The Lady of the Bead

Cover of Bead Bai. | Photo courtesy of Sultan Somjee

An empty canvas is a one of great potential. Bead Bai and Home Between Crossings are the first historical novels in an ongoing trilogy being written by Kenyan-born Canadian ethnographer and writer, Sultan Somjee. The writer has spent nearly a decade working on his trilogy, which takes the reader on a journey from the drought-stricken fields of India, shantytowns of Africa and ends in Vancouver, Canada.

Somjee made his move to Canada back in 2003. During his time here, he has been actively researching the experiences of those who fell into experiences akin to himself, his family and particularly his mother. The writer jokes that his unemployment and job hunting pushed him towards the pen and paper.

A story needing to be told

Author Sultan Somjee | Photo courtesy of Sultan Somjee

The first two novels explore the bead trade between East African Indians and local Kenyan tribes in the 1900s. The bead merchants were mostly the Khojas, an Indian trading caste. But it was largely the women who did the work, handling, displaying and trading in beads. Therefore, the first book was titled Bead Bai, the equivalent of “Lady of the Bead.”

“The Khojas, influenced by Sufi peers (spiritual leaders) from the 15th century, have a leaning towards Islam,” says Somjee.

Somjee adds that history has not acknowledged the women who helped to develop the bead trade and influenced African aesthetics.

“This is a story that needed to be told,” Somjee says. “In trading communities, generally, we hear only the stories of the men because they are supposed to deliver commerce, or simply said, to earn a living, whilst often it was the women who held the house, raised families and kept the store together.”

In Bead Bai, the protagonist, Sakina, has a likeness to Somjee’s mother. The story follows Sakina as she faces many struggles. She is a character who women (just as much as men) can identify with through an emotional connection, shared experiences and feelings.

Sakina is the daughter of a bead merchant family in the 1900s British East Africa, a second-generation Indian, who
works as an embroidery artist growing up in Nairobi’s Indian shantytown. As Sakina grows, and the pages turn, she becomes a woman who faces many challenges but she finds comfort in her art.

Research, stories and evidence that formed part of an exhibition titled Asian-African Heritage in East Africa curated by Somjee, included ethnographic evidence, they combined to enhance the book’s sense of realism. The story embodies Maasai beadwork and focuses on intercultural transcendence through art.

“For the immigrant artist, the immigration experience is much easier when he or she is open to appreciate art from other cultures,” said Somjee.

The immigrant’s “empty canvas”

For newcomers to Canada, the ability to experience an empty canvas and to create something fresh would be a similar experience to that of Sakina. It’s like arriving in Canada after years of stresses and strains, good times and bad and embracing beauty in other cultures hitherto unknown to them.

“I think it’s also important to keep things from the old country and tell stories about them. My books are about stories from things in the old country,” Somjee says.

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