Friday, October 3, 2014


During our trip, one of the women in our group was talking to other tourists at one of our lodges, and she they told her about a bead factory that was located close to the Karen Blixen estate. The day before we got back to Nairobi, she convinced the Powers-That-Be to take the entire tour group there, all 35 of us.

The Kazuri Bead Factory is actually located in what used to be part of the Karen Blixen Estate. The founder, Lady Susan Wood, was born in Kenya in 1918 to a British missionary couple and was educated in England. She eventually married a doctor, and the young couple returned to Kenya in 1947 to start a coffee plantation on the Blixen estate. (As a result of the Depression and falling coffee prices, Karen had sold the property in 1931 and gone home to her native Denmark, never returning to her beloved Africa.)

Susan Wood was quite the woman. She got the plantation going, raised her four children, wrote several books, and helped her husband set up the East Africa Flying Doctor Service, which later expanded to become the African Medical Research Foundation. On top of all that, she worked tirelessly for equality for Africans, especially for African women. In 1975 Susan set up a small business making ceramic beads in a shed in her garden. After hiring two Kenyan women to help her, she began to see the desperate need for employment opportunities for disadvantaged women, and the Kazuri Bead Factory was born. Kazuri is the Swahili word for "small and beautiful." 

Today that factory has expanded to become a manufacturing enterprise of several small buildings and employs anywhere from 200 to 350 women (depending on which website you consult) who are single mothers, widows, and those with special needs. The Kazuri guide told us that the women work 5 1/2 days a week and are paid the equivalent of about $5.00/day, which according to this source is about minimum wage for a basic worker in Kenya. Other sources on the internet say that the women are paid three times the average wage, which makes me wonder if women are generally paid substantially less than men. Women, especially uneducated mothers, have a difficult time finding jobs in Kenya, so getting a job at this factory must be highly desirable, not just for the wages, but because the workers are also provided with free health care in the Kazuri clinic, child care, and credit and savings plans. Kazuri is a member of the World Fair Trade Organization, which is devoted to creating opportunities for disadvantaged producers and workers.

Our tour began in the Clay Processing Area. The beads are made with clay from the Mount Kenya area:
Our guide, a soft-spoken, articulate Kenyan man, explained the clay-making process, which includes squeezing the water out with this mechanical press:

He showed us the various sizes and shapes of beads. After these are fired, they can be bounced like a ball without breaking, which he demonstrated for us:
The next few shots are of the room where beads were being shaped and sized by hand:
Dozens of women were busily rolling away:
There were shapes other than balls and discs, like the "x" shape in the dish below:
The room was clean, ventilated, and well-lit, and we were impressed with the women, who were all well-groomed and well-dressed:
After the shapes were made, a hole was poked through the beads for stringing:

The women were friendly and smiled for our pictures:

In another section of the complex, pottery dishes were being crafted:

For some reason, this area was dominated by men:

Back in the bead room, the beads were being given their base coats of paint in all the many bright colors I have come to associate with Africa . . .

and placed in a rack . . .

for baking in this high-tech kiln:

 After the beads were baked, they went here:
I'm guessing these little fellers would love to go inside and get their paws on some of those round, shiny beads!
Some of the beads had designs painted on them and some were left plain before they were coated with a shiny glaze:
The women who did the finely painted designs seemed to me to have the hardest job:
I'm pretty sure I could not do this eight hours a day:
These women were impressive. Thinking of them now I am reminded of something I recently read by British columnist George Monbiot: "If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire."

The bead artists were given hand-sketched diagrams to follow that told them what colors to use and how many to make. Our guide told us that orders for specific designs come in from around the world, including from Harrod's of London.
I was fascinated by this bead storage room with its hundreds of gallon-sized jars full of beads of all colors, shapes, and sizes. They don't really have specific plans for any of these, at least as far as I could tell.
I'm kicking myself for not buying a box or two of loose beads.
The painted and glazed beads were then strung by another team of women into unique, beautiful pieces of hand-crafted of jewelry:
Some women follow a pattern for specific designs:
And others have a bit more freedom:

Kazuri makes over 5 million beads a year, and it exports to 20 countries around the world.

Meanwhile, over in the pottery department, pieces were being painted:

and were soon ready for firing:

Lucky for us, we didn't have to go to Harrod's to buy a finished piece.  There was a shop right on the premises, and DOUBLY lucky for us, the thirty-five people in our group were just about their only customers during the time we were there.
I loved this macrame screen made with all kinds of Kazuri beads. Look closely and you'll see that many of the designs are animals.

Not only did they have a very nice shop full of their brightly-colored wares, but they had a really delightful sales staff of young African women who were there to help us find what we wanted.

Unlike the usual souvenir hawkers we've encountered around the world, the saleswomen were not aggressive at all, but if I said, "I'd like another necklace like this one," they'd find it for me. If I wanted a matching bracelet, they found it, and if I needed earrings to complete the set, they found those too.

We purchased quite a few items to bring home as gifts, but I wish I had bought more than I did. In fact, I should have bought two of everything, because when I got home, I didn't want to give any of it away!

We had a very fun time in the Kazuri shop, and I think our group spent a pretty good sum that day. The ladies behind the counter were all smiles. This shop isn't generally on the tour group circuit, but I know Fun-for-Less, our tour company, was impressed and will take future groups there. It's a very short distance from the Blixen Museum, it's a very interesting tour, and money spent in the shop helps support disadvantaged African women. What's not to love?
Two of my purchases that I'm keeping

Besides, it's nice to know that we shopped where Meryl shops:
We even got to see a few more "wild" animals next to one of the Kazuri buildings:
All the warthog details are there, from the antenna-like tail to the stripe of long hair down the center of the back to the gnarly tusks:
When we were done at Kazuri, we gathered up our bags of beads and headed back into town for dinner at the world-famous Carnivore restaurant. (I must confess that it is a little uncomfortable to go from writing about a place where women are paid $5.00 a day to writing about a place where we paid almost ten times that for a single dinner, but I guess those conflicts exist almost everywhere in the world, not just in Africa.)
Another great "Polite Notice" sign. The sign-makers might be polite, but the thieves who want to break into your car must not be:
In the 1980s and 1990s, my husband's brother Layne was a director and active participant in CHOICE (Center for Humanitarian Outreach and Cultural Exchange), a group that came to Kenya several times to work with native people on rural development. He had filled Bob's imagination with stories of coming to the Carnivore Restaurant at the end of their expeditions before returning to the states and dining on zebra, wildebeest, eland, cape buffalo, and many other kinds of wild animal meat.
When we decided to go on this trip, Bob looked into the possibility of a few of us going to the Carnivore Restaurant. As he did his research, he learned, much to his dismay, that wild game hunting, and therefore wild game eating, had been illegal in Kenya for over ten years.

As it turned out, our tour group was planning on eating here anyway, so in spite of the change in menu to more sedate meats like beef, pork, chicken, and farm-raised ostrich, alligator, and camel, we signed up to go.
I think the same artist who made the warthogs for Kazuri made this little guy for Carnivore:
At first I read this sign as "We are offering one child under 13 as a free meal." My goodness, the menu really has changed since Bob's brother Layne was here!
The barbecue pit is a dramatic centerpiece in the dining room:
Photo by Bob

I find it interesting that "Ox Ball" isn't considered an Exotic Meat, don't you?
This is our group of happy diners working on the soup and salad course. That cup of green soup (split pea?) on the bottom left was mine, but after one taste, I knew my still churning stomach wouldn't put up with it.
Four more members of our group:
In the style of a Brazilian restaurant, waiters came around to the tables with big chunks of meat that had been spit-grilled on nasty-looking Maasai spears:
It was a cruel blow to miss out on eating such a spectacular farewell meal and is yet another reason to return someday.

This picture of the six of us who shared a safari vehicle and our Kenyan driver Steven was taken earlier in the day, but it makes for a good farewell photo.
After we finished our dinner at the Carnivore Restaurant, the rest of our group headed to the airport for a flight to Amsterdam, where they spent a few days before returning to California.

Bob and I, however, took a cab ride, which reminded me a lot of "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride" at Disneyland, back to the Intercontinental Hotel to catch a few hours of sleep before our early flight to Accra, Ghana.

Farewell, East Africa! We had a blast!

Photo from here


  1. I loved the Kazuri beads and love to see you wearing them. I too wish we had bought some loose beads. Carnivore ended up being very fun, much more so than I expected. Love the sentiment about Africa. East Africa really is a magical place to visit.

  2. Very colorful beads but I imagine all of Africa to be colorful.

  3. I love the story of the bead factory. I would not have been able to resist buying out the entire bead factory stock. How nice to have some beautiful bead necklaces to remember your travels.

  4. I've seen your Kazuri bead necklace and now it is fun to get the story of it--so beautiful (I even checked on a few places in the US where they sell them, and I'm sure you got a better selection). So this is it--the end of the safari section! I'm sorry you weren't able to dine with the others, given how sick you were, but you were a good sport to take the photos and go along.
    What a great trip; I look forward to the rest.