Lin Matthews and Beth Dees have a penchant for jewelry, but not for personal adornment – and not just any jewelry.
For these two friends and former schoolteachers, jewelry has become the basis of a new career. More importantly, it has become their mission.
They are the Southeast distributors for Kazuri Unlimited, an “out of Africa” collection of handmade, ceramic bead jewelry. They discovered the colorful pieces during a mission trip to Kenya in the summer of 2004.
By their own admission fashion and jewelry were never high on their priority list. Then they discovered Kazuri. They were immediately taken by the beauty of the work, but it was the story behind the jewelry that captured their hearts.
Beth’s sister, Lisa Orr, has lived in Nairobi since 2000. She went as a chaperone on a youth mission trip in 1999. She fell in love with Kenya and subsequently got a job there as a teacher.
One evening after a choir rehearsal at Snyder Memorial Baptist Church, some of the members were talking and one said, “We should do a mission trip with Lisa.”
“Before you knew it, eight women were sitting in the living room planning a mission trip,” said Lin. The group soon headed off to Kenya to participate in a program called “Kids to Kids.” They brought supplies with them and led a Bible school program for slum children. The women saw the poverty and hardships of the children – most came from homes where it was just a mother and her children. The Fayetteville women were moved by their gratitude. “They were so loving and so grateful for whatever we gave them,” Lin said. “They have so little compared to what we have here.”
The local group also took supplies to two AIDS orphanages, where they spent time with the children.
“We were so touched,” said Beth. “It just gets in you and doesn’t leave. The more we saw, we thought we can’t just leave this here when we get back to Fayetteville.”
It was while looking for souvenirs to bring home that Lin and Beth discovered the Kazuri jewelry and a way that they could continue to help. The jewelry is made by Kenyan women in a small workshop located on what was once part of Karen von Blixen’s coffee plantation, featured in the film “Out of Africa,” at the base of the Ngong Hills outside of Nairobi. Kazuri is the Swahili word for “small and beautiful.”
The workshop began in 1975 as a cottage industry to provide employment for village women who were nearly destitute. According to information provided by Kazuri America, unemployment in the countries of sub-Saharan Africa runs as high as 90 percent. One jobholder often is the provider for an extended family of 20 or more. It is especially hard for women who have little or no education to find work.
Thanks to the growing popularity of the jewelry, the workshop now provides employment for 200 women.
Each tiny piece is formed by hand without the use of molds or forms. It is then polished and kiln-fired, painted, and fired again before being strung. The result is beautiful necklaces, bracelets and earrings ranging from subtle earth tones to bright and colorful hues.
Looking back, Lin and Beth smile. Neither of them had much interest in jewelry and fashion. “I’m not a jewelry person. Froufrou doesn’t appeal to Beth Dees.” Still, they appreciated the beauty of the pieces and the underlying story.
“We thought, ‘What can we do to help out, to see if we can get involved in this,’” Beth said. “In helping these women, you’re helping the children.”
They learned that the jewelry had been available in the United States for 10 years but that there was no distributor in the Southeast. In 2005, Beth and Lin became distributors for the area from Maine to Florida on a part-time basis.
“We foolishly thought that we could teach and do this, not knowing anything about retail,” Lin said. In 2006, she left her job as a math teacher at Terry Sanford High School to devote full time to the business. Beth retired this year from Max Abbott Middle School. They’re convinced, they say, that this is God’s plan for this time of their lives.
“We’ve found so many Christian business women who are interested in the story,” Beth said. “We’re very grateful to people who have given us a chance.”
They displayed the jewelry at a Holly Day Fair, and it was well received, they said. They took it to other Junior League events out of state, and it continued to do well. In the Fayetteville area, the jewelry is available at Holmes Gifts, Betty Kelly’s Gift Shop, Rita’s Round Robin Fashions in Eastover and Danielle’s in Stedman. It’s also in stores along the North Carolina coast and, the two say, they’re working on the South Carolina coast.
“I don’t want to be a jewelry salesman,” said Lin. “I’m doing this because there’s a mission behind it.”