“Ostrich eggshell beads are the most important source of income in our communities."
Omba Arts Trust is based in Windhoek, Namibia. For 20 years, Omba has assisted artisan communities in Namibia with product development, capacity building, and marketing. Today, the organization represents 12 artists’ groups and a total of 450 Namibian-born producers.
Ostrich eggshell jewelry, both historically and today, is made by the Ju’/hoansi San crafters of Namibia. Known as the San, this indigenous population is considered one of the oldest on the planet, and ostrich eggshell beads represent a 20,000-year-old tradition. Typically, women are responsible for forming the beads and designing the jewelry, as well as for educating younger generations in the art.
“Omba’s goals are to sustain the livelihoods of marginalized communities,” says Tashia. “We support quality Namibian art.” Income from the eggshell jewelry goes directly into Namibian households, paying for food, school fees, and healthcare. Beyond that, though, the sales boost the self-esteem of Namibia’s female artists, who might otherwise complete only unpaid labor in and around the home.
The original hunter-gatherers of southern Africa shaped ostrich eggshell beads in the same way they are produced today. The firm, white shells of ostrich eggs are broken into tiny pieces, and each shard is shaped into a round bead using a metal tool. Artists bore holes into the beads by hand, and then the beads are threaded onto sinew or synthetic cord. Leather and stone are used to sand and smooth the beads, and one necklace can take up to a month to complete.
Ostrich eggshell shards are sourced from commercial ostrich farms, and Omba supplies them to the artists. “It would not be sustainable to use the eggs of wild ostriches,” Tashia explains.
Traditionally, ostrich eggshell beads are worn at festivals, dances, and ceremonies. Beaded jewelry marked status among nomadic peoples. Gift-giving remains an important practice to this day, especially among the San—the cultural practice was implemented to maintain peaceful relations among clans. Today, sales of the beads sustain entire San communities, especially since the art is growing in popularity internationally.
Omba is committed to working collectively with artists, ensuring that high-quality materials are being used and that the eggshell designs are marketed properly and sold fairly. Purchases of the hand-hewn, shell-like beads bring food, healthcare, and clothing straight to the San, allowing them to embrace and pass on a tradition that has defined their culture for centuries.