My aesthetic-loving mind exploded the first time I stumbled upon the “small and beautiful” magic of “Kazuri” (Swahili for “small and beautiful”) beads in 2009. Invited by my friend Debbie Lee, my mom and I toured the workshop with her. Stunning women dressed in exotic batik fabrics leaned over a vast array of clay shapes and colors in a room flooded with light, windows thrown open to welcome warm, fragrant breezes.
Single mothers from East Africa’s largest slum are bussed daily to Kazuri’s facility in idyllic Karen, located in Nairobi’s outskirts and named after Karen Blixen of Out of Africa fame. From forming clay to firing the pieces in on-site kilns, they painstakingly create world-famous ceramic beads. As well as employment, Kazuri provides holistic care for the women and their children, qualifying as an official “Fair-Trade” organization.
Debbie saved the best part for last. We entered a room about the size of a large closet, walls stacked from floor to ceiling with shelves stuffed with plastic barrels of beads. One by one, for six straight hours, we poured out the containers’ contents and reveled in a vibrant riot of glazes.
After I returned home with my first collection of Kazuri beads, I could hardly bear to make anything with them; because then I would have to part with them. I slid my little drawers open, organized by color, and savored each bead. Finally, I accepted that they were too wonderful to keep to myself and made them into earrings, necklaces, key-chains and bookmarks for Pamba Toto’s Azizi collection.
To some, they are just piles of beads. But for those who look a little closer, each is unique, a world unto itself; some even bear the fingerprints of their makers. When I hold one, I feel somehow connected to a woman living far away on the other side of the earth, to her individual dreams, hopes, and fears.
Walking through Mathare Valley, East Africa’s second largest slum after Kibera, masses of children are everywhere, lining the path like shelves of indiscriminate beads. At first, heading down into the valley, narrow trails wind between tall concrete buildings. From balconies high above, small bodies lean over railings with wildly waving arms, shrilling a high-pitched chorus of, “Hi, how are you? Fine!” With each step down there is a small grubby hand to grasp. The river of children in brightly colored rags flows freely on either side. Some boldly approach, some hang back, eyes cast shyly to the ground. The greeting, “Sasa toto?” (“what’s up, kid?”) is certain to spark a smile.
Soon the surrounding structures transition to one story corrugated metal shacks, spilling torrents of children into the path. For every child’s hand, yet another stretches out. The Youth Fact Book published by the Kenya Institute of Economic Affairs reports that 78% of Kenyans are under age 34. Peering down narrowing mazes on either side, floods of little people dance and chant, “Wazungu!”(“white people!”). Everything around them sags and slithers down rutted grooves, down, down to the river at the heart of the Valley.
Whenever I walk through Mathare Valley, I search for one child. Somewhere, she is in the throngs.
Her name, at least as I knew her, was Emma. She was found abandoned in a field and taken to the Mother Teresa Home for Abandoned Children near Mathare Valley. I was shocked when I first saw her in her crib on my first day of three weeks of volunteering in the home. She was languid and emaciated. I was terrified that she would die in my arms as I sang and prayed over her for hours. I spent the bulk of every day with her and paid for her to receive treatment at a local hospital. As her health returned, her spirit blossomed. Her face lit up when I came in the room. I was captivated. We spent hours together playing baby games and quietly snuggling.
She protested vehemently when I put her in her crib on my last day of volunteering. My own grief was tempered by hope. She was too young to understand, but I fully intended to complete the legal process so that we could belong to each other forever. I planned to return as soon as possible. I can still hear her wails as I turned and walked away. I never saw her again.
Less than a month after my return home, just as my husband and I mutually agreed to initiate adoption paperwork, I received a message from a friend in Kenya that Emma was gone. A woman claiming to be her mother came to the orphanage. The sisters did their best to verify the story, and were fearful about the situation; but in the end, they had to let Emma go.
The slums of Nairobi have never been the same for me. Somewhere, Emma roams their labyrinths. I am always searching for her, years older but still with the same gentle wise eyes, high cheekbones, narrow chin, sweet tranquil spirit. Beneath the sewage stench, the sodden rags, the grimy skin, there are no masses of children. For me, every child is Emma.
At Sanctuary of Hope homes for orphans in Nairobi, Kenya (the ministry to which Pamba Toto donates profits), children forgotten by the rest of the world were hand-plucked from the devastation of Mathare Valley. Day-by-day, each is lovingly nurtured by caregivers. And they flourish in this environment; they become who they were meant to be.
Mother Teresa once said, “God counts in ones.” Something as simple as beads fashioned by women in a far-away place, something as heart-breaking as losing a child I love, something as wondrous as a home for former orphans – all inter-twine and testify to the irreplaceable value of each and every human being. They bear witness that amidst the preponderance of people around the world, there is One who is able to see each of us. There is One who loves us intimately, who surveys this vast globe of cultures and countries, and revels in each and every one of its inhabitants.
Allow yourself to be hand-plucked and cherished. In His Hands, you will become all you are meant to be.
Check out our collection of products made with Kazuri beads:
special thanks to Brittin Lane of NxT/Model