Thursday, March 1, 2012

An Interview with an author, beader, philanthropist- Melody Mac Duffee



I came to know about Melody Mac Duffee and the Somanya project from an article I read in a Beading magazine.  The year was 2008.  I bought some beads from her etsy store  that the African artisans made.  I made some earrings and they were well loved in craft shows and beading parties.

                             Melody and her crew in the Somanya Project

From then on we kept in touch and  a friendship grew between Melody and me.  Recently I came across her book – Lacy Wire Jewelry and was totally impressed by her jewelry making and teaching skill.  I feel it is a great honor to know Melody in person and wanted to share that with you all.  Here is the interview:


Melody, I came to know about you and your Soul of Somanya project from an article in a beading magazine, but I forgot which one.  Beads and Button, 2008,  I think. Do you remember?

It was the issue that came out in August of 2008, which was probably the September or October issue. That article saved Soul of Somanya from an early extinction. Up until then, we’d been paying expenses and wages out of credit card cash advances, along with the income from a few individual sales to friends and family and couple of small trunk shows. But when that article came out, we started getting online orders, enough to keep going for awhile.

 When did you start this project and what motivated you in the first place?  Tell us a little about that.

The initial impetus was an email I received one morning asking me to come and teach a group of Krobo bead makers in the little Ghanaian town of Somanya how to make fancier jewelry out of their beads. Traditionally, the Krobo people wear their beads very simply on a piece of string or raffia. But they’d somehow gotten hold of (or maybe seen online?) an issue of Bead & Button Magazine that had one of my designs in it, and they wanted to learn to do fancier techniques.

                                                        [Photo: Bride's Wedding Jewelry].
I jumped at the chance—it sounded like an interesting adventure. Little did I know that I’d fall head-over-heels in love with the people and their culture. But it was seeing the poverty, and seeing how cheerfully the people bear it, that got me truly motivated. It’s beyond anything I had ever been able to imagine, and I wanted very much to try to help bring a little prosperity to them.

I remember reading later from one of your newsletters and also from that article the hurdles that you had to overcome. Tell us a little about the agony and the ecstasy in this journey.

I have heard so many people say that Africa will break your heart, and I can see why they say that, though it can also fill your heart. Early on, the experience seemed mostly like a wonderfully exotic adventure, as if I were a character in some latter-day Joseph Conrad novel. I’ve always been a reader; I’ve always loved fiction and exciting stories. But this was the first time in my life that I didn’t feel the need to read; the first time that my own life had ever been more interesting to me than what I could find in books. I mean, how many middle-aged white women from Mobile, Alabama ever become African Queens? I couldn’t believe it was me that this was happening to! I spent a lot of time pinching myself on that first visit


But I’ve come to realize over time how often I’ve misinterpreted things that I experienced during the time I’ve spent in Somanya, and how often my own words and intentions have been misunderstood by some of the people there. So reality has set in. Don’t get me wrong—I love it there, and I wouldn’t trade the experiences I’ve had there for anything else I’ve ever done in my life. But where there is so little in the way of a common frame of reference, there will always be misunderstandings. And where there is so little prosperity to go around, there will always be fierce competition for what little there is, and this can often lead to jealousy—even treachery. So there have been some heartbreaks 

For example, I went to Africa to give free classes. It took me six months to raise enough money to buy all the tools and supplies I would need to teach there, and a lot of people here in the States worked very hard to get me over there fully equipped. Yet the very first thing the first group of bead makers asked me was, “What are you going to give us besides classes?” Needless to say, I was a bit taken aback by the attitude I thought this reflected. It wasn’t until years later that I found out that, while I wasn’t charging anything for the classes, the young man who was organizing things was—and charging a substantial fee at that. So the bead makers were regarding their participation as an investment of more than just their time. Understandably, they wanted to be sure they were going to get their money’s worth. It’s not as if they can afford hobbies. This was serious business to them.

The spokesman for another group told me flat out that they knew I was the head of some big charity agency, and that I had money I was supposed to be distributing among them. They were very angry because they believed I was keeping that money for myself and/or the young men who had organized the classes. I can only guess how they came to that belief. All I could do was explaining to them that I was just a regular person, coming there on my own. They seemed at the time, after a good bit of discussion, to accept my word for it. But that group ended up not taking the classes, so maybe not.

Anyway, I had to work very hard to win the trust of the bead makers who did end up taking the classes, but we were on good terms by the time I left. On my last day there, I promised them that, while I had no experience in marketing, I would do my best to sell their products in the U.S. Moreover, I would send them a 10% royalty on the retail price of any of their original designs I was able to sell

I kept that promise. But, looking back, I realize that I never warned them that this might only ever be one or two or three pieces. It’s quite possible that they assumed I would be selling dozens, or even hundreds, of those designs, and that they would be receiving large chunks of money from me. Of course the reality was that I was trying to sell those very tribal-looking pieces to mostly middle-aged-and-older southern women in an extremely conservative part of the U.S. Not surprisingly, they didn’t sell well. And the lack of the flow of cash that the bead makers had apparently expected eventually led to a breakdown of trust with some of them.

It broke my heart. It still hurts like crazy to know that some of them believed—that some of them may still believe—that I cheated them out of money that should have been theirs. If I could go back and do it over, I would make very sure that they understood how little they should expect from my inexperienced attempts at marketing their goods. But that’s water under the bridge. Maybe someday I’ll be able to find a way to re-establish that lost trust, and somehow help them to become more prosperous. I hope so. I’d give a lot to make that happen.

So that’s one of the kinds of things that have made this project so challenging. Another has been what the people there call being on “Africa-time.” Everything moves very slowly in Africa. For example, we’ve waited for as long as six months for our orders for beads to be made and delivered. That makes doing business on the world market almost impossible. It’s one of the things that eventually made us realize that we needed to hire a separate staff of jewelry-makers; so that we could supervise production and make sure we’d be able to get the products we needed when we needed them.

Another problem has been the expenses and timing problems we’ve had with trans-Atlantic shipping. There is so much corruption in the Ghanaian postal service and Customs offices that, unless we want to bribe officials to do what they are already being paid to do, we have to pay exorbitant FedEx prices to ship supplies over to Somanya—well over $400.00 for a little fifteen-pound box. Otherwise the packages and their contents just mysteriously disappear.

You are a beader. Do you make beads, too?

I’ve been beading for many years, but I’ve never made beads. I leave that to the experts!

I did not know you did such elaborate knit wire work. You won’t believe it, but just from the Amazon" look inside" section I learned so much about your project. This book is amazing. I ordered it and have not gotten it yet, but when I get it and try a project, I'll send you a picture. When did you start this lacy wire knitting?  Do you still knit with beads?

The techniques in my Lacy Wire Jewelry book aren’t really knitting at all, though you’re certainly not the first to think so. The projects have that look, and I did start out as a crocheter. But these techniques actually call for various looping and twisting techniques that evolved over a period of years when I was working at a wonderful bead store here in Mobile (called Knot Just Beads).

                                                               Three Lacy Pieces


 I don’t know why, but I’ve always been drawn to delicate, lacy, symmetrical filigrees. All the more ironic that I ended up co-founding a project that is based on large, funky, rough, in-your-face colorful beads. I had to make a huge creative leap in order to work with the Krobo beads. It was over a year before I felt that I was really starting to get a look that I liked.

What other kind of jewelry-making techniques interest you?

I’ve done a little of everything, but once I started working with wire, I was hooked. It’s so versatile, and its possibilities are infinite. I never get tired of coming up with new ways of using wire.

Tell us a little about your artistic life and any thing else you want to share.

My artistic life has pretty much been pushed aside for the last four years to make room for running the business side of Soul of Somanya. I’ve been—I’ve had to be—pretty obsessed with the project to be able to put in enough hours and to give it the kind of attention it’s required of me. I’m not even sure it’s healthy, if having balance in life is the standard to judge by. But I’ve loved it! It’s taken hold of my heart and fed my spirit in a way it’s never been fed before. And while running the project has cut way down on artistic time, it certainly has demanded that I be creative in other ways. In this economy, I’ve had to keep coming up with new strategies for keeping our products moving and keeping enough money coming in so that we can pay our staff of young jewelry artisans regularly. It’s endlessly challenging.

 How often do you go to Africa, and how long do you stay there?

I’ve only gone three times so far, for a total of a little over four months. It’s expensive, of course—not just the flights, but the fact that, to really make a trip worthwhile, I have to buy a lot of supplies to take over with me and a lot of beads to bring back along with the jewelry I’m transporting on my return. So it takes a long time to raise the kind of money I need to make everything work. It’s also extremely difficult to get away. It’s a lot to ask of volunteers that they come over to my apartment three times a week to pack and ship orders for our products, but we can’t afford to shut down while I’m over there. We need that cash flow. And anyway, we would lose a lot of momentum. We’d lose customers.

If it were up to me, I’d go three or four times a year, or I’d stay a lot longer when I do go. I love it there. I’m homesick for Ghana all the time

Is there one experience that sparkles like a focal locket in this process of working with two cultures from two continents?

The single thing that has meant the most to me personally is the relationship I’ve formed with our young project manager over there, Arkuh Bernard Tettey. He was only twenty-five when we started the project, and he’s one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever known. He’s like a son to me now. I miss him every day

As for those sparkling focal experiences, it’s more like a string of smaller moments. For example, I’ll never forget the look of wonder on one of our jewelry artisans’ faces when she finished the first piece she had made using a very challenging new technique. It was as if she just couldn’t believe that she had made something so beautiful! It brought tears to my eyes. And there was the excited joy with which, on the last day of my second trip, the artisans all clustered around and presented me with french fries they had made themselves, along with—treasure of treasures—an unopened bottle of catsup! Apparently they thought I must be missing the food I was used to—I wasn’t, but it was such an amazingly sweet thing for them to have done. I still don’t know where they managed to find that bottle of catsup.

And then there was the first time Manye Mamiyo, the queen mother who became my African mother when she officially inducted me into her family, came all by herself, without her entourage, to visit me early one morning. Instead of insisting on the formality that had always characterized our meetings before, she simply opened her arms, inviting me to give her a hug. That was a very special moment for me.

Oh, and I remember an afternoon on my first trip when several of the bead makers and I put our heads together for several hours trying to invent a crimp bead that they would be able to make for themselves once the ones I’d brought with me ran out. Together we finally came up with one that worked. That was a wonderfully triumphant moment. There have been so many of those.

I know how valuable your time is. My heartfelt thanks to you for giving me part of it.

Here is  one of the earrings I made using your African beads and the ear  wire work in African symbol means Bravery and Valor - right?


Anindita, the debt is on our side. By publishing this interview on your blog, you are helping to spread the word about Soul of Somanya; helping us to find new customers and supporters. That’s advertising we couldn’t possibly afford to pay for. Thank you so much for doing this.

Namaste, Melody.























3 comments:

Sandra Young said...

That was a long read but worth it! The lacy earrings are lovely. The tribal pair are so interesting.

alankarshilpa said...

I know. Thank you, Sandra.

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