Tuesday, December 02, 2008
the beads and the beadmakers
I want to tell you about the Bead Girls, and the beads. They were the reason for going to Ethiopia that I knew about. There turned out to be so many other reasons too, but if it had only been about the beads and the beadmakers, it would have been more than enough. There are six regular beadmakers now, and some others who have come and gone in the last couple of years. Until now, all of the boys who have started the program have quit. Seems it's seen as a "girl" job, and they want to do something more "manly". Ridiculous, I think, but I have to keep reminding myself of the huge cultural differences we have. There is one young man, Abera, who is a wonderful landscape gardener with an artistic soul. He tried his hand at beads while I was there, and shows promise and interest. So we'll see how it goes with him. Pictured above is the core group of the Project Mercy Bead Room, from top left: Asnakech, Hana, Alfya, (Me), Denbele, and lower left to right, Bzunesh and Tirunesh. It took me several days to get their names right, and to pronounce them even close to correctly. They had it pretty easy with my name, and Rick's name usually turned to "Rrreeek" as it rolled out of an Ethiopian mouth.
Four of the Girls are full time beadmakers now, and two of them are in classes in the morning, and make beads in the afternoon. There are several vocational programs within the Project Mercy compound. Education is taken very seriously, and there are difficult exams at the eighth and tenth grade levels. Some pass and keep going to school, and sometimes on to university. Others end school at eighth or tenth grade and learn a skill like beadmaking, gardening, cooking, sewing, wood or metal work. Marta is always looking for new ways of teaching people to make a good living for themselves. It's part of her master plan to work holistically within the community, and it's a plan that keeps growing and expanding.
And here is Abera, with Rick. Abera also acted as a guide for us outside the compound, since his family lives in the area, and he knows just about everyone. He came to Project Mercy twelve years ago, carried by his father because he was so sick from malnutrition and malaria that he was nearly dead. In fact, his sister had died the day before, causing his father to "give" Abera to Marta and Deme, so that they might be able to save his life. He's been there ever since, and I know his was a life very much worth saving.
When we first visited the Bead Room (I wanted to call it the Studio, because they really are artists), Marta came along to translate, and we were all a little bit shy at first. There was a small pile of beads on the table, all dark and somber looking. I realized that was partially because the supply of glass was almost used up, and there were no bright colors left. I brought in some of the glass we had carried along, and jumped right in, adding white to everything, essentially adding "light" to the beads. We played with color and dots and stringer, so I could gauge where they were in their skill levels. It became clear pretty quickly that the last year they'd spent more or less on their own had given them time to practice, and to get pretty good. They were ready for me. We also realized that they understood me when I explained what I was doing, and it wasn't really necessary for Marta to interpret for us.
So the first several days of our stay there was spent mostly in the Bead Room, and we all quickly became comfortable friends, chatting, laughing, making beads like we'd known each other for years. By the time the rest of the Cunningham's group arrived, about ten days later, there were growing piles of beads on the table, bright and beautiful, and more skillful by the day. Rick was also a great teacher, helping with some of the more precise things. He's a Virgo after all...
Another beadmaker, and darling human, Alex Boyd, came with the big group. The girls knew him from last year, and had an easy reconnection. I backed away a little bit at that point, feeling like I'd about exhausted what I had to teach them for now. Alex came in with fresh techniques, and there was another quantum leap in the quality of the beads being made. It was so exciting to see them learning everything that was shown to them, and able to do almost all of it immediately.
Heart beads were started there as a "go with" for the bracelets a year or two ago. Several high schools in the Denver area order them to be worn in place of corsages and boutonnieres for prom. Nice idea, yes? I asked the girls to make a few hearts just for me, using the new tricks they'd learned. I'll be giving a few as gifts, and have several more to offer on my website. They're the first of the emerging new styles we'll see more and more of. The "Kim-Rick-Alex Influence" is there, but they're really making things in their own way. Beautiful.
I think ideally, it would be good to have a teacher visit three or four times a year, to keep them challenged and motivated. That may not happen, but I'm confident that the bead program is well under way, and stands a very good chance of becoming a self-sustaining and profitable little business. I also think that in another two to three years they'll be able to make all their own beads for the HOPE Bracelets, eliminating the need for us to solicit donations of beads here. It's a day we all look forward to. And then... who knows? There will be something else to work on. There will always be something else. For now, I'm really encouraged by what I saw, and honored to be a small part of the progress.