Bright, bold and bedazzling, beads have been part of the local scene for millennia, discovers Ami Doshi Shah
Kenya has an ancient tradition of jewellery. A handful of ostrich-eggshell beads, unearthed in the Rift Valley’s Enkapune Ya Muto (Twilight Cave) in the 1990s, were carbon-dated and found to be 40,000 years old – making them some of the earliest adornments ever discovered. And those were just the beginning…
It’s thought that our ancient ancestors used beads as gifts, to establish social ties that could be useful in tough times. Since then, beads have become woven into the rich tapestry of Kenyan tribal culture, coming to symbolise aspects ranging from social stature to rites of passage. This is especially true for the Maasai, Samburu and Pokot tribes, who are widely known for their intricate embellishments. Indeed, the image of the elaborately beaded Maasai has been so widely publicised it has become part of our national identity.
Many of our beads are not local, though. The tiny glass gems that the Maasai are known for are not produced in Kenya but in the Czech Republic – a remnant of Kenya’s rich history of trade. From the 15th century to the early 20th, boats laden with exotic goods plied Kenya’s coast, and African spices and slaves were swapped for silk and beads from Bohemia, Venice and the Netherlands. These foreign imports were known as ‘trade beads’, and were used as currency across Africa by European and Arab traders. Intricate Venetian glass beads can still be found in antique jewellery and trinkets; aluminium, silver and brass beads tend to originate from Ethiopia, West and North Africa.
In locally made beads, natural materials predominate: ostrich eggshell, wood and driftwood, coconut shell and cow or camel bone (which can be easily dyed and shaped). Other beads are manufactured from kiln-fired clay or even recycled glass. Today, our choice of jewellery is widely dictated by fashion trends, but beadwork – with its durability, variety and vibrant colours – remains a popular option.
Beads for better lives
Life Beads was founded in 2005 by Dr Peter and Minalyn Nicklin to empower marginalised Kenyans, and now employs 15 trainees, including ex-convicts, former sex workers, HIV+ women and physically handicapped people. “We’re working towards self-reliance,” says Minalyn, “showing people that it’s possible to work with dignity.“ She scours Kenya for materials: “I love buying bone beads from Kibera and fish-bone and ostrich eggshells from Turkana,” she says, “Indian lampwork glass beads from River Rd and Biashara St, and wooden beads and seeds from the Maasai Market on Kijabe St.” The range has expanded from jewellery to beaded cushions, clothes, belts, shawls and salad spoons. There are even beaded Christmas tree ornaments! lifebeadskenya.org
Focus on Kazuri Beads
In 1975 the late Lady Susan Wood started a small workshop with two disadvantaged women producing ceramic beads. Today Kazuri Beads employs 340 women – predominantly single mothers who are the sole breadwinners for their families – making about 18,000 beads a day, each handmade and unique. Dr Piety Goes, Kazuri’s CEO, says: “Beads have been part of our Kenyan ethnic culture for centuries. Despite increasing influence from the West, modern Kenyan women still hold on to the tradition of wearing beads, albeit in a more contemporary interpretation. Kazuri is part of this, offering endless colours, patterns and textures within a sustainable enterprise for our community.”
Mud to masterpiece
The making of a Kazuri necklace…
1 Raw clay (found in soil) is sourced from Nyeri, alongside the slopes of Mt Kenya.
2 This clay is mixed with additives for purification; the process takes about two days, depending on quantity.
3 The purified clay is moulded by hand into beads of different shapes and sizes.
4 The beads are set aside to dry until they are hardened
5 The beads are hand-painted with imported glazes
6 The painted beads are fired in kilns at a temperature of 1,100°C for 12-14 hours. During firing the glaze melts to become hardened enamel, ensuring that the beads retain their colour
7 The fired beads are strung by hand, and made into necklaces, bracelets, earrings and many other products.