For weeks, in two workshops on either side of Nairobi, two groups of women carefully threaded fishing wire through colourful beads to create exquisite light fixtures designed by Otago Design, a London-based atelier, to be installed in a Nando’s restaurant in London.
One group of beaders worked from a workshop at the top end of Zawadi Africa owner Geraldine Evans’s Karen home, in a small structure made from wood with a corrugated metal roof. On one end of the workshop, two men worked on leather products ranging from belts to folders to cup holders. Across the room, completed pendants hung from the roof and in the centre three women were hard at work attaching strings of beads to a metal frame. Their tools and beads rested on a wooden stool between them. To one side, on a bench with the most natural light, Zipporah Wambui measured strands of beads using several rulers she had made out of card for the different sections of the pendants. “I am the fastest at measuring the strands of beads,” Zipporah explained, when I asked her why she had this role.
At around 11am each morning, Theresia Wanjiku, a spritely grandmother and the only full-time beader at Zawadi Afrika, would bustle around making morning tea for everyone in the workshop. When I met Theresia, I asked her if she was the supervisor, she laughed before admitting with a shrug: “Yes, I am the supervisor because they are looking up to me at how to do it.” Tabitha Munyiva and Esther Wanjiru, who were brought in to work on this project with Zipporah, worked through the day as music played from a blue radio, pausing occasionally to sip their tea, which they rested on the wooden stool amongst their tools. For weeks, all the beaders at Zawadi Afrika known affectionately as ‘the Beading Ladies’, worked all day – Monday to Saturday – on the pendants.
On the far wall of the workshop, illustrations of the pendants labelled ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ are hung on the wall for reference, and the email with the latest instructions from Anna Rose and Edwina Sercombe of Otago Design in London stuck on the nearby worktable. The Beading Ladies at Zawadi Afrika were charged with making 13 pendants: five of design ‘A’ and four each of designs ‘B’ and ‘C’.
The other workshop is on the other side of Nairobi, on Lower Kabete Road on a sprawling leafy property called CREA House, belonging to CREA Africa, a company formed in 2012 to produce high-end luxury jewellery for export. In a small workshop on one side of a large house, five women worked around a large wooden table on a large chandelier, the centrepiece of the light installation. They laughed as they worked, their conversation punctuated by the shake of the beads in plastic containers as they coaxed them onto fishing lines. It was imperative that each strand of beads was to the correct length or it would affect the overall structure of the large chandelier. To ensure this, the beaders carefully measured each strand against white string they had previously measured and stuck on the worktable with masking tape.
Just like at the workshop in Karen, Esther Simayo and Grace Wangare worked for weeks on the chandelier coming in around 7am in the morning and working until 5pm. In the last few days of work on the chandelier, three additional beaders were brought in so that the project would be completed on time. Laid out on the table, it was hard to imagine what the chandelier would resemble when suspended; as in that state it looked like nothing but a sea of beads. “It is like an egg, with no opening,” one of the beaders told me when I asked what it would look like when it is hung from the roof.
The design for this chandelier was inspired by the renowned Dinka corset worn by the Dinka tribe of South Sudan. This corset has always fascinated Anna Rose, one part of the two-lady team that makes up Otago Design. And a few years ago, she bought a corset in downtown Nairobi.
In 2013, Anna Rose and her business partner Edwina Sercombe made a prototype of this chandelier with another workshop in Nairobi using only gold and white beads. They kept the design in mind wanting to reserve it for a special client. An encounter at a design show in London led to Otago Design being commissioned to create bespoke planters for a Nando’s restaurant, which in turn led to an introduction to a lighting company that had been commissioned to create light fixtures for the then soon-to-be opened Nando’s restaurant in Harrogate.
At the beginning of March 2015, the designs for the project were finalised and Anna and Edwina spent a few weeks in London planning the production, including ordering the beads. Most beads in Kenya are imported from the Czech Republic, however, only smaller beads and in limited colours are available in Kenya, so Anna and Edwina decided to order directly from the source in the Czech Republic. Anna then travelled to Kenya to start work on the light fixtures and she was joined a week later by Edwina. Otago Design had only six weeks from when they landed in Kenya to deliver all the lighting fixtures. Not surprisingly, they were a bit anxious, for as Anna explained: “There were so many things beyond our control that we wouldn’t know until we got out there [to Kenya], and whether we were going to be able to make it. But we wanted to take it on because it was a really great project, really exciting and a great challenge.”
It turns out they needn’t have worried. While none of the beaders had ever worked on light fixtures, with the beaders at Zawadi Afrika primarily working on leather while at CREA Africa the bulk of work involves beaded necklaces, the beaders at both workshops were incredibly talented and fast workers and proved able to adapt to complete the project on spec and on time. Further, all the beaders seemed happily invested in the project working together to solve problems when they arose. At Zawadi Afrika, the beaders found that when the beads were suspended on only one metal ring it resulted in the fishing lines snapping. To resolve this, they used thicker fishing line and suspended the beads from three rings for the larger pendants and two rings for the smaller pendants to ensure greater stability.
At CREA Africa, Esther and Grace worked with one of the founders of CREA, Elisabetta Capolino, to wrap the metal rods that the beads are suspended on with white string which at Elisabetta’s suggestion, Edwina painted green to better compliment the colourful beads. Esther and Grace broke more than two packets of needles as they tried to weave the needle through, because the string was wrapped so tight. With the needles breaking at a high rate, Esther used an improvised tool made from the metal frame of an umbrella, stuck into a wooden handle and sharpened with a stone to poke through the string to make way so she could thread the fishing line with the beads through.
A few weeks after the beaders in Nairobi completed their work, the colourful light fixtures now hang in the recently opened Nando’s restaurant on Parliament Street in Harrogate, London.
Photograph courtesy of Otago Design. Copyright David Lindsay.