Kenya's tradition: Bead work still vital to Kenyans, economy
20 July 2014, 09:51
Washington - Susana Daniel Chemakwany sits quietly under a white tent near the
U.S. Capitol, stitching tiny, multicolored beads together into a
colorful array of necklaces, wristlets and earrings laid out before her
on two tables and behind her pinned to a wall.
Not far from where
Chemakwany sits is another tent, a marketplace where some of her work is
for sale. Clothes, shoes and baskets, all with beading incorporated
into the design, are available. A price tag hangs from each item, but
there was a time when Chemakwany had little need for price tags on her
work. Back then, beading was something fun to do during downtime, but
things have changed.
The traditional pastime of jewelry-making has
a new economic significance for Chemakwany, an elder of Kenya's Pokot
tribe, who traveled to the National Mall last month to show her wares
and share expertise at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. The annual
two-week celebration highlights contemporary traditions of specific
countries. This year's event ended July 6 and featured the art, dance,
music, food and crafts of China and Kenya.
The "Kenya: Mambo Poa"
exhibit brought the traditions of the East African country together in a
cultural celebration. Kenyan music enlivened the scene with
contemporary sounds. Dancers, after hours of group performances,
encouraged visitors to dance. Chefs prepared foods influenced by India,
China and Europe, the aromas enticing the public to buy and taste.
Musicians, athletes and carpenters shared stories with visitors. And
inside the vast, white tents, master artisans practiced basket weaving,
hut-building, hair-braiding and bead-making.
Among Kenya's Pokot, Kikuyu and Maasai tribes, traditional beadwork can provide additional income to support their families
long time ago, we used to give them for free" Emmah Irungu, a
middle-aged woman of the Kikuyu tribe, said of the items she makes. But
the economy has weakened and the Kikuyu are raising fewer cattle. Many
have fallen back on selling traditional bead work.
Beads have been
integral to Africans for thousands of years. According to the
Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies website, the
earliest examples of manufactured beads were found in Libya and Sudan
and date to 10,000 B.C. Bead work remains part of the cultural tradition
in several African tribes, including Irungu's Kikuyu, Chemakwany's
Pokot and Caroline Sengeny's Maasai.
Gathering materials for their
craft is not easy, they say. While their ancestors made beads from clay
and other local materials, now bead workers must travel hundreds of
miles to shops in Nairobi, Kenya's capital. Public trains and buses are
only available in major cities, and stops are limited. They can drive,
but aside from major highways, many roads are unpaved. Many bead artists
stock up on materials to last them for months. To avoid the expense of
opening a business, they make and sell the finished products in their
villages or from their houses.
While the process can be long and
difficult, the women remain inspired when they think how the craft can
serve a bigger purpose. Through color and design, beads foster feelings
of goodwill, harmony and beauty, the women said. Kenya is in turmoil,
and many people have lost faith in President Uhuru Kenyatta. Two
terrorist attacks on Kenya's coast killed 87 people in the past two
months, and the number of terrorist attacks has continued to increase
since Kenya deployed troops to fight al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab militants
"Beads can be a way of creating peace," the 24-year-old Sengeny said.
have meanings based on their colors: yellow promotes peace, white
represents milk, green stands for grass, black for skin, red for blood,
orange for beauty, blue for the God in the skies. The artists will often
choose colors to convey a message, or that simply appeal to the eye.
"Beads are very important, especially for a woman. It signifies beauty," Irungu said.
women said they learned everything they know from watching older women
in the village. As young girls, making jewelry was part of daily life.
After working long hours on farms, they would rest and watch their
grandmothers, mothers and aunts work the beads into neck collars,
earrings and sometimes clothing. The finished products would be given as
gifts or as tokens of appreciation.
But now, the profits from selling their works to friends and neighbors help them cover family expenses, like education.
"My mother, she sold beads to pay for my high school and college," Sengeny said.
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