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.

Reblogged: Schrödinger’s Rapist: or a guy’s guide to approaching strange women without being maced

From Shapely Prose:

Guest Blogger Starling: Schrödinger’s Rapist: or a guy’s guide to approaching strange women without being maced

Dated but timeless post, showing women’s perspective of being approached by guys. Read with a sense of humour. Now, compound this with when one is on the road, traveling in places far from home!


Phaedra Starling is the pen name of a romance novelist and licensed private investigator living in small New York City apartment with two large dogs.  She practices Brazilian jiu-jitsu and makes world-class apricot muffins.

Gentlemen. Thank you for reading.

Let me start out by assuring you that I understand you are a good sort of person. You are kind to children and animals. You respect the elderly. You donate to charity. You tell jokes without laughing at your own punchlines. You respect women. You like women. In fact, you would really like to have a mutually respectful and loving sexual relationship with a woman. Unfortunately, you don’t yet know that woman—she isn’t working with you, nor have you been introduced through mutual friends or drawn to the same activities. So you must look further afield to encounter her.

So far, so good. Miss LonelyHearts, your humble instructor, approves. Human connection, love, romance: there is nothing wrong with these yearnings.

Now, you want to become acquainted with a woman you see in public. The first thing you need to understand is that women are dealing with a set of challenges and concerns that are strange to you, a man. To begin with, we would rather not be killed or otherwise violently assaulted.

“But wait! I don’t want that, either!”

Well, no. But do you think about it all the time? Is preventing violent assault or murder part of your daily routine, rather than merely something you do when you venture into war zones? Because, for women, it is. When I go on a date, I always leave the man’s full name and contact information written next to my computer monitor. This is so the cops can find my body if I go missing. My best friend will call or e-mail me the next morning, and I must answer that call or e-mail before noon-ish, or she begins to worry. If she doesn’t hear from me by three or so, she’ll call the police. My activities after dark are curtailed. Unless I am in a densely-occupied, well-lit space, I won’t go out alone. Even then, I prefer to have a friend or two, or my dogs, with me. Do you follow rules like these?

So when you, a stranger, approach me, I have to ask myself: Will this man rape me?

Do you think I’m overreacting? One in every six American women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. I bet you don’t think you know any rapists, but consider the sheer number of rapes that must occur. These rapes are not all committed by Phillip Garrido, Brian David Mitchell, or other members of the Brotherhood of Scary Hair and Homemade Religion. While you may assume that none of the men you know are rapists, I can assure you that at least one is. Consider: if every rapist commits an average of ten rapes (a horrifying number, isn’t it?) then the concentration of rapists in the population is still a little over one in sixty. That means four in my graduating class in high school. One among my coworkers. One in the subway car at rush hour. Eleven who work out at my gym. How do I know that you, the nice guy who wants nothing more than companionship and True Love, are not this rapist?

I don’t.

When you approach me in public, you are Schrödinger’s Rapist. You may or may not be a man who would commit rape. I won’t know for sure unless you start sexually assaulting me. I can’t see inside your head, and I don’t know your intentions. If you expect me to trust you—to accept you at face value as a nice sort of guy—you are not only failing to respect my reasonable caution, you are being cavalier about my personal safety.

Fortunately, you’re a good guy. We’ve already established that. Now that you’re aware that there’s a problem, you are going to go out of your way to fix it, and to make the women with whom you interact feel as safe as possible.

To begin with, you must accept that I set my own risk tolerance. When you approach me, I will begin to evaluate the possibility you will do me harm. That possibility is never 0%. For some women, particularly women who have been victims of violent assaults, any level of risk is unacceptable. Those women do not want to be approached, no matter how nice you are or how much you’d like to date them. Okay? That’s their right. Don’t get pissy about it. Women are under no obligation to hear the sales pitch before deciding they are not in the market to buy.

The second important point: you must be aware of what signals you are sending by your appearance and the environment. We are going to be paying close attention to your appearance and behavior and matching those signs to our idea of a threat.

This means that some men should never approach strange women in public. Specifically, if you have truly unusual standards of personal cleanliness, if you are the prophet of your own religion, or if you have tattoos of gang symbols or Technicolor cockroaches all over your face and neck, you are just never going to get a good response approaching a woman cold. That doesn’t mean you’re doomed to a life of solitude, but I suggest you start with internet dating, where you can put your unusual traits out there and find a woman who will appreciate them.

Are you wearing a tee-shirt making a rape joke? NOT A GOOD CHOICE—not in general, and definitely not when approaching a strange woman.

Pay attention to the environment. Look around. Are you in a dark alley? Then probably you ought not approach a woman and try to strike up a conversation. The same applies if you are alone with a woman in most public places. If the public place is a closed area (a subway car, an elevator, a bus), even a crowded one, you may not realize that the woman’s ability to flee in case of threat is limited. Ask yourself, “If I were dangerous, would this woman be safe in this space with me?” If the answer is no, then it isn’t appropriate to approach her.

On the other hand, if you are both at church accompanied by your mothers, who are lifelong best friends, the woman is as close as it comes to safe. That is to say, still not 100% safe. But the odds are pretty good.

The third point: Women are communicating all the time. Learn to understand and respect women’s communication to you.

You want to say Hi to the cute girl on the subway. How will she react? Fortunately, I can tell you with some certainty, because she’s already sending messages to you. Looking out the window, reading a book, working on a computer, arms folded across chest, body away from you = do not disturb. So, y’know, don’t disturb her. Really. Even to say that you like her hair, shoes, or book. A compliment is not always a reason for women to smile and say thank you. You are a threat, remember? You are Schrödinger’s Rapist. Don’t assume that whatever you have to say will win her over with charm or flattery. Believe what she’s signaling, and back off.

If you speak, and she responds in a monosyllabic way without looking at you, she’s saying, “I don’t want to be rude, but please leave me alone.” You don’t know why. It could be “Please leave me alone because I am trying to memorize Beowulf.” It could be “Please leave me alone because you are a scary, scary man with breath like a water buffalo.” It could be “Please leave me alone because I am planning my assassination of a major geopolitical figure and I will have to kill you if you are able to recognize me and blow my cover.”

On the other hand, if she is turned towards you, making eye contact, and she responds in a friendly and talkative manner when you speak to her, you are getting a green light. You can continue the conversation until you start getting signals to back off.

The fourth point: If you fail to respect what women say, you label yourself a problem.

There’s a man with whom I went out on a single date—afternoon coffee, for one hour by the clock—on July 25th. In the two days after the date, he sent me about fifteen e-mails, scolding me for non-responsiveness. I e-mailed him back, saying, “Look, this is a disproportionate response to a single date. You are making me uncomfortable. Do not contact me again.” It is now October 7th. Does he still e-mail?

Yeah. He does. About every two weeks.

This man scores higher on the threat level scale than Man with the Cockroach Tattoos. (Who, after all, is guilty of nothing more than terrifying bad taste.) You see, Mr. E-mail has made it clear that he ignores what I say when he wants something from me. Now, I don’t know if he is an actual rapist, and I sincerely hope he’s not. But he is certainly Schrödinger’s Rapist, and this particular Schrödinger’s Rapist has a probability ratio greater than one in sixty. Because a man who ignores a woman’s NO in a non-sexual setting is more likely to ignore NO in a sexual setting, as well.

So if you speak to a woman who is otherwise occupied, you’re sending a subtle message. It is that your desire to interact trumps her right to be left alone. If you pursue a conversation when she’s tried to cut it off, you send a message. It is that your desire to speak trumps her right to be left alone. And each of those messages indicates that you believe your desires are a legitimate reason to override her rights.

For women, who are watching you very closely to determine how much of a threat you are, this is an important piece of data.

The fifth and last point: Don’t rape. Nor should you commit these similar but less severe offenses: don’t assault. Don’t grope. Don’t constrain. Don’t brandish. Don’t expose yourself. Don’t threaten with physical violence. Don’t threaten with sexual violence.

Shouldn’t this go without saying? Of course it should. Sadly, that’s not the world I live in. You may be beginning to realize that it’s not the world you live in, either.

Book Review: Lean In

I have to admit: I’m not done reading yet!

Many of you have heard of Lean In, by current Facebook and former Google execute Sheryl Sandberg, to start the conversation about women in leadership and why there is a lack thereof.

I sometimes blog about my travel with the slant of doing so alone as a female. What I tend to mention less is my work and being a woman in a male dominated workforce. I had considered work a territory I won’t go into in this blog, as I find it blurs the line of professionalism once I start venting or gossiping about that side of my life.

Sandberg’s book, however, resonated with me. It would with any female professional, especially those of us who have well-established careers. There was no way any woman could work this long and not encounter an incident or anecdote similar to those that Sandberg shared from her own experiences in the book.

I’ve now set into a brief routine of reading a chapter at a time, then going into work with the most recent chapter in mind and being aware of my behavior likewise or otherwise.

I am a book snob. I will always evaluate writing style. I’m a terrible writer myself, but I love to read. Lean In is rather basic in writing style. It won’t be wining any Pulitzers. It’s is a narrative, in a didactic style. Sandberg wrote in her introduction that the goal of this book is to serve as a conversation. She accomplished that. At times, I could imagine her in front of the room, talking out these points to us in person. The book is a conversation and she wrote it as one.

I recently was told quite rudely that I was not welcome to participate in a business meeting because I am a woman. The men who told me were mostly foreigners, of a culture I will refrain from specifying. My only salve was I wasn’t the only woman told that and that made the insult feel less personal. It still smarted. I considered myself the senior person present. As much as I knew it wasn’t directed to just me, it took a good week for the emotional reaction to subside, and another week of another project to distract me altogether.

The rejection made me realize that this wasn’t the first time I encountered discrimination based on gender but that, in most of the past incidences, I had an incredibly supportive network that defended me when faced with such attitudes. I lacked it this time around and the hurt and humiliation I faced forced me to realize I needed to start standing up for myself.

A female manager had approached me after that last rejection to give me a morale boost, try to keep me from getting too discouraged. She broached the topic of whether I would be willing to share my lessons and experience for those women who will follow. It was a bit of a reality check to be reminded that I may not longer be considered the newest working generation. At the same time, I never felt more empowered.

That was when I started reading Lean In. Between the timing and the content, I felt like the book was written about me.

I had barely finished the first chapter, The Leadership Ambition Gap, when I went online and ordered a copy to be sent to my father. Growing up in a conservative Asian household, I was taught humility is a virtue. My father once saw me in a somewhat professional setting and commented to me afterward that my confidence was “not pretty.” I felt anything but confident, but I had learned to exude it. In reading this one chapter in Lean In, I knew I had to send a copy to Dad. He adores the notion of accomplished tech sector executives and the book would have more credibility than I in telling him why I needed to appear confident, not humble. The Asian deferential attitude would not serve me well in an American business environment. The fact that I am a woman made it a double-edged sword.

I can go on an on about how I related to the book. At the end, though, every  woman can. Sandberg does an incredible job incorporating research that backs up the sentiments, even the subconscious, women feel in being treated differently in a corporate environment. Countering by changing our own behaviours as women isn’t enough.. an awareness needs to be established in the public as a whole. Sandberg attempts this by publishing.. let’s hope many more people, both men and women, will read her book.

More importantly, while Sandberg started the conversation, we need to carry it on.