Monday, October 1, 2012

Inspired Beaders: Soul of Somanya

Here on Inspirational Beading, we often get to see some amazing handmade beads, or jewelry designs that have a great story. Today, we get both! You may already be familiar with the gorgeous handmade products from Soul of Somanya - a fair-trade style bead and jewelry project based in Ghana, West Africa. Co-founder and director, Mel MacDuffee, joins us today to share a little insight into this wonderful organization, and how it all began.

Naming Ceremony in Ghana

Mel: Most people here call me African name is Manye Dede Adanki Banahene III. “Manye” means “Queen Mother,” (I was made an honorary Queen Mother on my first visit to Ghana) and “Dede” means “first-born.” Someone there told me that “Adanki” means “Brave, Wise & Stubborn,” but that remains unconfirmed. “Banahene” is the surname of the Krobo family of which I am now a member. I am (by their customs and beliefs) the third in a line of Adanki’s in their family—hence the “III.” But the most mind- boggling part is that I instantaneously became the mother of I’m-not-yet-sure- how-many Banahene children and/or adults. Still trying to figure that one out.

Pearl and Apatite Filigree Earrings by Melody MacDuffee

Inspirational Beading: When did you first get started with beads and jewelry design?

Mel: Actually, I started out as a crocheter. I had developed a technique called “Overlay Crochet,” which I started applying to making crocheted jewelry. That’s what my first book, Crochet Overlay Jewelry (Leisure Arts, 2006), was about. But the real push came when my travel-writing business crashed after 9/11 and, after years of working for myself, I reluctantly applied for a job at a local bead store. Much to my surprise, I found that I loved working there. I started learning all different kinds of beading techniques, although I found myself increasingly drawn towards delicate wirework. Eventually, I started publishing some of my designs. It was one of those designs that ultimately led to the founding of Soul of Somanya.

Inspirational Beading: How did this passion lead to the creation of Soul of Somanya?

Mel: Somehow, a group of beadmakers in the Krobo region of Ghana, West Africa, got hold of an issue of Bead & Button magazine, in which I happened to have an earring design, along with my email address. Traditionally, the Krobo artisans have strung their beads on pieces of cotton string or twisted raffia, tying them off with bulky knots. Now, seeing what the rest of the world was doing with beads, they wanted to learn some of our fancier techniques. So I woke up one morning to an email inviting me to come to Ghana and teach them.

Inspirational Beading: Do you have a favorite bead design or style?

Mel: Well, of course I’m pretty partial to the Krobo powdered glass beads, especially the hand-painted ones. I got to watch the whole process of how they’re made the first time I went to Ghana, and I was awed by the amount of time, skill and creativity that goes into them.

Traditional Strung Krobo Bead Necklace

Inspirational Beading: What’s the most interesting or unique thing about the bead making process?

Mel: I think the fact that they’re made out of recycled glass is important in a world that is finally becoming more conscious of the need to re-use and recycle. But I also love the fact that the homemade kilns in which the beads are fired are made of termite clay. It turns out that termite saliva is a binding agent that allows the artisans to fire at higher temperatures without their kilns cracking. I’ve always wondered who figured that out.

Krobo Kiln and Bead Molds

Inspirational Beading: How have your experiences in Ghana influenced your own designs?

Mel: My previous wirework tended to be extremely light and lacy. These chunkier beads have led me into experimenting with making heavier kinds of wire beads and lace. I also do a lot more stringing than I used to in order to find harmonious ways of combining the colors and the various styles of beads made by the Krobo people.

Wire Lace and Recycled Bead Necklace

Inspirational Beading: What’s your favorite thing about working with beadmakers in Ghana?

Adinkra Earrings from Soul of Somanya

Mel: I don’t really work directly with the beadmakers these days, except by trying to buy the beads we use and resell directly from individual artisans when we can, so that they can keep the full retail price of their beads rather than having to share it with their bead sellers. The young people who actually earn a living wage working for Soul of Somanya don’t make the beads—they make the jewelry. But my favorite thing about working with both groups has been their absolutely fearless approach to learning. They don’t seem to worry about messing up as so many of us here do, so they are free to just plunge in with joy and verve and give it their best shot. Consequently, they learn with astonishing speed.

Inspirational Beading: What is the most exciting bead or jewelry design in stock right now?

Mel: I really love the Adinkra earrings our artisans produce. They feature a range of traditional Ghanaian symbols meaning everything from “Strength & Humility” to “Friendship & Interdependence” to “Grace Under Hardship”.

Inspirational Beading: Are there any new projects or products on the horizon for Soul of Somanya?

Mel: I’m so glad you asked me that! Yes, we’re currently running a campaign on an online “crowdfunding” site called Indiegogo, where we’re raising money to launch a whole new line of products featuring the incredibly beautiful textiles produced in Ghana. It’s a very user-friendly site, and we are offering “perks” that are worth more in Soul of Somanya goods than the actual value of the contribution made. For example, for a contribution of $20.00 we give back a gift certificate for $20.00 plus a 15% discount that can be applied to the same purchase. So people actually come out ahead by supporting the campaign.

Ghanaian Wax Print Textiles

If we can raise enough money, we’ll eventually be offering handbags, tote bags, laptop and iPad sleeves, cell phone cases, men’s ties, etc. This will allow us to offer living-wage jobs to more of the at-risk young people in the Somanya area, ensuring that they will not have to become street prostitutes or thieves in order to feed their children and support older members of their families.

Inspirational Beading: Who do you hope to inspire with your work?

Mel: We try hard to help people understand the importance of supporting 3rd world artisans and agricultural producers by purchasing their products. My own interest, and that of most of our regular customers, is a humanitarian one. But if that isn’t a strong enough motivator, we try to encourage enlightened self-interest. Because, whether we are willing to acknowledge it or not, we are no longer a world comprised of dozens of unrelated economies. If the recent crashes in various Europe economies hasn’t amply demonstrated that, I don’t know what ever will. We are a world economy now. Our economic health depends upon that of every other nation in the world. So when we behave generously towards others, we are being generous to ourselves as well. And in the process, we are extending a compassionate hand to the half of the world’s population that struggles to survive on a couple of dollars a day.

Main Street Somanya

Hand-painted Glass Krobo Beads from Soul of Somanya

You can learn more about Soul of Somanya, their products, artisans, and mission of hope on their website. To support their upcoming line of handmade textiles, visit their funding page on Indiegogo. Beautiful artisan beads and finished jewelry are also available for immediate purchase on Etsy. To see more photos from Ghana, beautiful jewelry, and lots of other bead goodness, check out Mel’s Soul of Somanya Blog.

Copyright 2012 Inspirational Beading
Melody MacDuffee and Soul of Somanya
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