The greatest beauty is in things well made by people who love their work. Shanga is the perfect example of this.
The first time I visited Shanga, I had just come off the airplane and was picked up in the still relatively small city of Arusha by Ben Jennings of ETrip Africa. As I would discover, Ben has a longtime habit of finding and supporting good causes that do the right thing for the right reasons. The place was wide open, simple, fully of busy people making surprisingly nice things. I had little idea about the back story, but bought a few handkerchiefs, which I still have.
That was back in 2013. Shanga, the Swahili term for bead, was growing. As so many good things begin, Shanga as an enterprise had its start when a local Tanzanian woman constructed some creative necklaces of fabric and marbles which sold out fast at the local Christmas Fair. There followed orders, and not long after that, a local deaf woman began working at the newly-formed enterprise.
Today, Shanga is situated at the Arusha Coffee Lodge, which places it in fine company next to an open bakery and coffee shop, jewelry store and expansive lodge. Here some thirty-four disabled workers craft everything from blown glass hearts and animals to beautiful, sparkling wind chimes, woven blankets and placemats and so much more. The gift shop is a wonderland of creativity.
The best part, however, is the tour. A guide teaches you how to say a few key words in Swhahili in sign language from Hello to Good Work! to Thank you, which you practice, mess up to giggles, and get down fast. You are led through the weaving areas, where huge, old-fashioned looms are managed by people who take hours upon hours to set up the complex systems which produce the finely woven pieces on display in the shop.
Each person's disability is unique, and each has found their way to a new kind of confidence and acceptance into this community. People are paid, fed, and supported in their needs to find shelter and transportation. Above all, these are people which Tanzanian society considers castoffs. Interestingly, these "castoffs" are experts at taking castoffs from society such as broken glass and Coke cans and turning them into pieces of art, much like themselves.
I was back, and happy to be perusing their shop, in September of 2021. It almost felt like home.
The beading area is among my favorites, as is watching the talented men who blow the glass into animals and plates. They are all smiles, energetic and grateful for the attention. I remember a few faces from previous visits. The last time I was here, February of 2020, I bought a bright wind chime for my tree. I wanted two more, and was happy to wait for the crew to put the finishing touches on them for me.
If you're in town, you can even learn to make Maasai necklaces or bracelets, as above. Some jewelry has become famous for being worn by high profile celebrities, which is no surprise. They are beautifully-made and a delight to display.
One of the great treats of buying from Shanga is that your purchases are packed for you for travel, and then loaded into handmade newspaper sacks. Those sacks are so well-made, being a very visible part of Shanga's deep commitment to recycling, that I actually can't throw them away. Instead, I give the sacks as gifts for they are a statement to pure creativity and talent. They end up holding dried flowers or holding precious gifts, for they are too perfect to toss.
I've now been to Shanga three times. It's a standard stop for me each time I return to Arusha, for I am always charmed by new products, colors and creative items. I remember the workers and am always glad to hear big news, such as when Masoud became the first "little person" to summit Kilimanjaro.
That was the culmination of his life-long dream. For me, as someone who also summitted, I know the challenge it involved. That's an incredible accomplishment, as is Shanga.
Shanga's goods are available in many places, but the best way to really experience the fun of what they do is to watch these talented folks at work.
However, if you can't make it to Arusha, you can get your own items here:
If you're in the market for a unique gift as well was a way to make a difference, Shanga is a fine place to start. I bought my Christmas gifts here, beginning with a handblown heart.
Just like Shanga's logo. The place, and their gifts, are full of love.
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