"No one ever thinks jewellery can be political. But it is."
Njuhi Chege is a peace activist and the founder of a socially conscious and empowering jewellery brand. Born and raised in Kenya, she has worked with the United Nations as the focal point for African youth. She studied International Peace in Israel and Palestine and was subjected to post electoral violence in Nairobi which led her to search for a way to combine peace activism and her love for jewellery and fashion.
She is now the founder of one of the fastest growing jewellery brands from Kenya - Riri: Jewellery for peace, where she is focused on creating an example of meaningful enterprise that not only makes great products but also empowers a generation of aware, responsible and entrepreneurial youth that will in turn define the future of Kenya and Africa on a whole.
We were lucky enough to have these conversations with Njuhi complemented by an exclusive photo shoot by Katherine Liew in Nairobi and the title designed by Prasad Ramachandran in Mumbai. Truly capturing multiple dimensions of her personality and her vibrant journey! Read the story on what keeps her going.
You can follow and be part of the ‘Jewellery For Peace movement by Riri’ on their Facebook, Twitter and website.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I am Njuhi Chege. Njuhi means a heap of metal, like a junkyard. I was born in 1984, raised and bred in Nairobi, Kenya. I come from a closely knit family. Including myself, my parents have four daughters. So as you can imagine, the dynamic in the house when we were growing up was predominantly female, although when my father came home, the balance would quickly be restored. My Aunt, fondly known as Aunty Flo, has also been a great mentor to me, and she and her daughter are a vital extension of our family.
I studied Political Science and Sociology at the University of Nairobi for my undergraduate studies, and a postgrad in International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame motivated by my experience of the post-election violence of 2007/8 in Kenya. I was looking for causes that would help me make an impact on my community. It was a two year course at the University of Notre Dame in the US with my field research in Israel and Palestine.
After my postgrad, I joined UN Women as a focal point for African youth in New York. Most of the research I engaged in focused on the creative renaissance within Africa. There were a lot of cool new fashion blogs, tech startups, new TV show ideas and many inventions coming along. That inspired me to come back home and start something of my own. I came back to Kenya in 2012 and it has been a transformative period for me.
I come from a family of creatives; writers and avid readers, designers of both clothes and jewellery, and the odd pilots. Jewellery making was the most accessible path to take as I love going to the market where all sorts of materials are sold by skilled artisans, to find elements that can create jewellery. I also wanted to explore the concept of entrepreneurship, and how this can be a vehicle for individuals and states to thrive.
"Riri means intrinsic god-given beauty. Because nobody can define that for you."
What does 'Riri' mean?
Riri means divine beauty. Intrinsic god-given beauty. Currently in Kenya and across the world, there is a huge discussion on what beauty is. Especially because there is a lot of skin lightening practices happening and misconstrued ideas of beauty garnered from the rising phenomena of socialites. I wanted to explore my own definitions of what it means to be African, what it means to be human and how the concept of beauty defines who I am, not only as an African lady, but as part of a community and society that has it’s own ideals.
I thought Riri would be a good place to bring the discussion back to intrinsic god-given beauty, because nobody can define that for you.
Tell us a bit more about the stories behind your designs.
To me, jewellery has always been what shoes are for many women. I remember years ago when I had my first job, I would spend a huge chunk of my meagre salary on jewellery.
When i'm wearing something unique and different, I feel very connected to my Kenyan culture or to nature. Anyone who has experienced the melting pot that is Kenya knows how multifaceted and colourful it is, coupled with rich histories and an intertwined heritage.
A lot of my jewellery is inspired by nature and our stories. My grandmother tells me stories about what they used to wear during dancing events or at social gatherings, and of course what to adorn to lure potential mates! They would wear colour coded jewellery sets to define where in life they were. If you were a married woman, you would wear a different set to a girl who was ready to get married.
Haha! That sounds like an ancient version of a stoplight party - red (In a relationship), Yellow (Unsure/It’s Complicated) & Green Parties (Single/ Looking for a relationship)!
Really? That’s fancy!
"You can see why my designs are a direct result of stories and experiences soaked in my culture"
Jewellery was also a central part of sacred occasions such as initiation ceremonies, drought, weddings, even funerals. During the drought season for instance, they would have special ceremonies to call on the rain using special ornaments on their feet. When they danced the jingle of the jewellery would call on the gods and sure enough the rains would come.
At that time, men were not only the heads of their homes but were also regarded as religious leaders and they would join a group of elders and go around a mugumo tree (fig tree) which was considered to be an altar, and again they would wear necklaces and bracelets that were only worn at specific times to get closer to god.
You can see why my designs are a direct result of stories and experiences soaked in from my culture.
I’ve been exploring crystals and the vibrations of the stones as they help heal the body. If you can incorporate that in jewellery, if it can help heal an individual, help them think better or ease their pain, that in itself is pretty amazing.
"If young people were financially empowered, they'd finish school, start their own businesses and make better decisions in life. The Kenyan youth are a unique breed of people."
Why is the "Youth Enterprise" part of it so important to you?
I’ve always been more on the ‘development’ side. When I was in Palestine doing my research it was difficult seeing the kind of discrimination that happens there. I was living in Jerusalem and working in Ramallah, a major city in the West Bank. There is an actual wall separating the Palestinians and Israelis. We were once on a bus and they asked everybody to get down at their regular checkpoints. Upon learning that I’m from Kenya, they asked me to return to my seat. It was really weird and blatantly obvious that they were picking out all the Palestinians from the bus for a thorough inspection.
It was different because I’m usually on the receiving end of this discrimination in the context of my various identities such as my race, gender, religion e.t.c. It hurt being a witness of such inhumanity, and couldn’t imagine what it felt like living permanently in such a situation where your movements and agency was constricted, to such a great extent.
The situation in Israel and Palestine is extremely complex. I was working with a tripartite NGO that was bringing together Palestinian, Israeli and international decision makers to engage in constructive solutions for a just peace, that favours both Palestinians and Israelis. Although efforts of international organizations and NGOs are commendable, I strongly believe in the power of the people to influence their own situations and one of the means of fast tracking personal power is through economic empowerment.
There are concerted efforts by many incredible organizations and individuals such as Nobel Peace Prize winner- the late Professor Wangari Maathai, to push for sustainable solutions for our world which gives me hope. But there are also organizations that benefit from continued conflict.
"We need to redefine what money means to us, it's role in our lives and the fairer systems of its distribution."
We call it the Peace “Industry.” All this money being pumped into peacekeeping initiatives and every single issue is being abused by so many people. There are people living lavish lives in the name of peacebuilding around the world. And you’ll see more of such people in places of distress. It’s like they want the place to remain in its present state so that they can continue to benefit from it, and hence, they lose focus on what it is they’re really out there to solve.
Back to the question, why is youth enterprise important to me? Money is a key resource anywhere you go in the world as you know. It’s not everything, but having a certain amount of it can give you access to answers that alleviate a lot of basic problems. The Kenyan youth are a unique breed of people. Highly intelligent, super exposed to world affairs and very driven. However, access to resources such as education and finance is still a hurdle. I feel like if young people were financially empowered, they’d finish school, start their own businesses and make better decisions in life.
This would ensure that they are better placed to be economically thriving. Despite realities such as corruption, conflict and poverty which are world over, we are finding creative ways of overcoming these, while making money and contributing to transforming mindsets- especially of how the world views us. That’s the basis in which Riri Jewellery works as well.
First one is generating income and skilled resource - for us and for the people who work with us and then through that ability, change mindsets for the better.
Youth enterprise is about thinking constructively on how we want to access better housing, better health care, better education and more humane interaction among people. Because financial freedom alone is not going to solve the problem in the long run, we believe in the shift of mindsets. We need to redefine what money means to us, it’s role in our lives and fairer systems of its distribution.
What were the few defining moments for Riri?
A friend who is a fashion designer invited me to Tanzania for a fashion show and asked me to bring some jewellery along. After the show, I put my stuff on the table and people were actually buying my products. They were very interested in the stories behind each piece! It is always humbling when another soul resonates with the piece you have designed or created. Many people don’t realise how vulnerable it feels presenting your work to them, and having them react to it.
"We need to embrace the fact that there is no 'standard' and that every person is unique and different. I've incorporated this ideology in everything we make at Riri."
There was this moment which was very simple but also profoundly defining for me as a designer. A woman who was a little shy about her body tried one of my products and was really happy because it was adjustable and it fit her perfectly. She said that she never found things that she likes that fit her right. Which I totally understood as well. This was an emotional win for me because I realised that we always try to “fit into” everything - from our houses to cars to clothes to a certain “standard” instead of understanding that truly, every person is different and his/her needs are different. I’ve incorporated this ideology across all Riri products from then on.
Generally though, the Riri Jewellery success so far has been through the support and effort of many, which continues to define what we do and why we do it. Family, friends, fellow artisans, clients, colleagues and people who believe in making Kenya better. My Kenya has a soul, my Kenya is the most amazing place I’ve ever been and it inspires the best in me!
How has your family and surrounding shaped you as a person?
I always go back to that question actually, because I found that when I left Kenya that was my first real long term exposure to a different culture.
When I left for the University of Notre Dame I was going to be there for two years and it was the first time I was exposed to being different. It hadn't even crossed my mind that I was actually ‘different’ because until then, I was in an environment where everybody looked like me. When I’m in the US I get statements like “Oh! You have such interesting hair” or “Oh! Can I touch your skin?” and the famous “You speak such good English.” When you’re put in a different environment, you realise the things that you are usually blind to and take for granted. We are all different, no two humans are exactly the same, and that’s awesome!
Being a ‘representative’ of Kenya in the US, it made me want to understand better who it is I was really representing. When you say ‘Kenya’ it means something to someone based on the stories they have heard. However I had to be able to give my own definition of my experience. So that got me thinking more about who I am. When I think of discrimination for instance, in regards to gender and race, I grew up in an almost all girls family, where the girls rotated chores, and being on my parents good books depended largely on good grades and staying out of trouble. To me, girl or boy, you can do anything and of course do your best to be your best. My parents were always open minded and never pushed us into things we didn’t want to do, I appreciate them for that and much more. Thanks Mum and Dad!
No one ever thinks jewellery can be political. But it is. No one thinks fashion is political. But it is."
You told us that the post election violence of 2007/8 had a huge impact on you. Can you tell us about it?
Kenya is blessed with a foray of rich and diverse cultures, each with unique beliefs, values, rituals and celebrations. Incitement over the past few years to view each others differences as the source of the inequalities around us have been damaging and heartbreaking.
I’d like to see more of us young Kenyans show more and do more of exemplifying that we are all equal regardless of ethnicity. It is up to each and everyone of us as Kenyans to manifest change and not relegate responsibility to the leaders.
No one ever thinks jewellery can be political. But it is. No one thinks fashion is political. But it is. From the materials used to design the pieces, the conditions of the people who make the pieces, the remuneration and ethics of supplying to markets are all aspects that need to be considered when developing a brand. Riri Jewellery uses materials sourced from different cultures and crafted by artisans encompassing different backgrounds, which makes for interesting soulful designs. Our clients, called Riri ambassadors are largely from Kenya exemplifying that Kenyans do invest in local brands that they believe in.
I try and follow the path of least resistance and that’s my sign that I’m on the right path. Because then I can focus on really creating an impact long term.
And you're doing all this while making mobile applications too?
It’s funny actually. Not too long ago, I had no idea about mobile technology, so much so that I tried to delete the Google Play store from my phone thinking it’s a waste of space! Now my team and I at Appy Spot Kenya have designed and developed apps such as the Capital FM Kenya app. I realised that if jewellery can open doors, technology can open bigger doors because of it’s ability to defy borders.
Jewellery and technology, one is soft power and the other is hard power. It balances very well and I continue pursuing it because I think it has great answers to all the questions we’ve been speaking about of new ways of thinking about poverty, the youth, empowerment and thriving as an entire human race.
If you had one piece of advice to give, what would it be?
Wow! Is this where I say something profound?
I think the most important thing is to not wear masks and to move beyond human insecurities. Starting from zero where you’ve to let go of the negatives. We are so much more than we can ever imagine. Believe that. The biggest thing you think you can be, is still really small compared to what you can truly be.
I used to be stressed out trying to answer the question “How do I make a change?” Accepting that change takes time and that it really is in the details, will bring more harmony and impact. Accept and realise that we can do something, small things everyday that will collectively impact on a larger level.
One super power you wish you had?
To have a contagious, everlasting laugh.
What does success mean to you?
For me, success is peace of mind. It’s waking up everyday and being at peace.
Really. Enjoy all your senses. Be here. Be mindful.