Bracelets break down cultural barriers


At a glance, Michael Notrica is a fairly average sophomore. He’s lean and lanky, with bright brown eyes and a smile that comes easily. He wears a cotton shirt with the sleeves rolled up and a distinctly unremarkable pair of jeans. When he moves, however, dozens of multicolored bracelets that cover his arms halfway to his elbow jingle. He laughs.

 “They’re pretty much part of my arm at this point,” he said.

There are thin metal bangles, traditional friendship bracelets, woven hemp, and plastic cuffs that stand for a variety of causes. The most distinctive are fat bangles covered in hundreds of colorful beads, which Notrica, a visual and media arts major, said are handmade by women of the Maasai tribe in Kenya.

Notrica said he has acquired them through a series of trips to Kenya, both for personal reasons, and as part of the charity he founded for the preservation of Kenyan culture. Each of his bracelets has a story behind it, which he shares with enthusiasm.

One with deep blues, bold reds, bright whites, and somber blacks was given to Notrica by the Maasai elders during his last trip to Kenya. It was a token of thanks for the more than 100 handheld chalkboards he donated to the local cultural school, a place where children previously had to write in the dirt with rocks, Notrica said.

The chalkboards were purchased by the non-profit foundation Notrica founded after his second visit to Kenya, called the Shukuru Foundation.

“The purpose of the foundation is to preserve traditional Kenyan culture, particularly in low-income areas,” said Notrica.

Notrica, a Phoenix, Ariz. native, is also a self-described world traveler. He claims to have traveled to 31 countries, including three trips to Kenya alone, each time staying with tribesmen in the Northern bush.

“I’m obsessed with cultures,” said Notrica. “The [traditional Kenyan] culture really had an impact on me. There are just so many aspects of it that I love.”

He said this cultural passion is what led to the creation of the Shukuru Foundation.

“Shukuru means ‘thankful’ in Swahili,” he said. “It’s a way of giving back to a country and a culture that’s given so much to me.”

The foundation, Notrica said, makes money by selling bangles like the ones he wears, with all profits going directly back to the women who make them. Notrica has also produced and recorded an album of traditional Kenyan music from the Maasai tribe, which he sells on iTunes. Proceeds go to various projects in Kenya, particularly education. Notrica said the foundation’s next big venture is building a water delivery system to another local cultural school.

Another recent initiative, following the terrorist attacks on a Nairobi mall that left 67 people dead, is the production and sale of plastic awareness bracelets, according to Notrica. The bracelets, he said, come in the colors of the Kenyan flag and are emblazoned with the words “Amani Kwa Kenya,” meaning “Peace for Kenya” in Swahili. The initiative was a joint effort between the Shukuru Foundation and Emerson Peace and Social Justice’s International Committee, which Notrica said he is also a member of. According to Notrica, all of the proceeds from these bracelets go to the Kenya Red Cross.

Sandrayati Fay, a sophomore performing arts major, and fellow member of the International Committee, said she compared the events in Nairobi to what happened in Boston last April, when a terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon killed three people and injured hundreds more.

“We all felt a certain kind of pain that day,” said Fay. “We were all feeling the same things. Afterwards, Boston got so much support from all over the world. I think it’s so important that we show that kind of support for Kenya.”

Notrica also said he had similar sentiments.

“[What happened in Nairobi] really hit home with me,” he said. “I have friends there — people I consider my unofficial brothers and sisters. I’ve been in that mall before. I was there less than two months ago.”

According to Notrica, these events are part of what led to the creation and promotion of the Amani Kwa bracelets.

“It was an act of terrorism, in the worst way,” said Notrica. “No one should ever experience that. Not anywhere. I think when people buy and wear these bracelets, they show that they have the drive to stand up against that.”

Kelly Bates, the executive director of the Elma Lewis Center, an institution at Emerson College dedicated to civic engagement, learning, and research, said she helped Notrica with the project. The Center has assisted Notrica with tips on how to solicit donations for his cause and has helped him promote the bracelets on Emerson’s campus, according to Bates.

“Kenya and Boston are not unlike each other,” said Bates. “We are all connected.”

Bates added that Emerson has placed a particular emphasis on the elimination of gun violence. In September, the Elma Lewis Center, in conjunction with ArtsEmerson, hosted a panel discussion on race and class disparities in the media’s response to gun violence, said Bates. The presentation included a performance of columbinus, a drama based on the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School.

President M. Lee Pelton has also been very outspoken on the issue of gun violence. According to Notrica, he was very supportive of the Amani Kwa bracelet, purchasing one himself, and personally making time to meet with the Emerson Peace and Social Justice International Committee.

“Emerson itself has been such an amazing source of support,” Notrica said. “Everyone who hears about this project has shown such interest. I want people to know what happened in Kenya. I want them to be talking about it. In the end, that’s all I could really ask.”

Due to an editing error, Notrica was referred to as a freshman in a previous version of this article. He is currently a sophomore.