Photographs by Jackie Zhao
Kazuri Beads in Nairobi employs over three hundred and forty women, mostly consisting of single mothers, who come together and create an array of handmade ceramic beads. These beads are handcrafted, painted, and glazed, fired and quality checked meticulously, then threaded into beautiful pieces of jewelry which are sold locally and distributed internationally.
Kazuri, meaning “small and beautiful”, was founded in 1975. Elizabeth, who worked at Kazuri at its conception, continues to create handmade ceramic designs and mentor women in the workshop today.
I met Elizabeth when I visited Kazuri; she proudly sat at the head of a long rectangular table, head to toe in brightly patterned textiles. She formed beads with one hand while puncturing them with the other for threading. Working clay nimbly, she exuded a fluency for the craft gleaned from many years of practice.
I made my way around the room, wide-eyed with curiosity about the production process. Met with warm smiles and introductions - and a few shy handshakes - I was beckoned over by a few ladies who encouraged me to take a closer look at the intricacies of their work.
Every so often, the women broke into song and sang together in unison. I felt lucky to share in one of these moments.
The Kazuri workshop consists of numerous rooms and single story buildings, each meant for a different purpose. Outdoor covered areas housed advanced machinery which I hadn’t seen before. Clay is mined in the town of Nyeri, 150 km north of Nairobi, and transported to the workshop for processing. It is then mixed with water, sieved, and formed into sheets and hung to dry - this entire process is machinated.
The artisans of Kazuri are in command of design and production, aided by modern technology to streamline the process - the balance between the handmade and industrial production is harmonious.
Alice is an artisan who has been working at Kazuri for over seventeen years. Alice toured me through the workshop and explained the step-by-step process of each stage of production. There is a pottery workshop for slip-casting plateware and animal sculptures - many of which are commissioned by local animal conservancies like the Giraffe Center.
In the building for glazing, each bead is painted with care, and strung onto a wooden frame with wires running horizontally across. Once the beads are glazed and strung, they are left to dry. Each bead is carefully checked for spacing before they are moved to the kiln, to prevent being stuck to one other once fired.
Once these beads are fired, they are checked for quality - any beads that require touchup will be reglazed, and then refired. There is little to no waste created in the entire process. Beads that do not quality check in the end are donated to the local Nyumbani Children’s Home and repurposed into art and murals.
The last room Alice led me to was like a dream candy shop. Clear jars brimming with multicolored beads lined shelves along all sides of the wall. There were thousands of unique designs contained in each jar, multiplied by every color imaginable; “Ting Ting”, “Pebble”, and “Kikapu” are names given to three of Kazuri’s signature bead shapes. In this room, visitors are offered the chance to choose beads and create their own original Kazuri pieces.