Malawaian-born bead artist Juliet Mlowoka Chirwa, 34, was inspired to start her business in a unique way eleven years ago. Wearing bead jewelry has a traditional touch among most Malawian women.
“In 2006 I went on a fieldwork where I got fascinated with the reaction of some men when they saw a woman wearing waist beads. It took me by surprise to see these men wanting to sleep with the woman because she was wearing beads which most men say make women look beautiful and attractive, so I got a bit angry as to why men would cheat on their wives just because of simple things like waist beads,” Chirwa says.
“When I returned home I thought of learning to make bead products starting with waist beads and I was targeting married women as a way of building up marriages since to some extent I discovered that in African society some couples are not free to discuss issues of sex; hence, simple things like what turns them on becomes a taboo, fearing if they ask their partner, they will have a wrong perception about them,” she explains.
From the time she was little, she designed dresses and hair styles, but she settled for beads because she felt it was unique. At first, she focused on being a waist bead artist. But eleven years later, Chirwa moved to crafting other bead products so her creativity could grow.
She says, “I feel in life, one has to diversify what they do. If you are doing a business or any art work you grow in creativity each and every day, so yes I started with waist beads but then again I started doing necklaces, bracelets, headbands as well as earrings. So it’s like once you are passionate about something, your mind opens up to a whole new level that you start trying new things”.
“Passion and curiosity are the main reasons behind this growth because I felt the world is changing and people’s likes change every day; hence, the more different things I can do with beads, the more I will reach out to a lot of people and at the same time get more revenue for my work,” says Chirwa.
Following fashion trends is what complements her designing tastes. That aside, bead artist Chirwa says she at times comes up with her designs and sees what people like.
“Mostly I like following fashion trends because that’s the only way I can effectively reach out to my customers and also would-be customers,” she says. “But also some designs come from ordinary tryouts, I like trying out new things; either the inspiration comes from movies, music or cultural beliefs, at the same time weddings have always been my other great inspiration for designs.”
The way she mixes up the colors and durability of the products makes her jewelry unique to others who are making the same kind of jewelry.
Chirwa cherishes the response she has been receiving from her customers, and she says the response gives her encouragement to continue growing creatively.
“The response has been overwhelming and I am happy that I am able to earn a living out of it. I started in 2006 doing beads and had it been that people were not responsive, maybe I would have stopped it long time ago but the support has made me great,” she says.
Currently, most of her customers are locally based, but she is slowly growing internationally, expanding to customers from other characters who knew her work from their relatives in Malawi. She also has customers who buy beads from her in bulk and sell them either in South Africa, the United Kingdom or Mozambique.
From humble beginnings, Chirwa has set her sights on becoming a well-known and established international brand. She gives back to her local community by employing a lot of people. She also teaches women and youths how to become bead artists as a way of empowering them.
“I have taught some women how these beads are done such that some are making these bead products and are earning a living out of it too. I have always been passionate about young people and it is my desire to train a lot of youths in making different bead products thereby helping them to be self-reliant,” Chirwa says.
A happy customer gives Chirwa a great sense of fulfillment. When asked about her standout design, the bead artist says that apart from the different waist beads color combinations that are still being ordered, a necklace and bracelet she made for one woman's engagement stands out among the best of her designs.
All photographs by Tebogo Moyo of Star Photography.