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.