Irene patiently showed me her technique for rolling clay into beads using a tiny mold. While I needed more practice, the women at Kazuri worked diligently to produce ceramic jewelry. Kazuri, located in Nairobi, employs single mothers. This small business provides a daily income and healthcare in a country where women are often marginalized.

Poverty affects millions in Tanzania and Kenya. The COVID-19 pandemic has only hastened this crisis. Disadvantaged populations such as women and the disabled find themselves in even more extreme positions. During a recent trip to these East African countries, I discovered two enterprises that started with bead making and are now uplifting these individuals in Kenya and Tanzania.

Irene demonstrates rolling clay beads. Kenya. Photo: Julie Dee Suman
Irene demonstrates rolling clay beads. Photo: Julie Dee Suman

Influence of African Beads

Historians discovered beads made from ostrich egg shells that date back over 45,000 years. As early as the 15th century, glass beads became currency in parts of the continent. In addition, beads represented religious, ceremonial, and decorative purposes.

In African culture, beads were integral to tribal life and symbolism. Different colored necklaces depicted a position in society. In addition, villagers decorated everyday items such as baskets and celebratory costumes with beads.

Small and Beautiful

In Swahili, Kazuri means small and beautiful. To me, it means mighty and inspiring. Founded in 1975, the founder began operations with two single mothers. Today, it’s an energetic engine that employs over 300 single mothers.

Kazuri’s mission is to provide and sustain employment opportunities for disadvantaged members of Kenyan society. Empowering women with a safe workplace and income, Kazuri improves the local community in Kenya. At the Factory clinic, the women and immediate family members can access free healthcare. Kazuri also supports eighty percent of medical costs outside of their clinic.

  • Press used to extract moisture from clay. Photo: Julie Dee Suman
  • Glazing beads. Photo: Julie Dee Suman

Ceramic Bead Production in Kenya

The women’s confidence at Kazuri resonates throughout the entire production of ceramic beads, turning them into colorful jewelry. The process starts with clay from a river bank near Mount Kenya. Next, the ladies combine the clay with talc and water, then sieve the mixture. Finally, the mixture is placed in a press to remove moisture and air bubbles.

Wet clay, which feels like Silly Putty, is added to a mold and then rolled to the appropriate shape and size. Next, a needle pierces a hole through the newly formed bead. Then the beads are fired in a kiln to dry.

The fun starts during the glazing process. First, the ladies worked diligently, applying intricate designs to hundreds of beads. Next, racks of beads are placed in kilns and then fired again. Finally, the brightly colored orbs are strung into necklaces and bracelets. The operation has also expanded into ceramic pottery.

Beautiful ceramic bead necklaces. Kenya. Photo: Julie Dee Suman
Beautiful ceramic bead necklaces. Photo: Julie Dee Suman

Fair Trade

Over 70% of the beads are exported to international markets from Kenya. You may find a Karzuri necklace in a shop such as Ten Thousand Villages. Kazuri is a member of the World Fair Trade Organization.

Shanga

The word Shanga, which means bead in Swahili, empowers blind, deaf, or disabled individuals. Shanga identifies itself as a social enterprise by employing people with disabilities to create handmade goods using recycled materials.

Shanga’s origins began when a deaf woman sold necklaces made from her son’s marbles and covered in the local fabric. The jewelry was a hit, and the business took off. Shanga employs over 34 people with disabilities who make unique products via weaving, glass blowing, painting, metalwork, and paper-making.

Based on a mantra of “be kind and recycle,” Shanga uplifts its employees and strives to remove the stigma that disabled individuals face. 

Empowerment in Action

Based near Arusha, an experience at Shanga is a fantastic opportunity to learn and do a little shopping. Free tours are available daily, which highlight the people and their art forms. Demonstrations start with learning sign language so that you can communicate with staff and tell them “thank you” and “good job!”

  • Working the loom. Photo: Margaret Timberlake
  • Tinga Tinga paintings represent African life. Photo: Julie Dee Suman
  • Stringing beads into bracelets. Photo: Julie Dee Suman
  • Making glass beads. Photo: Julie Dee Suman

Gigantic looms strung with hand-dyed yarn anchor a corner of the facility. We learned how to string the yarn and tried working the loom. And it’s not as easy as it seems!

We learned about colorful Tinga Tinga painting and stringing tiny beads into jewelry. We also had a go at selecting teeny beads and stringing them onto the fishing line. Threading a needle is light years easier than making bracelets. As a reward for our efforts, our teacher made each of us a cherished bracelet.

Glass blowing is another highlight at Shanga. We observed a deaf employee create glass beads in a specially designed furnace. It was a joy to see as he was proud of his work. Larger pieces such as bowls and cups are also produced in larger furnaces.

Amazing glass designs for sale. Kenya. Photo: Julie Dee Suman
Amazing glass designs for sale. Photo: Julie Dee Suman

Ability Over Disability

“Ability over disability” is a constant theme throughout Shanga. It was a joy to learn about creating goods from recycled material. And it was even more inspiring to meet the talented people that make Shanga so unique.

We are reminded that “Kindness is a language blind people see, and deaf people hear.” 

Remember to be kind. Kenya. Photo: Julie Dee Suman
Remember to be kind. Photo: Julie Dee Suman

Cover: Happiness in the Kazuri workshop. Photo: Margaret Timberlake