Bead Project Revives Hope and Spirit of African Community

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Photo courtesy of Monkeybiz

Beaded art is ubiquitous in Africa, especially in tourist areas, where visitors often are able to select from hundreds of almost identical pieces proffered at prices pushed low by massive over-production. Artists struggling to make ends meet toil for days for a pittance.

But in Cape Town, South Africa, bead artists are doing something different.

“Beaded one-of-a-kind pieces made in Cape Town’s townships in South Africa is art that really makes a difference,” is how Monkeybiz, a non-profit income-generating bead project describes the venture.

Monkeybiz was started in January 2000 by ceramic artists Barbara Jackson, Shirley Fintz, and Mathapelo Ngaka. (Watch the video above.)

Focusing on women’s economic development, Monkeybiz has built a community of more than 450 bead artists, mostly women, many of who are HIV-positive and the sole breadwinners within their households. “Through creating sustainable employment, Monkeybiz focuses on women’s economic empowerment and health development in the most economically under-resourced areas of South Africa,” Monkeybiz says on its website.

“Our goal is to build self sufficiency back into our communities — through micro-finance, AIDS education, nutrition, counseling, and ensuring that African cultural traditions of beadwork, singing and dance are kept alive,” the nonprofit adds.

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Photo courtesy of Monkeybiz

Unsurprisingly, there is a waiting list of women who are anxious to join.

The business model has transformed the beaded arts market in South Africa, the charity says. “Departing from the culture of mass produced curio craft, each Monkeybiz artwork is unique and is signed by the artist, ensuring that individual artists receive recognition for their work. All of the profits from the sales of artworks are reinvested back into community services, including monthly soup kitchens, and choir groups, as well as a burial fund for artists and their families.”

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Of the 450 people working with Monkeybiz, every fourth or fifth woman will credit Makatiso Ngaka, age 60, in the photo above, with having taught them the secrets of contemporary beading, Monkeybiz says on its website. “She came to Cape Town in 1988, originally doing domestic and volunteer work. ‘In those days I could not help noticing the shortage of food and the dire poverty that my neighbors endured,’ she says. “A devout Catholic, Ngaka often prayed to God to help her people find a way to feed themselves. ‘Deep in my heart, I feel Monkeybiz is God’s answer to my prayer!’”

Photo courtesy of Monkeybiz

The women are paid for each completed piece that they bring to market day, where works are paid according to size, detail, and merit,” said Kim Jackson-Meltzer in an email to Nat Geo News Watch. “This is assessed by three people, and once this is decided the women are paid directly into bank accounts which have been set up for them.” Jackson-Meltzer is the daughter of Monkeybiz co-founder Barbara Jackson, and the charity’s U.S. representative.

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Photo courtesy of Monkeybiz

Monkeybiz art is sold in South Africa and across the world, but the biggest market is the U.S., followed by Europe. “The U.S. is a great supporter of our product,” said Jackson-Meltzer, “as it gets what we are doing and understands the artworks. But the world is ideally our market — young, old, men and women. Monkeybiz has a soul that reaches out and touches any audience.”

Collectors of Monkeybiz pieces include Donna Karan, Annie Lennox, Halle Berry, Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgwick, and Samuel L. Jackson, the nonprofit says.

Monkeybiz artworks are pricey by comparison with mass-produced curio pieces. But the premium covers much more than the superior quality and individual expression of each unique artwork. Buyers know that they are also providing fair compensation to the artist, and that any additional profit is not for middlemen, but for desperately needed community services. To behold a Monkeybiz artwork is to gaze into the essence of ubuntu, the ancient African concept of community among all humans.

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Photo courtesy of Monkeybiz

Kim Jackson-Meltzer is based in Atlanta, Georgia. Her mother’s life partner, the South African artist Carrol Boyes, and Kim’s sister, Martine Jackson-Klotz, are in South Africa, where they help oversee the South African side of the operation. Jackson-Meltzer directs public relations and fundraising activities.

“Our goal as a family is to continue my mother’s wish of being bigger than the iconic Barbie doll,” Jackson-Meltzer said. “We would like everyone in the world to own a Monkeybiz piece.

“We are anti-factories and encourage women to make the pieces in their homes and with each other. We wish to create a self-sustaining business, with a vision of eventually a large-scale exhibition, curated, showing the revival of a lost beadwork tradition along with a visual presentation of how the work and artists have evolved, and also how Monkeybiz has helped so many hopeless, forgotten people.

“We want to help people help themselves. In my mother’s words, ‘We want to give people hope, where there was none.”

Monkeybiz artwork is sold worldwide in a variety of well-known shops as well as on the website:

Changing Planet

Forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. He has 120,000 followers on social media. David Braun edits the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. Follow David on Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn