Uganda is a nation awash with talented artisans. There are carpenters, weavers, tailors, and bead makers on nearly every street corner, and people don’t shy away from a DIY project. Maker culture isn’t just limited to hobbyists, it’s a necessary function of life. Still, though, there are those among the woodworkers and dressmakers who have design in their blood, whose creative endeavors aren’t just a job but their soul’s deepest calling.
Meet Agnes and Beatrice.
Until her health required her to find a slower paced job, Beatrice spent all day working in a factory making hand-crafted leather goods. When she went home in the evenings, instead of resting, she turned her hands toward jewelry. “If it has to do with beads,” she said, “I have to know.”
Agnes helps manage a craft jewelry co-op, but she fills her free time with tailoring lessons and is often sporting new necklaces and earrings of her own design.
These women are driven to make, and to see their work go out into the world. When they met for the first time, they instantly connected over their love for beading and design.
Agnes & Bea represents the best of their work, a challenge to themselves to expand their skills and learn new techniques, as well as to explore exciting new materials sourced from their continent.
Mostly, though, it is an opportunity for them to see that their beautiful work deserves a place in the international market. There’s nothing that makes them prouder than seeing one of their designs out in the wide world, and we’re here to make sure that dream becomes a firm reality.
You can shop Agnes & Bea here.
Zwervend: Where did you first learn to make jewelry?
Agnes: I had a neighbor who was working in a paper bead group. Some women from Acholi Quarters [an area of Kampala] were making them. I learned from her, and she taught me to cut and roll papers. Back then, they were using scissors [instead of a paper cutter].
Did you always want to be a designer? If not, what sparked your interest?
Always. When I was still nine years old, in Primary 3, we used to do handcrafts. Every Friday, we could sit. We had a teacher who taught us how to make mats, tablecloths, even weaving ropes. We used sissal to make ropes.
What is your design process like, and how did you learn the techniques you use to make your jewelry?
I come with those ideas especially when I move in the shops, like Majestic Plaza [the main market for beading supplies in Kampala]. I see what jewelry is made and get ideas from them. If I don’t know how to make something, I ask someone.
What is your favorite place to work?
Normally when I’m outside, alone. I love to work outside and alone. When I’m home and people are around me, they confuse [distract] me.
How would you describe your aesthetic?
In my house I buy things which are green, but not all of the same color. Dark green, light green, like that. I like green, I think maybe because of the environment [nature]. I also like green jewelry.
How do you think living in Africa has informed your design sensibility?
It’s about they way they wear their things. People here like things that match. They mostly wear bright things.
What is the difference between design for locals and the market outside?
Here wearing jewelry depends on what type of clothes you put on. Traditional clothes, like gomesi, goes with big necklaces. Most Americans like smaller necklaces.
A lot of your materials are from across the African continent. Where in Africa would you like to go some day to look for new materials?
Maybe Ethiopia, and even Nigeria. I see them wearing their designs. They love necklaces, even men. Especially Nigerians, there is art in their films, the things they are wearing.
What is your favorite material to work with?
These new ones we’ve been buying [from the importer in Kenya]. With paper beads the part I find difficult is rolling. [Paper beads are made by rolling long, thin strips of paper into bead shapes]. These beads don’t need to be rolled.
What is your dream for the future of your line?
My dream is that we get a big market, then we begin making more jewelry- we have stores, and many people would be wearing our things.
What’s your favorite piece from your current line?
The Sunset Necklace. I love that one, because when I made it, immediately it was bought. I was happy because it was my first time to make such kind of necklace from a different material.
I’m Beatrice, from the Northern part of Uganda. I have four children.
I like beading so much, because people also love it and are interested in the work. When I don’t have anything to do, I like creating designs on my own. I thank God my children are also interested in making beads. When somebody is wearing something I’ve made, I feel very happy.
(Interview coming soon)
Joseph is an artisan working with Ankole cowhorn. We commission him to make our cowhorn beads but he can also craft anything from sunglasses to vases out of this versatile material.
Ankole cattle are native to the region, but interbreeding with imported dairy cows has dramatically lowered their numbers. The growing market for Ankole products helps to ensure a future for this breed.
If you’re in Kampala and need cowhorn goods, let us know and we’ll put you in touch.
(Interview coming soon)
How much do Agnes and Beatrice get paid?
Whatever they want to get paid. As we partner with makers, our commitment is to let them govern their own affairs just like western artisans. They set their hourly rates, and we work them into the prices of the goods, along with things like taxes, international shipping costs, salaries for the marketers and distributors along the way, and a little extra to invest in the next co-operative or artisan.
Where do the beads come from?
We mostly work with an importer in Nairobi called Papa Sumbunu. He brings in beads from across the continent, including places like Ghana and Ethiopia. If you’re interested in working with him, let us know and we’ll put you in touch.
Who designs the jewelry?
Currently, Zwervend designs the jewelry, but Agnes and Beatrice are both learning new techniques and being introduced to resources that will hopefully one day allow them to create marketable designs of their own.