Saturday, July 23, 2011

Beautiful Beads

On Wednesday I (Lisa) went to Nairobi for the day with Monica. It was a last minute trip planned when we were having dinner with Monica and she was talking about going to a beaded jewelry store the next day and I got excited, and then it turned out it was in Nairobi because she was up there for the day before her evening flight home. Monica is a pharmacist that Marc met last summer in Eldoret, but unfortunately schedules hadn't cooperated for a get-together in Indianapolis aside from a chat at the Kenya gala, and we also hardly got to see her this trip to Kenya. So I decided to make a day of it and fly to Nairobi for the day so that I could get to know this Monica character, and also check out the beaded jewelry store. The store was recommended by Sonak who is a long-termer here and apparently knows several good places to go in Nairobi. We have heard rumors that Will Smith and Kofi Anan both shop at this store, and Monica was raving about it from a previous trip. She described it as a place where you could get unique and well made necklaces during your trip but that weren't so touristy "African" that you would feel weird wearing them at home.

As with most (everything?) in Kenya, there was no street address, but fortunately we had the number of Sonak's Nairobi taxi driver who knew where this place was. David was great, and waited patiently while we spent hours shopping that day. Monica's plan was to spend as much time as we wanted at this shop, and then possibly hit a few other stores in the afternoon if time permitted.

The store was at the back of a house in what was either a very nice residential neighborhood or sort of an embassy row. We asked the woman to tell us about the beads, which she had done for Monica on her last trip, and it made all the difference. When I first walked in, I thought it wasn't bad and there were tons of beaded necklaces, but nothing really stood out. Once the owner started telling us about the beads and I started looking at things more closely, I realized she had a lot of very beautiful and special pieces. She had probably 5 main beads that had a history that she told us, and I think all of them have been used as trade beads in the past, although only one type was labeled as "trade beads"-- trade beads being beads that were used as currency to barter for goods. In addition to those beads, she had jewelry made from other glass beads, amber (including African amber which was opaque rather than the more familiar translucent Baltic amber), tigers eye, and others. For each bead type she had multiple necklace designs and bracelets, and then often a few earrings.

African amber, originally uploaded by monkeydoc

The three main beads that I really liked were all antique handmade beads-- trade beads, samburu beads, and black coral beads.

Trade Beads, originally uploaded by monkeydoc

The trade beads are Venetian millefiori beads, which are handmade glass beads that were brought over by Europeans to trade for things they wanted. They come in lots of different colors and sizes, and the woman pointed out that somehow they seem to change a bit depending on what color you put them next to, so that they go with any color even if you think they won't when you pick them up. She claims that the technique for making the beads was lost to history, although my bit of google searching did not confirm that, and there are definitely types of millefiori beads being made today. However, the pictures I found showed the modern beads being much brighter and different looking than these antique ones. I have to wonder if it is kind of like the original technique of making damascus steel or samurai blades old being lost-- it doesn't mean that we can't made blades today, but there are differences between what is made today and how the antique versions were made and some of the details have been lost to history. She told us that Manhattan was bought for a handful of trade beads, and the internets tell me that that is at least a common story, if one without any evidence to prove it either way.

Samburu, originally uploaded by monkeydoc

The Samburu beads are red glass beads with a white core that are made by winding a thread of glass around a wire. They were given to Samburu and Massai men when the killed a lion by hand or by spear, and then the men would give the beads to women the liked. A woman's popularity was judged by how many beads she wore, and once she had 'enough,' someone would propose to her.

Black Coral, originally uploaded by monkeydoc

The black coral beads are made from black coral that was hand drilled and then inlaid with either silver or silver and amber. These are the original prayer beads, probably my favorites of the three, and the ones that I had the most difficulty finding for sale on the web. We plan to go to this store on our last day in Kenya before our flight home, with Marc and Angie in tow, and I have my eye on a black coral bead necklace that was out of my price range on my first trip (the woman only takes cash, which is possibly a good thing because if she took credit cards I may have scooped up half of the shop).

I came home with a few pieces and have ended up having a "trunk show" in my room most evenings since I got back, as word has gotten around the IU house and people were interested in putting the shop on their to-visit list for their way out of town.

After spending about three hours at the shop (and despite that I was relieved that I would get another crack at it on our last day), Monica and I went to the village market which was a kind of open mall. We had lunch at a cafe (real sandwiches! With real bread! And pesto!) I haven't been here long enough to really feel like I was missing good food too terribly bad, but at the same time just a well done simple sandwich was a revelation and I could totally understand why Sonak gorges himself when he comes to Nairobi and gets away from the limited selection in Eldoret.  We walked around the mall and through a couple of fun art and African-themed housewares/decorations shops which made me wish it were easier to ship things home, and then headed to Spinners Web. Marc and I went to Spinner's Web on a previous trip, they are kind of a cooperative of a several handicrafts sellers and also had a couple of things that I wouldn't have minded getting if I were driving home instead of flying.

By the time we were done at Spinner's Web it was time to head back to the airport for my flight back to Eldoret. The bead store was obviously a great find, but I was also really happy to have finally gotten some time to spend with Monica, who is great. She was wonderful to let me tag along to her day in Nairobi, and she was just so easy to get along with. We seem to have a lot in common, and we are going to make a point of all getting together in Indianapolis once Marc and I are back in town. For me, being here without a project/purpose of my own, the people are definitely the highlight of the trip. There are so many people at the IU house now that we don't get to know them all, and I'm pretty sure they're not all winners, but there are always a couple of gems that we're grateful to have met and look forward to continuing to know in the states.


Isaac said...

What an awesome post :D

Heather said...

sounds awesome! The necklaces are beautiful.