“The plastic bags are just flying around and hanging on trees,” Nampushi said of the trash.
The catastrophic decline of animals, including elephants, wildebeests, antelopes and more, hurts not only the country’s natural resources, but its economic health: A reserve well-stocked with healthy wildlife boosts tourism.
A South Carolina missionary who met Nampushi made it possible for him to attend graduate school, since the Kenyan warrior already earned an undergraduate degree in his home country. After completing doctoral studies at Clemson in May 2014, he will return to Kenya to stay and teach villagers, with help from Gustin’s homemeade videos, the weaving he is learning.
Kenyans then will sell the rugs to visitors as part of a small business with expected proceeds funding more of the work. Nampushi, the first of his family to attend college, realizes it sounds farfetched. But so be it.
“I don’t need them to believe me,” Nampushi said of the unusual project. “What I need is for them to see and feel.”
His theory rests on simple wisdom: Save the bags from the reserve and elsewhere, and save the food source, environment and more.
“I believe that what he’s doing is good for the environment,” said Gustin, long dedicated to recycled art. “So, even if he were a million miles away, I would want to help.”
Same goes for Vermont art educator Linda Whelihan, a Nampushi family friend who watched Gustin and Nampushi’s recent sessions. Whelihan hardly seemed surprised that Nampushi’s first creation looking polished enough for a store shelf.
“Chris is a fantastic teacher,” Whelihan said.
Nampushi referred to Gustin as “my professor.” Dressed in bright red, full Kenyan dress and jewelry, he gushed over her and husband Bob’s kindness, support and hospitality.
“They have been so generous,” the Kenyan said. “I am pleading with them to come to Kenya to help us.”
His reasons stretch to big-picture thinking.
“I believe this even will create jobs and improve lives.”
Several Kenyan hotels already have agreed to sell the specialty rugs, Nampushi said. He is sufficiently extroverted to be a natural networker who knows no stranger.
His plans spill from his thoughts without restraint in almost stream-of-consciousness fashion.
His dreams have grown as big as the 1,500-kilometer reserve.
“This,” he said with a smile, “could be a global industry.”
Yet, at the same time, part of Gustin hopes that, to preserve the environment, plastics diminish. That includes partially plastic rugs. No plastics. No more needless animal deaths.
“So,” she said, “we (weavers) actually want this to die out.”
How you can help
Kenyan native James Nampushi is seeking support for his project to turn plastic bags into woven rugs.
To that end, he will need funds and other support to have a few looms shipped to his homeland. To find out how to support his cause, call Chris Gustin at 988-8622.