The Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert are almost as old as humanity itself. Geneticists tell us that they are perhaps the oldest group still walking the earth. Sadly, like many ancient peoples, they are among the poorest and most disenfranchised in their southern African homeland.
Poverty notwithstanding, for countless generations the Bushmen have made beautiful jewelry to adorn themselves and their loved ones. Largely isolated from the outside world until the last century, they created (and still create today) intricate pieces using wild seeds, sticks, bone, tortoiseshell, and most importantly of all, beads painstakingly hand made from shards of ostrich eggshell. With ingenuity and precision, the women turn some of the beads a rich brown by frying them or black by roasting them – in order to have three colors of beads with which to make patterns and designs.
Jewelry veteran Anna Haber, global director of marketing for emerald producer Gemfields, and talented London-based jeweler, Sabine Roemer recently collaborated with Bushmen women in Ghanzi, Botswana to create a unique 19-piece collection of jewelry comprised of necklaces, bracelets and earrings. The fashion-forward collection fuses the Bushmen’s traditional skills and natural materials with new materials including leather, silver, velvet and satin. By combining ancient designs with new inspiration, the collection captures the Bushmen’s long journey to link their rich cultural past with the modern world.
Haber’s Jewels of the Kalahari collaboration aims, however, at something beyond just beautiful jewelry. The end goals are to create awareness of the Bushmen’s plight through the storytelling traditions that are connected to their arts and crafts, and also to create a sustainable business for the tribe that will generate a consistent income and ongoing work. Jewelry making is an important source of income, particularly for the women, as well as vehicle for cultural continuity. Haber is currently searching for retailers who might make a commitment to working with the Bushmen so that their unique skills can find a broader home in the world.
Fashion and portrait photographer Boo George joined Haber and Roemer on their Kalahari adventure to document both the collection as well as the Bushmen’s imperiled way of life. In addition to the Bushmen’s strength, he captured a side of them that is so often forgotten – the exceptional humor, wisdom and beauty of the ladies. “The ladies have incredibly strong characters,” says Haber. “They are spirited, mischievous, so funny and joyful. Being around these unique women was such a life lesson for me. So many have HIV and have lost children. They receive little help or financial support from the men as many have turned to alcohol. It is the women that hold the communities together with their infectious personalities full of life, love, wisdom and humor. I believe that we, in the West, have a lot to learn from them.”
Haber and Roemer did indeed learn a few things. After some weeks of intense preparation, with Haber trying to nail down every detail of the designs they would bring to the Bushmen, master goldsmith Roemer commented, “Anna this is craft, it just happens. You cannot plan it.” This turned out to be truer even than Roemer imagined, and the pair had to adjust their working methods and sense of timing and deadlines to be in tune with their artisan-partners. “We spent a week working with a group of ten producers, all of whom were all women, and all but one had HIV. So they were very energetic in the mornings but after they had taken their medication in the afternoon they became understandably tired and distracted. The first day was the most challenging as Sabine and I came in with our Western ways of working, wanting to get everything done in a timely manner and efficiently. The ladies, though, have their own way of working that is more free and relaxed, so we soon adapted to their way. They start each morning with a prayer or a beautiful traditional song -- even we were singing the words after a few days. Afterwards, we would all sit and discuss ideas and the best way to create the designs, using the new materials combined with the traditional way they sew the shells. Some designs worked straight away and some were a process of trial and error.”
As the collection came together, photographer George recognized the exceptional beauty of a thirteen-year-old Bushman, Sekopaleina. Both of her parents died of HIV-related illnesses, and she is looked after by Mickie, one of the jewelry artisans. “She was so shy around us initially. But once Boo began to take pictures, the strength and force of her personality came out,” says Haber. “I am setting up a savings account for Sekopaleina to hopefully go towards higher education expenses in the future.”
Haber’s long-term commitment to the Bushmen now requires her to find retailers to bring attention to their situation with exhibitions of George’s photographs, and to help them earn income through sale of the jewelry collections. Some of London’s most forward-looking retailers like the Dover Street Market have sold pieces. But more is needed. Haber says she is fueled in her quest by the memory of the last day of working on the collection: “We are so proud of the collection and all enjoyed our time working together on this special project. The beautiful landscapes and unforgettable ladies – their hypnotic singing and dancing – will forever be imprinted in our minds. Through this collection, we hope that others will come to appreciate the work, as much as we do.”
For more information, read Anna Haber’s blog at onefinethread.blogspot.com. To offer connections to interested retailers, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To see a short film by Charlie Ryan of the Bushmen community where the Jewels of the Kalahari collection is made, visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XKNrU6PtqrY
Haber wishes to acknowledge the kind support and funding of Neo and Semane Khama, from Elan Botswana, as well as the collaboration of San Arts and Crafts, a fair trade organization that works directly with the Bushmen in Botswana. They ensure that the Bushmen crafts are fairly traded, working under the principles that trade can make sustainable and significant contribution to poverty reduction.