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.

Borough Market: Outdoor Whole Foods

I’ve tired of hearing so many people rave about the Borough Market only to sheepishly respond that I’ve never been there. Now I understand the appeal.

It’s unusual to me.. Its fascinating history doesn’t reflect. Architecturally, it’s surprisingly uniform in style, if not in layout, and orderly, despite being grown over time, not as a planned market.

DSC_0008 One of the oldest markets in London, it pre-dated the railway tracks that now shelter it. It sits on the southern bank of the Thames, a very convenient location for boat traffic. It wasn’t hard to imagine what a bustling market it must have been back in the day.

The market is largely covered. A corner extended outside, but was partially sheltered by the railway above. Clearly gentrified, the entire market was furnished with green fencing and doorways. A path is marked to keep pedestrians walkways clear.

The products featured felt both varied and monotonous. There were quite a few bakery stalls, featuring very similar breads and pastries,  even though they tried to carve out a niche: I am French inspired! I am organic! I feature potato dough! Fresh produce was surprisingly sparse while  displays of jams and oils and other non-perishable products rather established. I found only a handful of seafood stalls, disappointing given the proximity to the water (and the lack of good ones near my residence).

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While some things are reasonably prices, the other half the stalls felt expensive. £6 for two small Portuguese egg pastries! Loaves of bread are cheap, individual pastries, expensive. While I do favor artisan vendors, I’d be hard pressed to be convinced that I should come here instead of the closest market to my home.

Personally, I prefer the crowds and smells of a wet market, even the sticky wet floors. This one, I felt, was yuppified. The vendors weren’t even shouting. Or mingling, for that matter. Maybe I came at a wrong time.. that I should have come during the traders’ hours, not when it’s for the pedestrian customers.

I’m a sucker for any market, though.. and I walked away with a full carrier bag. Souvenir double oven mitts, a loaf of rosemary bread, potato buns, chocolate, a mesh sack of mussels. Guess what I’m having for dinner tonight. My first homemade mussels.


A-Z Archive II: C Challenge

China. How things change in a decade. My first time in China, I was a teenager. My parents never let us out of their arms’ reach. We were ordered to keep our mouths shut and quiet when we were in crowds. Dad hired a taxi driver to be dedicated to chauffeuring us around for the whole trip. We were bundled and rushed in and out of the car straight to the sightseeing points.

I went back to Beijing more recently on my own. I meandered around, even at night. Took the subway to get around. Loitered in the park to watch crowds of elderly people listen to traditional opera and dance. And instructors lead groups of tai chi.

Much has changed. But I don’t think it’s just China.

So have I.


Check out other A-Z Archive participants at http://flickrcomments.wordpress.com/2012/07/17/story-challenge-letter-c/

Brussels: Museum of Musical Instruments

I had just checked into my hotel in Brussels, at the tail end of my summer abroad. The last time I was in Brussels was over five years ago, on a day tour with my aunt. I remember the peeing statue, mussels, rain, and chocolate.

The owner of the hotel didn’t even wait for any questions to highly recommend I stop by the Museum of Musical Instruments.

I ended up spending the entire afternoon there until closing time. Given the relatively narrow streets, from the ground level, I wouldn’t have noticed the museum building. It was embedded in a row of old buildings, the dark glass walls making me think it was a corporate building.

It was just an year old when I went. And what an amazing place. A lot of exhibits were crammed into a relatively small space. The halls were dimly lit, giving a sense of endlessness. The lights were well placed to literally put a spotlight on the instruments. I did not encounter any other visitors.. and as I entered each segment of a hallways, the music correlated to the instruments features started playing. Talk about fantastic interior design and integration of modern technology into exhibitions.

Perhaps my having learnt to play musical instruments made me nerdy enough to enjoy the museum. I certainly spent a long time in the string section, seeing all the historical evolutions of the modern string instruments. Yet, I don’t believe one has to have musical background to appreciate the museum. What appealed to me when I heard about it besides a sincere rave report from a local was the fact that it was different. And the excellent design was a bonus.