Donna Collins Washed-up sea shells are to some people nothing more than nature discarding its unwanted waste onto the shoreline. But to others, these heaps of scattered sea life remains are the means to a livelihood by transforming this natural resource into necklaces and beadwork. The Traditional 'Onyoka' beaded strings, made from white mussel shell, play a prominent role in the adornment of Oshiwambo women, who for generations have passed this bead-making skill from elders to the young. Strings of these beads are worn proudly at all ceremonious occasions, and in keeping with tradition, are dyed a vibrant pink to match the traditional, Ondelela dress. These necklaces and shell beads have also found way into the tourist market, where they are even matched with gold and silver to create a valuable piece of jewellery. But it's the making of these tiny round shell beads, with a hole in the centre, that is the intriguing part of the final product. This is the craft of women who travel from the North in search of this natural commodity, found on the beach only. Through bead making skills they turn a rough piece of shell into a delicate, hand-crafted bead, which is strung into necklaces and other accessorised jewellery in colour variations. Two such craftswomen are Maria Johannes and Helena Tobias. Currently staying in the DRC informal settlement here, they gather as much material to make enough necklace strings to take back to their Oshikoko village. They collect shells only twice a week, the rest of the time they are busy with the shaping and stringing process. This process, they explain, is highly labour intensive and time consuming occupying them all day, in all weather, sifting through heaps of shells, which they smash with a pebble to separate the usable section. Most of them have no other work, eking out a living by meeting the demand for shell necklaces, which they sell for around N$10-00 a string. This task takes them to beaches in Walvis Bay, Swakopmund and even Henties Bay, where they collect the shells in 20 and 50 kilogram bags. Once full they carry these heavy bags on their heads, sometimes walking long distances back to their homes. The shells are processed through several stages. They are first put out to dry, which is why there is a bigger push to gather shells in the summer months. Thereafter the white middle piece is cut out with scissors, and again cut into smaller squares. This step requires a lot of focus, as the shells are brittle and can easily break. The squares are soaked in water to make drilling and grinding easier. A hand drill is used to make a hole in the middle of each of the little squares, which are then strung onto long pieces of wire. The next step involves grinding them to round the edges, and to thread them onto a string - then dipped in dye. Some ladies have built up a clientele, and supply the shell strings directly from their yards, others take them back to the north to sell there. In the Oshiwambo culture, the adornment of strings of shell necklaces, which are usually died a brilliant pink, are worn by women during all celebratory occasions and a sign of affluence is displayed by the more strings you wear. New babies are welcomed into the world with a string of Onyoka, so special are these beads, with the demand all year round. A lot find their way up to the north and other parts of the country, as well as into souvenir or shops, where tourists can find an original piece of Namibian handcrafted jewellery to wear.
New Era Reporter
2018-02-23 11:38:44 8 months ago