A Tiny Cottage Industry Gets Big, Beautiful and Changes a Lot of Lives
Kazuri Beads many not look like much when you drive up, before all the local women arrive. To be fair, the next-door mansions in this well-to-do neighborhood in Nairobi overwhelm the low-lying shop and warehouses. The grounds are simple, the greenery, as with almost all things in Africa, exuberant. The grounds were once part of the Karen Blixen estate, for those familiar with the movie and book Out of Africa.
While this area looks nothing like it did in the movie, it’s still lovely, and the best part is that good stories still live here. One of them is an odd tree between the shopfront and the work areas.
It’s all wire and beads, which speaks to the industry here.
At first glance, especially under Covid, Kazuri doesn’t impress. However, that’s misleading. If you peer into the darkened windows of the shop you can see all kinds of gloriously-colored beads that weigh down display after display in a dizzying array of colors and variety.
To the untrained eye you might assume plastic.
Given that so much Chinese plastic and cheap goods make their way here, you might think that’s what you’re seeing.
You’d be wrong. Especially once you heft these necklaces. They are ceramic beads, handmade, hand-fired and hand-painted.
In this smallish but sprawling compound, these beads are carefully made of a very special kind of Mt. Kenya clay, brought here just for this purpose. How they are made, by whom and how that work benefits so many people is what makes Kazuri such a great tale.
As the women, mostly single mothers, filed in from where public transportation drops them off at the entrance, Philip Mukeku, a senior manager, would tour me around the facility to see how the beads are made.
Knowing the back story changes everything about a simple string of beads or a hand-made coffee cup or plate. How Kasuri began and how it has changed the prospects for many single mothers makes the beads come alive in a wholly different way.
Kasuri was born out of the creative interest of one Susan Buxton Wood, whose husband was a surgeon. Wood’s story is its own novel:
Susan Buxton was born in an African mud hut. At the time, her English missionary parents were living in the Ituri Rainforest in an area now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. At the age of two, she was carried in a litter on a six-month journey to the Nile and on to England where she spent her childhood. During training as a World War II nurse, she met the physician Michael Wood and they married in 1943, eventually having four children together.
The young family moved to Kenya in 1947 seeking to make a difference there. Michael Wood set up a medical practice in Nairobi but demands for his surgical skills came from far beyond the city causing him to charter private flights to reach patients in remote locations. Soon he learned to fly and bought his own plane. To expand the reach of medical care, Susan and Michael Wood worked together to recruit more doctors and create the Flying Doctors Service, which evolved into the African Medical Research Foundation, and still later to Amref Health Africa. Michael Wood remained Director General of Amref for 29 years and Susan’s work there continued even after her husband’s death in 1987.
Wood was an African through and through, and lived variously on the slopes of Kilimanjaro and then, with her husband, growing coffee on the same plantation once owned by writer Karen Blixen.
As so many good ideas do, hers began as a hobby. She was achingly aware of the challenges of unemployed single mothers, and soon hired two of them to help her create the colorful beads. That was in 1975.
By 1978, Kasuri had a market, first in Britain, then the US. They had agents who were buying and selling the brilliantly-colored beads along with a video to prove that they were indeed hand-made by the single mothers. The fact that this was a growing cottage industry, that Kazuri also provided much- needed medical care for these women was part of the selling point.
This deep sensitivity to the need for sponsored medical care likely came from her and her husband’s work in the medical field, and speaks to her understanding, as an African-born White woman, of the many challenges these people face.
Philip Mukeku joined Kazuri in the 1990s. He met me in the dewy grass just outside the bead shop, whose richly- colored inhabitants promised a fun browse later. But first, I needed to see how they are made, and why this work is so very important to some 340 single women and mothers here in Nairobi.
One way to understand the value of this work is that far too many Africans, and women in particular after divorce and caring for multiple kids, struggle to survive on pennies a day. Here, Philip explained, depending on how long they have been with Kazuri, they can make $10 per day as well as medical care. Compare that to $7 and no medical care for many other workers and you can see the value.
As Susan’s idea grew legs, they had to find a local source for clay, Philip explained. Originally the clay was sourced from England, but that wasn’t sustainable long-term. After fifteen years, Kazuri brought over a Brit to help them locate a nearby source which would suffice, as well as reduce costs, which would allow them to take better care of their employees.
We enter a large, open area. All the women are sitting a safe distance apart. They are watching the front of the room.
As the day begins, one woman leads prayers. Philip explained that the prayer is for all faiths, and is delivered in Swahili and call-and response form. This is how they say thanks for their jobs, their work, and the means to feed and care for their families. They have a lot to be thankful for here, and you can hear the emotions in the Amens. Philip, standing next to me, says them, too.
Because of Covid, the work area is shy of many women, as they are cycled through to protect their health as well as to ensure ongoing employment. Pre-Covid they had 340 workers; on site that day and most days it’s 60.
We return to the morning sun as it began to shine through the tall trees. Overhead the mature trees offer shade and wave in the breezes.
Kazuri morphed into a full factory in 1988, and then began to grow swiftly.
Philip walked me to the pile of raw clay, then showed me how the clay is wetted down and the air bubbles removed. The clay starts out dark (I can attest, having been up to my ankles in that clay three years ago on Mt. Kenya) and after baking they turn a beautiful light wood color. There are many ovens, each a specialized size to accommodate either beads or plates.
While right now, to protect the women and their families, there are only some sixty women at at time working, there is still that sense of intense activity. The beads are rolled and molded from the clay, the heat from the ovens shimmers and warms you as you stand near it. At each station, the women expertly paint, sort, stack and assemble. They smile through their masks, proud of their work.
As with so many in Africa, one employee might provide enough to care for a significant extended family of up to twenty people.
Wood died in her own home here in the Karen neighborhood in 2006. By that point, Kazuri had grown to employ 200 mostly single women and the beads were sold worldwide. The current owners, Mark and Regina Newman, had bought Kazuri from Susan and continued her work. Fourteen years later the enterprise had added another one hundred women, and even through Covid the business has grown.
Finally, Philip led me back outside into the bright morning sun. Trucks and cars and motorcycles rushed by on the busy road, a century of growth and change having transformed what was once forests,then a coffee plantation a century ago, now a bustling Nairobi neighborhood.
Nairobi grew, Kazuri grew, and the two, in their own ways, have grown together. Philip motioned for me to enter the bead shop, now open for business.
The room is crowded with racks of these beads. Peeking in from outside into the darkened room didn’t prepare me for what was inside. As a sometime artist, I was already in love with the story. Now it was time for me to choose. But how on earth when you want one of everything, especially know that you know the back story and how much good Kazuri has done?
It took a while, but I dropped well over a hundred dollars. Look, if Meryl Streep can drape her lovely neck in these beads, so can I (a photo of her wearing Kazuri is proudly displayed over the cash register. Those carefully-wrapped beads are now in my on-board bag, protected from the bumps of travel.
I am delighted that my investment in African beauty is paying off in so many ways.
You can, too. You can find your Fair Trade Kazuri beads here:
Buy one for you, buy one for someone else, support a mama and her kids. And wear a piece of true African history.