Kazuri Beads

A couple of girls invited me out on a morning trip to visit Kenya’s famous Kazuri Beads factory.

Background: Started by expats, the company boasts hiring hundreds of women, with an emphasis on single mothers. Their clay beads are made by hand, each hand rolled and pressed to shape before being painted and baked. The company also makes pottery and hires men for the more strenuous work such as digging and treating the clay and pressing the larger pottery pieces into shape. The company is a member and participant of fair trade organizations.

I went in without any background. It was a last minute invitation and I had really come for the ride.

The factory is in the outskirts of Nairobi, making the drive almost as interesting as the destination itself. It is in the popular Karen district, the same Karen featured in Out of Africa. In fact, the factory itself is on the grounds of the estate.

A guide came up to greet us once we rolled into the car park. We were walked through the grounds in a sequence that followed the process of the bead and pottery making process. We started a pit where the clay was being dug and mixed. The guide walked us through the pressing process and the large machinery they had for creating workable clay.

The first building, the women were shaping clay into beads. They had trays with the mold of the bead shapes and sizes they would roll into. The men had molds for jugs and pottery. They had a pottery wheel but it felt to be primary for demonstrations than as a regular method of making pottery.

The first thing that struck me upon entrance to the factory was the sheer amount of people working. It didn’t overwhelm, but it surprised me. There are enough people to fill multiple villages. All had a spot set up at her station, one even had a cellphone cradle between all her bead rolling tools. All the beads were handrolled, with wooden molds to ensure consistency in size. That these were all still hand-made when machines could have done the work is a sad testament to how cheap labour still was.

The second thing that struck me was that all the managers were men. That obvious fact threw me off. Given all the documentation about hiring women to give them a chance, I saw many employed women, but a very obvious glass ceiling. I don’t know how I felt about that. I was disappointed. At myself for even being surprised, and at Kazuri for taking it only part-way in giving women opportunities. A respectable job is better than none at all, but a job with no advancement sent a very mixed message, in my opinion.

We got to the main hall just after the beads were taken out of the furnace. It was morning, so the beads had baked overnight, strung on metal rods and hung in racks. The beads were being taken out, stripped off the rods onto a large table. Women crowded around as the beads cooled, to sort and divide the various designs. Their clamour echoed through the building, between the morning gossip, the clacking of the beads onto the table.. the cheerful ding made me think of it as Kazuri’s version of the trading floor.

Our guide walked us through the hall where some of the women were stringing the baked beads into ordered designs. A large white board showed all the current orders and the country of destination. Some women had individual instructions of the pattern. Everything was handwritten. Given the Americans are no long teaching cursive and penmanship, it was mind boggling to see everything still written down.

Our tour ended at the obligatory gift store where we found surprisingly few selection that we Westernized women would likely wear. The staff was fantastic, though. One of the girls in our group asked for broken beads that they would have discarded, offering to buy them, for a mosaic she wants to make. They came back with kilos of them, and gifted them to her.

You can’t make this stuff up: Nairobi Airport, post-fire

As luck would have it, the day of the international news headline Nairobi airport fire… was the day my family and I were supposed to fly out of Kenya.

My family’s route deserves a post of its own. They eventually made it out a few days later. I ended up having to wait until the following Tuesday, 6 days after my planned departure, to fly out.

My friends and my colleagues like to use this statement: “You can’t make this stuff up.” Often in reference to an experience or a story so bizarre it can only be true. My experience out of Nairobi airport, the reopened version fit right in that category.

I gave myself three hours before departure for commute, airport back up, and check in process.. It was sufficient.

First was the sheer traffic getting into the approach to the “terminal”.. it’s jammed and there is barely any length for cars to pull over and drop passengers off. Cars are not permitted to loiter, but given the little room to work with and the likelihood that foreign tourists will travel heavy, delays were inevitable. The cars crept once approaching the airport.. some passengers just unloaded early and dragged their suitcases by foot, weaving between the vehicles.

The drop off / pick up point looked like this from the car:



We had to push/pull our bags through what would normally be the driving in area of the international terminal. It was quite a scenic route. First, the Kenyan Airways checking tent and waiting area, for the domestic flights:


And, of course, I wasn’t going to not at least attempt to get a snap of the infamous building, even with the fire out. Apologies for the blurry nature of the photos.. my p&s was dying with the focus not working as well as it once did, even in low lit situations.. this set of photos would be its last job.


We actually checked into our flights at the actual international departures building. We just couldn’t get to the upper level where the “secure” area would have been. We went to our airline counters, checked in as normal, then queue up for the longest line to immigration.

A few passengers tried to cut the line, especially when an airline representative came around calling for Swiss passengers and that the flight was boarding. Surprisingly, the immigration officers snapped at the passengers who abruptly rushed up, stating firmly that there was a line and they were to respect it. Honestly, it was unexpected in a culture where rushing up en mass was not unheard of. Fortunately for those harried passengers, the rest of us in line told the immigration officer we were fine with letting them go ahead of us to catch their flight.

After passing immigration, we had to backtrack into the check-in hall, walk to the end of the building, and run our bags through x-rays before walking through a rather obscure door… that was where it got fun…

Because the door was normally used by the baggage handlers:

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Our “lounge”, and, yes, there was even a sign indicating that, was a large banquet tent pitched in what is normally Gate 9 for the plane to park.

Someone with a megaphone would yell boarding announcements.. most of which was garbled because in addition to a thick accent, he was placing the mouthpiece too close to his mouth. So of course no one understood him. A friend commented “Maybe that’s the point?” Passengers for announced flights would step forward from the tent. Depending on where the plane is, passengers would either walk or be bused over once their boarding pass is checked.

British Airways was the only airline that had its special set up to include an x-ray, after passengers queued up and got their tickets scanned at a kiosk. I can’t blame them. I found the x-ray “after” immigration to be lax. Heathrow and BA had every right to insist on a check. They not only x-rayed all bags, but also selected every second or third person for a manual bag check, which was quite thorough.

I was impressed. Vastly amused initially, but ultimately impressed. Passengers didn’t throw temper tantrums or demanded answers with hostility. There was a lot of confusion given the lack of signs and the gibberish announcements but people were surprisingly patient with the situations.

Likewise, the ground staff were amazingly organized. All wearing reflective jackets, if they didn’t know answers, they directed us to someone who would. They approached every passenger emerging from the secret wardrobe door to ask which flight, which airline and directed the individual where to walk. Not that much of it made any sense, but they didn’t wait to be approached, but were proactive in approaching us.

Our flight departed 10 minutes late.

Dulles and Heathrow do worse in a fully functioning airport with a clear weather day.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Foreshadow

We waited on our seats edge for the wildebeest migration to climax to the oft photographed Mara river crossing.. an excruciating hours end for the rather mindless beasts to actually gather the courage to stop loitering about and cross.. only to have the chorus of engine starts and rushing of the safari vehicles coming forward to cut off the line and literally scare the animals off from crossing here.

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The question that begs to be asked is how much worse will we get in disrupting nature, even in a park that is set aside to allow nature to run its own course.

Wait.. that’s my lunch!

I was eating a late lunch at the outdoor balcony of a cafeteria. The usually packed narrow galley was empty except for me. Something soft knocked my head forward and, startled, I reflexively rocked forward. I sat back up befuddled. I looked up to see a blur of brown. It took a good second before I realized: my plate was empty.

A falcon had swooped down from behind me, wing brushing my head aside as it came over my shoulder, and grabbed the chicken off my plate. Fortunately, I already finished eating.

Oddly, it dropped the chicken. The falcon then perched on the closest tree, lowest branch, watching me. I waited a while before going to pick up the chicken, least someone slipped on it.

So, now what? Usually a wait staff clears the table so I was free to get up and leave. But I didn’t want them to clean up a mess the bird may make.

I tried to continue reading.. it was unnerving when an enormous predator of a bird was sitting there, staring me down. I gave up, and picked up the lunch tray to take inside. I reached the door and juggled with the tray to free up a hand to open the door. As I turned to walk in, I realized the bird had swooped back over my shoulder, only because I had shifted the tray to one hand, it was on the wrong side.

The bird was enormous. Wingspan over 5 feet. The wait staff jumped to my aid when they looked up to see the beast just flying by.

Only in Africa.