Where the deaf, blind, and lame create beauty
She stretched out her hand to re-arrange his legs and then returned to her beading. She was threading beautiful coloured glass beads together and wrapping them around a beautiful hand-blown blue wine glass. She checks again on her son, who is lying on a blanket on the floor at her feet, his arms, knees and ankles twisted by disability. But when I shake his hand hello he does not react in fear like most disabled children do to a stranger. I can actually see his eyes smiling at me. He is used to being around love.
His mother laughs with her colleagues who are sitting at a table, each engrossed in their own craft. One of them, Maria, is in a wheelchair. She is having a conversation in sign-language to her friend to her left, telling her that I am here to do a documentary about human rights and does she have any questions she would like us to record about her human rights. Maria, a happy natty-dread wearing a Bongo Flava grey t-shirt, turns and tells me excitedly- `Yes we will’. I am rather surprised to hear her voice. I had assumed she was deaf.
Welcome to Shanga. As you enter the gate of a picturesque ancient former-coffee estate that looks left-over from some type of classic movie, complete with bright white church and spire on the main road, you enter the Shanga Experience Project, and pass under two trees that fall together into an arch and are artfully draped with more large glass beads. To the right, rows and rows of green glass wine bottles are threaded into curtains that protect the mabati-roofed workshops, where glass bottles are being fed into several large burners and are melted, ready for sculpting. Glass has taken the place of grass on the ground here.
They also have two small cylindrical burners for the specific task of blowing glass into awesome shapes. And all the people who work here, are deaf, blind, or disabled in some form. All earning a decent wage, one they probably would never be earning because in Tanzania, as in most of Africa, the disabled are considered useless. An eager young glass-blower in a green t-shirt and brown overalls talks into my recorder with proud anger: ``I want to ask the judges of the African Court of Human Rights, why is it that me, who went to school up to standard 4, a good school, every time I go look for a job, when I come for interview, they see I am deaf and refuse to give me the job. Why?!’’
Kindness is a language which blind people see and deaf people hear.
There is a website that encourages tourists looking for a different experience to come stay at the Shanga River House.
It proclaims that in the workshops, Shanga recycles aluminum, glass bottles, cloth and paper into hundreds of amazing products, combining ancient African and Venetian techniques with simple, homemade technology. They are the first to blow glass in Tanzania, do aluminum sand casting and make lamp-work beads. All is done by 42 disabled Tanzanians who never had a chance to work before.
Shanga River House is down the valley below the workshops and the retail gallery where visitors can peruse what actually fits the cliché word `Aladdin’s cave’’. Metallic screens strung with silver disks of diamond-like glass beads, mixed with ½ inch circular cut offs of clear glass bottles are strung together to make a ultra-contemporary take of a Japanese screen that has a vivid African feel to it. The calabash lamp that has become the norm in most craft shops is re-vitalised here by making the shape of a calabash out of wire and stringing it with gold-colored glass beads, making the light refract beautifully out of each tiny bead like a medal. The obligatory handbags, t-shirts and children’s kitenge clothing are all made with such originality of design and superb finishing that they are items you would proudly wear everyday and declare it a designer piece.
Suc h pride is pervasive in every piece made and displayed.They also have a Tanzanite Experience branch at the Shanga Shop, where you can buy responsible Tanzanite straight from the source. All Tanzanite income goes towards supporting the project.
I was struck most by the theme of recycling in this place and its people. It is something so integral in their thinking personally, that even energy itself, it seems, is recycled. Positive energy engulfs the place, heightened by the clinking of the glass bottle screens against each other in the wind, that encourages you, the visitor, in turn to release your positive energy into the place and the people. And you get it back in doses. I for one, not only got the honor of recording the opinions of such amazingly strong artisans and the dedicated staff who run this place, but I also got given a wonderful hand-blown glass cone, that was destined to become a golf trophy, but was instead given to me by my green t-shirted politician-in-the-making friend, for giving him the chance to express himself.
You can find Shanga & River House through these contacts:www.shanga.orgemail:
, tel: +255 787 255 777