It’s no exaggeration for Rhodia Mann to claim that “Everything I have in my house has a story.”
Stepping foot into her Nairobi's Kitisuru home is like walking into a mini-museum of exotic artefacts, all of which have been collected by this intrepid woman traveller who 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 7,000 miles to finally land in Kenya.
Rhodia attributes her wander-lust to her mother’s ‘great, great, great grandmother’ who was a Romanian 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 jewellery, 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 it is a guide book on beautiful 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 artefacts.
It was while living in New York in the early 1970s that she saw a necklace in a Madison Avenue store window and realised she could do the same herself. She’d already been to Yemen and Niger and begun collecting beads.
Her first jewellery exhibition also featured beads her parents had sent her from Afghanistan, 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 a glass and brass coffee table, Rhodia had placed everything from daggers, belt buckles and chains to 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 jewellery either from Samburu, Borana or herself.
Then there are the colourful 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, jewellery-making elements and artefacts.
She also had gourds acquired not just from Samburu, Maasai, Borana, Turkana and Gabra.
“I gave all my Samburu gourds to the ISK Samburu museum,” she says.
“I only have duplicates. The rest I wanted to donate to the Smithsonian, but they said gourds 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 colonial 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.