They’re always on the beach, from early in the morning – come winter, summer, mist, cold winds, hot sun – until dusk, carrying big, heavy bags on their heads.
“Making and selling onyoka is a huge business,” says Thusnelde Auchamus in her tiny home in Kuisebmond, Walvis Bay. Although she’s Damara speaking, she’s learned this Oshiwambo tradition from the women in her neighbourhood. “In our street alone there are only about two houses where the women are not making necklaces.”
Onyoka, traditional necklaces made from mussel shell beads, plays a prominent role in the adornment of Oshiwambo women. “The more strings you wear, the wealthier you are,” explains Thusnelde.
New babies are welcomed into the world with a string of onyoka, and throughout their lives Oshiwambo women wear onyoka whenever they want to look smart, especially when attending occasions like weddings, christenings and funerals.
Thusnelde says she was jobless in 2002 when she saw the women working with shells. “I told them I was interested in learning. They were very happy to show me the process.”
They accepted her into their circle of friends and today Thusnelde is part of a working group of more than 10 women who make onyoka to generate extra income for their families. “Working together in a group we encourage each other and tend to work harder,” says Thusnelde of this vibrant backyard business.
The process is highly labour intensive and time consuming. It starts on the beach where they look for washed-up white mussel shells with a smooth surface. This task often takes them all the way to Swakopmund or even further north towards Henties Bay. Collecting the shells in 20- and 50-kilogram bags, they have to cover long distances, carrying the heavy bags on their heads. “Some women walk all the way from Swakopmund to Walvis Bay if they don’t have money for a taxi,” says Thusnelde.
At home the shells are put in the sun to dry before starting the next step of cutting out the middle piece with garden scissors. The middle pieces are again cut into smaller squares. “This step requires a lot of focus, as the shells break easily,” says Thusnelde. The squares are soaked in water to make drilling and grinding easier. A hand drill is used to make a hole in the middle of each of the little squares, which are then strung onto long pieces of wire obtained from old tyres.
The beads are now starting to take shape. The next step involves grinding them to round the edges. “The grinding causes a lot of dust, so we wear masks to keep it out of our lungs.” Because grinders are expensive, there is usually one woman in the neighbourhood with a grinder who allows other women to use it. “We pay N$20 a turn to grind our beads, and N$2 to sharpen a needle for the hand drill.” According to Thusnelde, you need to book the grinder several days in advance, as the demand is high.
After grinding, the beads are ready to be strung with a needle onto 16-centimetre lengths of wool. Most of the strings remain their natural white colour, but some are dyed pink to match traditional Oshiwambo dresses. After about two weeks of processing a 50-kilogram bag of shells, the end result is 300 to 400 strings, which translate into an income of up to N$400 at a going rate of N$10 per string.
“We used to have a good market when the passenger liners called in at the harbour,” says Thusnelde. Unfortunately increased security measures no longer allow them to set up their stands on the quay, and they have to stay outside the harbour gates. “This no longer works too well, since the biggest business for onyoka is in the northern regions.” For Thusnelde it is difficult to send her strings to the north, as she doesn’t have any family there. “But my friends help me out from time to time.”
It has always been important for Thusnelde to use her ‘God-given talent’. She learned traditional Damara embroidery from her mother, taught herself to make Herero dolls and has tried out various other crafts, such as making candles in ostrich eggshells. Through her embroidery work she came into contact with Maria Stacey from the Desert Life project in Swakopmund. The project enables craftspeople to collaborate on the production of quality hand-made Namibian crafts. A shop was recently opened at Woermann House where the items are sold. Thusnelde not only produces embroidered serviettes, tablecloths and aprons for the shop, but also onyoka.
From her previous experience of selling to tourists, she started her own designs, adding glass and coloured beads to the strings and making earrings. The embroidery craftspeople have also started using onyoka in more modern designs to create variety in their product line. “Maria always has new ideas. She has taught me to stand on my own two feet and do my own thing.”
This often means working until after 12 at night, after her four children have gone to bed. Thusnelde’s husband works mostly at sea as a second engineer on a fishing vessel. The 41-year-old mother finds working for herself very satisfying. After moving to Walvis Bay from the family farm near Brandberg in the Erongo Region where she grew up, she earned money doing domestic work for two years. “All my siblings have done their own thing, so I decided to see if I could also make it by doing what I enjoy.” Producing onyoka not only makes her happy, but also leaves her with a sense of pride, as is echoed by her friend Kavere Amoomo: “I enjoy making onyoka. I feel proud of my tradition.”
It’s a beautiful sunny day on the beach with a cooling breeze blowing from the Atlantic as Thusnelde and Kavere pick out shells. “This is so good,” says Thusnelde “I love being here on days like this!”
This article first appeared in the July 2007 Flamingo magazine.