2009-08-20 / News

African jewelry makers visit Purple Door bead shop

By Joan Breakell

Participants in a fellowship program sponsored by the Coastal Resource Center of URI visited the Purple Door bead shop from their native Zanzibar recently to learn more about jewelry making. Photo by Jeff McDonough Participants in a fellowship program sponsored by the Coastal Resource Center of URI visited the Purple Door bead shop from their native Zanzibar recently to learn more about jewelry making. Photo by Jeff McDonough On a clear sunny day last week, a group of women sat on the terrace in front of the Purple Door bead shop at East Ferry, enjoying the view and chatting about creating jewelry. But on this day, the group included three special guests – travelers from across the globe who were here to expand their skills as jewelry makers and entrepreneurs.

Rahma Mussa, Mkasi Kombo and their interpreter and mentor, Narriman Jiddawi, traveled to Rhode Island from their native Zanzibar as participants in a fellowship program sponsored by the Coastal Resource Center of the University of Rhode Island.

Jiddawi is a senior lecturer on fisheries and marine ecology at the University of Dar es Salaam and the author of many works on the subject. Rahma and Mkasi are jewelry makers. They are part of a sustainable coastal communities and ecosystems project that encourages and supports local co-management of near-shore fisheries, including the establishment of no-take zones, smallscale mari-culture, tourism and gender equity in coastal communities around the world.

The Purple Door bead shop was just one of the stops on their journey.

Owner Deb Goyette and design instructor Tricia Morris worked with the women, who visited in small groups during a two-week period to enhance their design skills by combining their hand-cut stars, birds and hearts into more elaborate multi-strand necklaces, chandelier earrings and other pieces.

The journey that brought Jiddawi, Mussa and Kombo from Zanzibar to Jamestown began several years ago when Maria Haus of Hawaii visited Zanzibar and observed that the discarded shells of locally consumed oysters could be used to make jewelry. Since then, groups of women have learned to transform the shells into necklaces and earrings the color of amber honey using only hand tools because their homes lack electricity.

They sell their jewelry to tourists at prices ranging from $3 to $10 – a modest price – but, says Jiddawi, the money they earn makes an enormous difference in their standard of living in Zanzibar. Mussa, one of the most skilled artisans in the program, said that before making jewelry, she earned what she could by cutting wood and making charcoal – a hard and dirty job.

“Now I am so happy and relaxed,” she said, adding that she was also able to buy a canoe for her husband.

Women helping women

Goyette became involved in the CRC sustainable communities and ecosystems fellowship program when Cindy Moreau of the CRC, a Jamestown resident and beading enthusiast, suggested the Purple Door as an ideal stop on the fellows’ itinerary – noting that it was a woman-owned business and a perfect place to learn more about jewelry making in a fun and relaxed atmosphere.

At least 50 percent of the projects that are part of the program directly benefit women in poor coastal communities, creating opportunities for them to help themselves and their families.

A trip to New York to see how other artists market their work in the U.S. and a chance to sell their jewelry at a craft show were also high points in their six-week fellowship. Participants stay either with host families or at URI.

The island of Zanzibar is rich in history. Sometimes called Spice Island, for hundreds of years it has been a major source of cinnamon, cloves and vanilla. Situated 36 miles off the eastern coast of Tanzania, Zanzibar is an island approximately 60 miles long and 20 miles wide, fringed with palm trees, white sand beaches, clear waters and coral reefs. Tourists and divers come for the beaches and coral reefs, but many of its people live in extreme poverty and lack the income or education to improve their livelihoods.

There are now four villages on the Fumba peninsula of Zanzibar that share in a variety of sustainable, natural resourcebased businesses first envisioned by Jiddawi.

Besides making jewelry from the shells, residents also farm pearls, which bring a higher price. The villages cooperate in the management of the shelling areas to establish no-take zones that ensure the sustainability of the bivalves they use as food, as well as material for their jewelry. They also farm seaweed and dry it for sale as a food product.

See designs at Purple Door

Goyette currently has a limited amount of the unique jewelry for sale at the Purple Door bead shop. The New England Chapter of Women in Jewelry will hold an auction on Tuesday, Aug. 25, at 6 p.m. at the East Greenwich Yacht Club, which will include the fellows’ creations, as well as highend pieces from other artists.

All proceeds will benefit the Women of Zanzibar Pearl Shell Craft Coop in their efforts to improve the lives of coastal communities by creating economic opportunity while practicing stewardship of their natural resources.

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