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Kazuri Beads: The Power of Small and Beautiful in Kenya

Kazuri Beads, which means, “small and beautiful” in Swahili, began as a tiny workshop experimenting with handmade clay beads. Each handmade colorful bead reflects the culture and wildlife of Kenya.

For forty years, Kazuri has provided employment for many single women. Today, over 300 women handcraft these colorful, beautiful clay beads in Kazuri’s Nairobi factory. 

The enterprise improves the lives of single women.  Many of the women employed by Kazuri were nearly destitute, abandoned by their men or widowed by the AIDS epidemic that is still ravaging Kenya. Employment and empowerment of women are guiding principles of this craft enterprise.

Kenya embraces women’s empowerment and there are many women run enterprises that provide employment and training with the intent of improving the lives of all Kenya people.

I have always loved and coveted Kazuri beads long before I knew they were made in Kenya. But once I found out where they were made in Kenya, I always visit their factory and their showroom whenever I go to Kenya. 

I love learning about how craftspeople make their work. The tour starts with a discussion about the clay they use, and how it goes through a giant pug mill. From there, they take the clay into a room where the beads are formed and shaped. All beads are handmade from start to finish. To take a tour of the factory is totally overwhelming.

Beading with the Maasai Women at Twala Cultural Center in Il Polei, Kenya, Pt.2

With legs stretched out loose beads in the depression of their dresses, the Maasai women were stringing beads with monofilament—no bead needles! Some of the women had small saucers for their beads, and one clever woman used an upturned Frisbee. The idea prompted me to bring as many Frisbees as I could each time I returned to Twala. A bonus: their kids could play with them as well.

Most of the women at Twala do not speak English so teaching us how to bead consists of demonstration, then they hand the beads to you and you have to figure out the instructions. All the while, they are tapping you on your arm, demonstrating the pattern again, and then handing it to you, so you can replicate it. There is a lot of nudging, gesticulating and laughter. Its like a pantomime and lots of instruction gets lost in translation.

Every group I take to Kenya is exposed to this system of beading. Its hilarious to see how some interact with the whole process. 

In January 2019, my friend Janis was beading with one woman, and all seemed to be going well until there was an issue with quality control.  It seems my friend was just happily stringing beads with no pattern in mind. 

Her teacher definitely had a pattern in mind. I watched as the Maasai woman snatched Janis’ work from her hands and handed it back to her to start over. And this process is pretty much what happened to me. In the end, all was well, as how often does one have a chance to bead with the Maasai under a tree in Kenya?

I always bring back lots of Maasai beadwork to sell at Screen Door Studios. The studio is filled with beaded mirrors, belts, animals, watchbands and warrior beads and other items from Kenya. I am located at 310 S. Sherwood, Old Town Fort Collins, 1 block north of the Lincoln Center. Open Saturdays 10am-4pm.

Beading with the Maasai Women at Twala Cultural Center in Il Polei, Kenya

In Kenya, I always visit the Twala Cultural Resource Center located in Laikipia outside of Il Polei. The Maasai Ranch Groups has set aside 40 acres of land for the woman to share their culture and give visitors an intimate look at the Maasai way of life.  The center includes accommodations either traditional Maasia boma or manyatas or more modern cottages, cook house and meeting house, an aloe farm and beehives.  Everyone who has traveled with me to Kenya reports this experience was their favorite.

At the cultural center, visitors can participate in many activities including dancing with the Maasai warriors by a fire under the Milky Way, walking with a troop of baboons, and beading with the woman of the tribe. 

Unlike Americans and our rigid schedules, the Maasai woman appear like magic under a tree on their own time in their traditional bright colored clothing resplendent in their beadwork singing a welcome song and getting us to dance with them. They wear their bright beaded collars, bracelets, necklaces, earrings and tiaras.

What happened next reminded me of the Kenyan version of a quilting bee. We all sat under the tree trying to learn how to bead. We gossiped and laughed and smiled.  Even though we did not speak each other’s language, we created a community. 

I decided to give beading a go because I am a jewelry maker, but I only lasted a few minutes. The whole process was tedious for me and I have never been good at following instructions.  A common theme in most things I do… to be continued

Faceted Russian Blue Glass Trade Beads

Also know as cobalt blue beads, they were not made in Russia, but were used by Russian traders in the 1800’s in exchange for fur pelts across the Americas from the Northwest Territories to Hudson Bay. Prized for their unique colors and shapes, Russian Blue Glass Beads even found their way to Africa.  Faceted gemstone beads inspired Bohemian artisans who had access to a plentiful supply of running water which supplied the energy for the grinding wheels needed to cut glass. 

Ghana Vinyl Spacers

In the past, these beads were made from recycled phonograph records and cut up into a sequin-like fashion. I wonder where they got all the records?  Today, they come in a rainbow of colors and are also known as vulcanized beads. The beads made from vulcanized rubber with traces of vinyl. Vulcanized rubber is a chemical process to harden rubber. The spacers are made in Czech Republic or Germany and then exported to West Africa.

Kenya Domino Bone Beads

Hand carved and shaped into many sizes, the beads are made from cattle, camel, or Cape buffalo bone. After the bones are bleached, they are treated with a batik-like process in which patterns are painted on the surface with wax. Patterning occurs when the bone is dyed and the waxed areas are left natural. Traditional geometric patterns include stripes, dots, swirls or other motifs.