ARTIFACTS AND INTERIORS
By Margaretta wa Gacheru
It’s no exaggeration for Rhodia Mann to claim that “Everything I have in my house has a story.”
Stepping foot into her Kitisuru home is like walking into a mini-museum of exotic artifacts, all of which have been collected by this intrepid woman traveler who apparently acquired the taste for a nomadic life from her parents.
Having fled Hitler’s European onslaught in the mid-1940s, the Mann’s, Oscar and Erica travelled more than 7000 miles to finally land in Kenya and ultimately become two of the most illustrious intellectuals in Nairobi.
Rhodia actually attributes her wander-lust to her mother’s ‘great, great, great grandmother’ who was a Rumanian gypsy. But whether her aptitude for travelling is genetic or simply a joy grounded in an insatiable curiosity, all one can know for sure is that everything in her home looks so rare, exceptional and unique that one’s got to be curious yourself.
Probably best known for her exceptional jewelry, strung with beads that she’d collected everywhere from Yemen, Rajastan and Ivory Coast to Tibet, Peru and Niger, Rhodia’s bead book, ‘Ushanga: the Story of Beads in Africa’, is as much of a travel guide and memoir as a guide book for obtaining beads.
Yet what’s surprising to learn is that not only does Rhodia not string beads anymore (she’s more inclined to writing about them). She has given her entire bead collection (apart from several choice strands) to a museum in Jerusalem.
“What else can I do with all of these things?” asks Rhodia rhetorically. Born in Kenya in 1942, Rhodia’s spent her best years on a mission to find beads all over the world and assemble them so they can be enjoyed like mobile artifacts.
It was while living in New York City in the early 1970s that she saw a necklace in a Madison Avenue store window and realized she could do the same herself. She’d already been to Yemen and Niger and begun collecting beads.
Her first jewelry exhibition also featured beads her parents had sent her from Afghanstan, Tibet and Nepal. “Everything in that show sold,” recalls Rhodia, who went on to collect not just beads on her travels.
In her living room under glass and brass coffee table, Rhodia had placed everything from daggers, belt buckles, chains, watch fobs and silver pill boxes, all items picked while she was looking for beads. The items came from Thailand, Tibet, Ghana, Pakistan, Tuareg, Peru and Malaya.
But that was just one coffee table. All her walls are covered either in original paintings or bark cloth hangings covered in jewelry either from Samburu, Borana or herself.
Then there are the colorful handwoven mats covering floors laid down either by some colonial contractor or by Rhodia’s own design as she expanded the formerly single-bedroom house she’d bought in 1998 in order to accommodate all her books, jewelry-making elements and artifacts.
She also had goards acquired not just from Samburu and Maasai, but from Borana, Turkana and Gabra. “I gave all my Samburu goards to the ISK Samburu museum,” she says. “I only have duplicates. The rest I wanted to donate to the Smithsonian, but they said goards break in transit so they weren’t interested.”
So Rhodia’s in something of a dilemma. She’s got so many one-of-a-kind items in her house, like the Lamu poster bed transformed into a sofa filled with cushions covered in textiles, many of which are no longer being made. What to do with those rare textiles?
Then there’s the cupboard she made out of mahogany wooden windows from Rajastan complete with brass elephant handles.
Rhodia still has precious strands of chevron beads and opalene white glass beads from Venice crafted around 1830, she says.
She even has contemporary African art by Jak Katarikawe and Charles Sekano, acquired during the brief year in the 1980s when she was a co-owner of Gallery Watatu.
But probably the most precious things in Rhodia’s home are her memories, like the years when she led camel safaris up at Laikipia, the times attending rituals like the Samburu’s ‘ceremony of the arrows’ and the time she addressed the Royal Geographical Society in London and spoke about her in-depth knowledge of Samburu culture.
The books she’s written thus far begin to tell these stories; but Rhodia’s got many more stories to share. Just knowing how and why she acquired the Samburu name ‘Noongishu’ meaning cattle is a tale of its own. But Rhodia will have to tell that one herself.