Monday, October 12, 2015

Work of Our Hands

Today we have a special guest blogger Val Garber writing about her extremely interesting bead and jewelry project in Namibia. Enjoy! ---Jen Cameron

If someone had told me 20 years ago I would be running a project in Africa for marginalized women, I would have said they were crazy! Africa had never been foremost in my mind nor on my bucket list.

But life is crazy, and like we say in our house, “we make plans so God can laugh!”

How it all came about that I went from Orlando Florida suburbia to living in Namibia is quite a long story. We’ve been here for 13 years and have had enough adventures to fill a book. Hubby wrote it - The Leap: Living the Life you Dream About. It was only his dream in the beginning, but I came around slowly. Check it out:

Today, however, I want to give you a peek into our project and the ceramic beads we make.

Most middle-class Americans don’t ever see poverty up close and personal. But poverty is in your face every day when you live in a developing country. There’s a squatter’s camp with about 8,000 residents on the outskirts of our town of Okahandja, Namibia.

Many are unemployed and some have jobs paying so little they have no choice but to live in tin shacks. “Housing” ranges from bad to terrible with average housing being somewhat nicer tin than the photo below.

Seeing the poverty and unemployment motivated me to make a difference if I could. I began teaching bead work to a small group of unemployed ladies in my home. Here a picture of the first pay they received for bead work in 2004.

I was inspired by a development project named Zenzele in South Africa. Zenzele teaches employment skills to the unemployed in the Khayelitsha community, a Cape Town squatters camp of at least 1 million people. While touring their facility I commented that I wished something like it existed in Namibia. I'll never forget what my guide said, "well it started here 15 years ago with one lady and a sewing machine." The message was clear, no excuses, just start! And as they say the rest is history.

Today we are not nearly as large as Zenzele, but we employ about 20 people either full or part time, and through donations, have built a community center and studio in the middle of the informal settlement called Five Rand Camp.

Enongelo Center (the learning place)



In the early years we taught only jewelry making techniques and a variety of seed bead patterns. But because supplies all had to be imported, it soon seemed like a good idea to also make our own beads. Oh the learning curve that entailed ! If I had only known........

Finished beads

There are no bead racks available here, so I started experimenting.

First we tried wires sticking out of kiln bricks. That was a disaster! Wires sagged, and beads stuck together. Eventually I came up with this system of cutting rectangles from kiln bricks and stacking them up. I might have tried using kiln shelf supports had I been in the USA, but here the shelf supports are round .

Our next big problem was inferior glaze. I wanted our beads to have a lot of detail, so we began by painting with underglaze and then a clear glaze over the underglaze. Because of the low quality of the clear glaze here, half the time our clear glaze went milky instead of clear. For a LONG LONG time, I just thought I has doing something wrong, that it was me and not the glaze. We fiddled endlessly with firing temperatures and thickness of application resulting in disaster after disaster. Until Finally, during a long stay in the USA for hubby’s cancer surgery, I had the opportunity to experiment with American made products, and that hurdle was overcome

Now we have so little trouble with glaze that the ladies call it “Magic Glaze”! The only trouble now is getting it here. When we travel from the USA to Namibia we have only glaze in our suitcases, and we beg travellers we hear are coming our way to please please bring us glaze !

If you would like to find out more about the 'Work of Out Hands' project and the beads we make you can visit our Blog and Facebook page. Beads for sale can be found in our Etsy Shop Okawa African Beads.


  1. Amazing amazing! What a little love on our part does for a whole lot of people. I call this gifts from the heart! Thank you for such a wonderful post!

  2. wow, Jen was right, interesting and inspiring! Your beads and their makers are beautiful! Could I ship glaze to you? I'm guessing it won't be cheap, but I'd love to help.

  3. I have bought some of your wonderful beads. You are a lucky woman to have such an adventure in your like.

  4. KoKo thank you !!, but right now we have enough as my brother just traveled to Namibia :)

    1. OK, but the offer will stand :-) In the meantime, I see some shopping in my future!

  5. I have a collection featuring these beautiful beads that just went live today at They really are a joy to work with and it's such a wonderful feeling knowing that I am helping out women in another part of the world b

  6. Great story! It's amazing what one can accomplish just by "doing" it. A great post ,......and what beautiful beads!

  7. I really enjoyed reading more about your project. Good on you for just jumping in where you saw a need and making a big impact on your employees and their families.

  8. I've favorited your Etsy shop and I'm sure I'll be ordering soon. Everything is beautiful! Thanks for helping to bring all that talent to us!

  9. What a great post this is - thanks!

    I was so impressed by it all that I've shared it multiple times....

  10. How do we get to Etsy to shop? Will you be at Northland soon selling this beautiful jewelry?

    1. Rebekah-the link to the etsy page is at the bottom of the article:


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