WASHINGTON (AP) ― Susana Daniel Chemakwany sits quietly under a white tent near the U.S. Capitol, stitching tiny, multicolored beads together into a colorful array of necklaces, wristlets and earrings laid out before her on two tables and behind her pinned to a wall.
Not far from where Chemakwany sits is another tent, a marketplace where some of her work is for sale. Clothes, shoes and baskets, all with beading incorporated into the design, are available. A price tag hangs from each item, but there was a time when Chemakwany had little need for price tags on her work. Back then, beading was something fun to do during downtime, but things have changed.
The traditional pastime of jewelry-making has a new economic significance for Chemakwany, an elder of Kenya’s Pokot tribe, who traveled to the National Mall last month to show her wares and share expertise at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. The annual two-week celebration highlights contemporary traditions of specific countries. This year’s event ended July 6 and featured the art, dance, music, food and crafts of China and Kenya.
The “Kenya: Mambo Poa” exhibit brought the traditions of the East African country together in a cultural celebration. Kenyan music enlivened the scene with contemporary sounds. Dancers, after hours of group performances, encouraged visitors to dance. Chefs prepared foods influenced by India, China and Europe, the aromas enticing the public to buy and taste. Musicians, athletes and carpenters shared stories with visitors. And inside the vast, white tents, master artisans practiced basket weaving, hut-building, hair-braiding and bead-making.
Among Kenya’s Pokot, Kikuyu and Maasai tribes, traditional beadwork can provide additional income to support their families.
“A long time ago, we used to give them for free,” Emmah Irungu, a middle-aged woman of the Kikuyu tribe, said of the items she makes. But the economy has weakened and the Kikuyu are raising fewer cattle. Many have fallen back on selling traditional bead work.
Beads have been integral to Africans for thousands of years. According to the Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies website, the earliest examples of manufactured beads were found in Libya and Sudan and date to B.C. 10,000 Bead work remains part of the cultural tradition in several African tribes, including Irungu’s Kikuyu, Chemakwany’s Pokot and Caroline Sengeny’s Maasai.
Gathering materials for their craft is not easy, they say. While their ancestors made beads from clay and other local materials, now bead workers must travel hundreds of miles to shops in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. Public trains and buses are only available in major cities, and stops are limited. They can drive, but aside from major highways, many roads are unpaved. Many bead artists stock up on materials to last them for months. To avoid the expense of opening a business, they make and sell the finished products in their villages or from their houses.
While the process can be long and difficult, the women remain inspired when they think how the craft can serve a bigger purpose. Through color and design, beads foster feelings of goodwill, harmony and beauty, the women said. Kenya is in turmoil, and many people have lost faith in President Uhuru Kenyatta. Two terrorist attacks on Kenya’s coast killed 87 people in the past two months, and the number of terrorist attacks has continued to increase since Kenya deployed troops to fight al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab militants in 2011.
“Beads can be a way of creating peace,” the 24-year-old Sengeny said.
Beads have meanings based on their colors: yellow promotes peace, white represents milk, green stands for grass, black for skin, red for blood, orange for beauty, blue for the God in the skies. The artists will often choose colors to convey a message, or that simply appeal to the eye.
“Beads are very important, especially for a woman. It signifies beauty,” Irungu said.
The women said they learned everything they know from watching older women in the village. As young girls, making jewelry was part of daily life.