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Beads - a showcase of Africa's heritage

The oldest known African bead is more than 12.000 years old and was found in the Kalahari Desert, but South African beads may be up to 75,000 years old. Almost equally old beads are found in Libya and Sudan. As a continental-wide cultural heritage, beads have served as fine jewellery, small pieces of art, haute couture, royal regalia, divine faience and even legal tender throughout the history of Africa. In Kenya, a handicraft-centre-turned-museum exposes this showcase of African heritage.

In 1970, African Heritage opened their doors as the continent's first Pan African jewellery and craft shop. From simple beginnings, it is now the largest, most organised craft organisation on the African continent. African Heritage was recently described by the World Bank as "a pioneer, having transformed souvenir trinkets to objets d'art with world class appeal" in their report 'Africa Can Compete!'

It is an inspiring success story. In 1969, Alan Donovan - one of the last Americans sent to Nigeria by the US State Department during the Biafran war - decided he no longer wanted to be a bureaucrat. He learnt French, bought a Volkswagen bus and drove across the Sahara.

He began buying beads and artefacts, beginning what has now become Africa's largest collection of original works of art, handicrafts and jewellery. Reaching Kenya, Mr Donovan spent three months in Lake Turkana, an area little known to foreigners. He began making jewellery, using beads and the shells of ostrich eggs, inspired by the earrings of Turkana women, which few people at that time had even seen.

"The earrings were beautiful, but there was no way a Western woman could wear them the way an African woman could," Mr Donovan explains. "I just made them more wearable."

A former Kenyan foreign minister, Joseph Murumbi, became interested in Mr Donovan's jewellery. Thus, the two men and Mr Murumbi's wife, Sheila, set up their first shop. Demand for their jewellery proved so great, they set up several larger workshops employing hundreds of artisans who have produced over a million designs for the global market.

African Heritage jewellery has been exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, The Carcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC and The Museum of Natural History in New York. It is now available in New York, Los Angeles, London, Cape Town, Zanzibar's Stone Town and across Kenya. One of their latest venture is the African Heritage Gallery, in Nairobi's Carnivore restaurant, opened in December 2000. The building is based on the mud architecture of Africa, especially the mud mosques at Timbuktu and Djenné in Mali.

More than just a shop, the gallery also contains a mini-museum, The African Bead, tracing human history in Africa for the past 12,000 years through its beads. Through 30 illuminated small theatres, The African Bead, explains mankind's fascination with adornment, from the first bead discovered in Africa to modern jewellery designers.

Beads have been worn for decoration, as insignia or royalty, for magical and curative powers and as a badge of wealth. Beads were buried in the tombs of kings as their most cherished possessions. They were bartered for ivory, gold and for human lives during the slave trade. Beads were even used to purchase the island of Manhattan in New York City, now the most valuable piece of real estate in the world.

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