by Sarah Wyatt
– USA –
Years of hardship and backbreaking labor in the riot-stricken slums of Kibera in south Kenya have worn 18 year old Eshe Koome to the bone. A single mother of two, she walked out on her abusive husband and survived for two years as a daily wage laborer, loading vegetables and other goods for sale.
Yet Eshe’s eyes sparkle today with a new zest for life as she strings pearlescent blue beads on a loom. Proudly turned out in a traditional skirt, the teenager says: “All that’s in the past now. I am building a life.”
Eshe’s story captures in a nutshell how a group of formerly indigent, urban women operates a business for themselves. The Kazuri Bead Factory, located in the Nairobi suburb of Karen, is unique in that it is Kenya’s first visitors’ attraction of its kind, created for and by women. Founded by Lady Susan Wood in 1975, the company is known for its beautiful, hand-painted beads made from the authentic clay from the Mt. Kenya area. Kazuri (Swahili for “small and beautiful”), also produces a number of other goods popular with tourists including pottery, hand-beaded sandals and purses. The beads are often featured on three-dimensional art cards and can also be found in shadowboxes.
Born in a mud hut in Congo’s Ituri Forest in 1918, Wood’s parents were missionaries from England. Lady Wood was educated in England and married surgeon Michael Wood. The couple came to Kenya in 1947 and started a coffee plantation on the Karen Blixen estate (portrayed in the movie Out of Africa), about 30 minutes from Nairobi’s bustling city center. Eventually Susan and Michael founded East African Flying Doctor Service, which expanded into the African Medical Research Foundation (AMREF) where Michael served as Director General for 29 years.
Wood started the bead business on the Karen Blixen estate with just two single mothers, but soon, more women joined the workshop. All of them were poor, abandoned by their husbands or widowed by the AIDS epidemic that is engulfing Africa. Presently, about 120 women, mostly single mothers, work at the facility. The absence of a formal education has not deterred these women from successfully managing their growing tourist attraction and lucrative gift shop.
Kazuri’s proud management team ensures that all employees receive thorough training and maintain high standards throughout the production process. After baking in the industrial-size ovens, where they are heated to 1,060 Celsius and hardened, the clay beads are sent to another table to be painted. Despite the labor-intensive process, the work environment is cheerful. The sounds of laughter envelop the women as they hand-shape the beads, glaze and paint them, ready them to be fired in the kilns, and thread them onto wire to make jewelry.
From Poverty to Global Sales
Kibera, considered the largest slum on the African continent, encompasses approximately 2.5 square kilometers (617 acres) and has an impoverished population estimated at one million. Recurrently stricken by riots, ethnic rivalries and arson, government-sponsored attempts to upgrade the area are difficult due to violent crime and theft. Approximately 20 percent of the 2.2 million Kenyans living with HIV live in Kibera. Open sewage routes and poor nutrition account for many illnesses and deaths among its residents.
Career opportunities for Kenyan women are limited, especially for those that live in the slum. Kenya’s tourism and manufacturing businesses are generally operated and dominated by men. Tour bus and safari driving, occupations that can provide comfortable living wages from their healthy customer gratuities, are overwhelmingly reserved for males.
Employment at Kazuri has changed the quality of life for some women of Kibera through individual economic empowerment. Now, overseas markets want Kazuri’s products, and the company’s income from exports has exceeded its local sales. Kazuri’s beautifully finished products are now sold worldwide and the company is a member of the Fair Trade Federation. The factory, which offers tours, has become a “must see” for visitors to Kenya.
Passport to an Education
Today, Eshe earns a living wage. Though illiterate, Eshe is aware that education serves as her children’s passport to a better future. While Kenya’s government provides free education to children only up to Grade Eight, she plans to send her children to a private high school with her earnings at Kazuri.
The bead factory’s employees continue to be women from the marginalized classes. Although originally created for single mothers, the company has now extended their workplace to women who have left prostitution or served prison terms.
Eshe’s rising fortune is a story that has been repeated dozens of times in the lives of other women who live in Kenya, a country currently faced with a 45 percent unemployment rate. With unemployment so high, one employee may provide for an “extended family” of 20 or more. Kazuri has enabled women to emerge as powerful catalysts of change.
“My children will be educated,” Eshe notes with pride.
About the Author
Sarah Wyatt is a freelance travel and outdoors writer. A native of Iowa and a Native American, she holds a degree in Journalism and English. Wyatt has been a freelance writer for 11 years, with work appearing in Texas Monthly, Mother Jones and Theater Magazine.