Friday 12 October 2012

sustainability with *african* style


I'm writing this from Tanzania, where I've been for nearly 6 weeks, partly on holiday, partly volunteering, and mostly absorbing all the African culture I can before I leave next week.

It's been hard to decide what to blog about in Africa.  There are some very serious environmental, social and economic sustainability topics I could write about - animal welfare in safari parks, unreliable residential waste removal, the lack of education options for young people. I will write a little bit about these in due time, but first I want to share with you a beautiful and inspirational organisation called Shanga, a group succeeding in making a positive impact on many lives.

How fabulous is their tagline?!
Shanga translates to 'bead' in Swahili, and was so named because the founder Saskia Rechsteiner started by selling beaded necklaces at a Christmas fair in Arusha in 2007. The necklaces were a runaway success, and today Shanga employs 42 disabled Tanzanian people, has the Riverhouse restaurant and multiple Shanga shops around Tanzania.

I spent a blissful afternoon at Riverhouse and Shanga last weekend. About a 30 minute bus ride (known as a dalla dalla) from Arusha, it was a pleasant respite from the bustling town. After a delicious lunch I took a tour of the factory and kept getting goosebumps as I heard the Shanga story.

In the necklace-making room of the factory - the workers behind me are deaf.
When Rechsteiner realised her jewelry company was taking off she needed to hire staff. She was taking a walk around the Burka Coffee Estate and met a deaf plantation worker; Rechsteiner decided to hire the plantation worker and trained her to make glass beads from recycled bottles.  Soon enough more staff were required to fill the demands for Shanga's pieces, and she hired another disabled individual to work at Shanga, and so the story continues to this day.  All warehouse workers have a disability of some kind, but you would never know it from the quality of pieces coming out of the factory and the demand for Shanga's pieces.  Proceeds from sales pay the salaries of the artisans as well as make a contribution toward Pink Balloon, and organisation supporting deaf and mentally disabled children. Oh, and no hard feelings from Burka, either, in fact, they give Shanga space for the warehouse, restaurant, shop and lovely gardens rent free.

Do you have goosebumps yet?

Making glass beads one by one - glass bottles are collected around Arusha, crushed and melted
on-site to make the many beads and other glass pieces Shanga uses in its creations.
As I walked among the bead makers, glass blowers, loom workers, sewers and others craftsmen and women, I felt as though I was walking through a beautiful artists' factory, made even more beautiful by the sign language alphabet hanging on the wall. My excitement doubled because the pieces are made of reclaimed and recycled glass and aluminium, and quadrupled because of the hiring policy of Shanga.  In my opinion Shanga is ticking all the right boxes in terms of equality, environmentalism and style (my three favourite topics!).

A more recent addition of a loom means they can make their own fabrics for use in
neckalces and furniture coverings.
As we left we walked a few blocks with one of the workers, William.  He travels about an hour each way to work so that he doesn't have to live in the noisy city - he's Maasai and lives in his family village. He enjoys making jewelry, has learned excellent English through working at Shanga, and speaks a little sign language now, too. He told us how happy he was to work at Shanga because it provides stable income in a difficult economic climate, disability or not (apparently there is quite a long wait list for those wanting to work for Shanga).

I have great news for you, too - Shanga has an online store! So get shopping - jewelry, glassware, lanterns, children's clothing and more await you at the Shanga Shop. (Oh, and let me know what you buy! I've purchased a few things, but will buy more online when I get home.)

Relaxing in the lovely gardens after my lunch and tour.
Taking public transport! The 30 minute dalla dalla (bus) ride cost about 25 cents.
The dalla dallas are usually crammed! We took this photo to commemorate
the one time we had a dalla dalla to ourselves (for about 5 minutes).


  1. I really appreciate this post. i have been wanting all on top of for this! Thank goodness I found it on Bing. you've got created my day! many thanks again!.

    1. Glad you found it! I think Shanga has moved location slightly, but is still in Arusha. x