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Ostrich Shell Jewelry

made by the Bushmen (San) People of Namibia

Zanzibar's Ostrich Eggshell Jewelry is hand crafted by the traditional, nomadic hunter gathering Bushmen of Namibia. The Bushmen (also known as the San people and many other names - see below) are the oldest inhabitants of Africa (and perhaps the earliest modern humans) and even today, many of them maintain a lifestyle similar to that of thousands of years ago

Each piece is unique and handcrafted - a testament to these resilient and amazing people. 


finishing a bracelet (above) One of our artisans and his son Smoothing beads by hand

For thousands of years the Bushmen have used Ostrich shell beads as ornamentation.  Bushman women are fond of ornaments and even newborn babies normally wear strings of beads around their ankles, wrists and necks. Natural objects such as pieces of roots, reeds, porcupine quills, horns, tambotie wood and seeds are used. But the most important Bushman ornaments consist of small flat round beads made of ostrich eggshell. These beads are threaded into softened sinews to make bracelets, girdles and headdress, or they are sewn onto pieces of clothing.

These eggshells are sustainably collected from native wild ostriches. 

The San people eat the ostrich eggs (they never take all those from a nest, just some) and use them not only to made jewelry beads out of, they use the hollowed-out eggs as canteens for water and even bury these filled with water along traditional hunting routes so that they will always have a ready supply of water. 

Our ostrich eggshell jewelry project is based in a small village in Bushmenland, Namibia, to the northeast of Grootfontein, close to the Botswana border.  They are fairly traded, and a significant portion of the retail price goes directly to the artisans and to programs to support them. 

The production of ostrich eggshell jewelry keeps a traditional craft alive, while at the same time supporting the material needs of the Bushman in this region.


Traditional bushmen (San) drinking from an ostrich shell canteen Many bushmen still live traditional, hunter and gatherer lifestyles, however many are settling down and growing crops and raising animals. using a stick to make a fire.  Holes in the shell beads are drilled in a similar manner

Unfortunately much of the area where the traditional Bushmen live was ravaged by warfare during the South African Apartheid and the Angolan Bush War. The war was very detrimental to the Bushmen nation. With the ready availability of guns many of them lost the ability to hunt traditionally, and many succumbed to alcoholism.

Food from the veld (the land) is very scarce due to recurrent drought, and as indiscriminate shooting has decimated the game that the Bushmen traditionally hunted, the Bushmen in this area suffer from famine. Few of them have any form of sustainable income, and worse still, they suffer direct competition for food sources from elephants indigenous to the region.

Some of our cooperative's members proudly showing their finished jewelry!


Elize and Hendrik are a couple who have dedicated their lives to helping the Bushmen.  They started a cooperative in 2001 and Elize and Hendrik have been living amongst the San (or Bushmen) since early 2001. Zanzibar buys and sells the products from their cooperative in our gallery/store and online.  They work with artists in around 37 different villages within a radius of 60km from their home. The artists work from home and Hendrik drives his truck out to the people loaded up with maize, sugar, tea, coffee, soap, soup packets, dried beans, and other essential commodities. He exchanges these good for the handmade articles made by the San.  Most of the families work with ostrich shell, but three families concentrate on woodcarving.

The wood they use is named “tambotie”.  Due to the abuse of alcohol and the little relevance of hard currency to Bushman culture, the workers are paid in durable items instead of cash. 

The Bushmen determine the price of their products and a significant portion of the retail price you paid goes directly to the artisans and to provide services and fund projects for them (including medical and the digging of wells). 

typical road (when there is one!) in Bushmenland in Namibia

The Bushmen of Namibia have been exploited throughout South African history by white settlers and more recently by the Herero people of Namibia. They are treated as second-class citizens in their own country and are gentle people by nature. When confronted, rather than fight the San move on to new land, which is why they find themselves today in the most marginal desert land of Namibia. They face an inadequate food supply, especially in winter, and are in direct competition for food with elephants. On this note, Elize tries to encourage vegetable farming and goat herding.


The ostrich shell beads themselves are each made by hand in a time consuming and intricate process. The shell is broken into shards and smaller pieces are broken from the shards. The small pieces are made more or less round by tapping them with a piece of horn, stone or metal.  A flat stone is used as an anvil and the eggshell pieces are placed on this and shaped.

A hole is drilled through the centre of the beads using a hand held homemade drill and they are then strung onto a rolled sinew thread until they fit tight against each other, and then they are rubbed with a brittle stone on the person's thigh to smooth and polish them.

rubbing the nearly finished ostrich shells on their leg to polish and smooth them

Although the natural ostrich eggshell color is off-white, the Bushmen artists often use natural dyes to color the beads in different shades of tan, brown, and black. In our necklace and bracelets you will find pieces of roots, reeds, porcupine quills, tambotie ( wood and seeds used to accent the ostrich eggshell beads. Each piece is unique, and purchasing a piece of ostrich eggshell jewelry for yourself or as a gift directly supports the maintenance of a traditional craft, as well as providing a sustainable income to the Bushmen of Namibia.

More about the Bushmen


The Bushmen, San, Basarwa, ǃKung or Khwe are indigenous people of southern Africa which spans most areas of South Africa, Zimbabwe , Lesotho, Mozambique, Swaziland, Botswana, Namibia and Angola. They were and are traditionally hunter-gatherers, part of the Khoisan group, and are related to the traditionally pastoral Khoikhoi. Starting in the 1950s, through the 1990s, some have switched to farming.

Genetic evidence suggests they are one of the oldest, if not the oldest, peoples in the world — a "genetic Adam" according to Spencer Wells, from which all humans can ultimately trace their genetic heritage.

The terms San, Khwe, Bushmen, and Basarwa have all been used to refer to hunter-gatherer peoples of southern Africa. Each of these terms has a problematic history, as they have been used by outsiders to refer to them, often with pejorative connotations. The individual groups identify by names such as Juǀʼhoansi and ǃKung (the punctuation characters representing different clicks), and most call themselves "Bushmen" when referring to themselves collectively.

The term "San" was historically applied by their ethnic relatives and historic rivals, the Khoikhoi. This term means "outsider" in the Nama language and was derogatory because it distinguished the Bushmen from what the Khoikhoi called themselves, namely the First People. Western anthropologists adopted "San" extensively in the 1970s, where it remains preferred in academic circles. The term "Bushmen" is widely used, but opinions vary on whether it is appropriate – given that the term is sometimes viewed as pejorative.

In South Africa, the term "San" has become favored in official contexts, being included in the blazon of the new national coat-of-arms. In South Africa "Bushman" is considered derogatory by some groups. Angola does not have an official term for Bushmen, but they are sometimes referred to as Bushmen, Kwankhala, or Bosquímanos (the Portuguese term for Bushmen). In Lesotho they're referred to as Baroa, which is where the Sesotho name for "South", "Boroa", comes from. Neither Zambia nor Zimbabwe have official terms, although in the latter case the terms Amasili and Batwa are sometimes used. [5] In Botswana, the officially used term is Basarwa[6], where it is partially acceptable to some Bushmen groups, although Basarwa, a Tswana language label, also has negative connotations. The term is a class 2 noun (as indicated by the "ba-" class marker), while an older class 6 variant, "Masarwa," is now almost universally considered offensive.

Since the mid-1990s the central government of Botswana has implemented a relocation policy, aiming to move the Bushmen out of their ancestral land on the Central Kalahari Game Reserve into newly created settlements. Although the government categorically deny that relocation has been forced[7], a recent court ruling confirmed that the removal was unconstitutional and residents were forcibly removed.

Opponents to the relocation policy claim that the government's intent is to clear the area – an area the size of Denmark – for the lucrative tourist trade and for diamond mining. This is strenuously denied on the government's official web site, stating that although exploration had taken place, it concluded that mining activity would not be viable and that the issue was not related to the relocation policy.

It is further claimed that the group as a whole has little voice in the national political process and is not one of the tribal groups recognized in the constitution of Botswana. Over the generations, the Bushmen of South Africa have continued to be absorbed into the African population, particularly the Griqua sub-group, which is an Afrikaans-speaking people of predominantly Khoisan that has certain unique cultural markers that set them apart from the rest of the Africans.

On December 13, 2006, the Bushmen won a historic ruling in their long-running court case against the government. By a 2-1 majority, the court said the refusal to allow the Basarwa into the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) without a permit was "unlawful and unconstitutional." It also said the state's refusal to issue special game licenses to allow the Bushmen to hunt was "unlawful" and "unconstitutional" and found that the Bushmen were "forcibly and wrongly deprived of their possessions" by the government. However, the court did not compel the government to provide services such as water to any Bushmen who returned to the reserve. More than one thousand Bushmen intend to return to the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, one of Africa's largest protected nature reserves.[10] However, only limited number of Bushmen have been allowed to return to this land. In April 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) criticised Botswana's government for not allowing certain Bushmen to return.

The Bushman kinship system reflects their interdependence as traditionally small, mobile foraging bands. Also, the kinship system is comparable to the Eskimo kinship system, with the same set of terms as in Western countries, and also employ a name rule and an age rule. The age rule resolves any confusion arising around kinship terms, because the older of two people always decides what to call the younger. Since relatively few names circulate approximately only 35 names per gender, and each child is named for a grandparent or other relative, Bushmen are guaranteed an enormous family group with whom they are welcome to travel.

Traditional gathering gear is simple and effective: a hide sling, blanket, and cloak called a kaross to carry foodstuffs, firewood, smaller bags, a digging stick, and perhaps a smaller version of the kaross to carry a baby. Women would gather, and men hunted using poison arrows and spears in laborious days-long excursions. Children had no duties besides to play, and leisure was very important to the Bushmen. They spent large amounts of time with conversation, joking around, music, and sacred dances.

Villages ranged in sturdiness from nightly rain shelters in the warm spring, when people moved constantly in search of budding greens, to formalized rings when they congregated in the dry season around the only permanent waterholes. Early spring, a hot dry period following a cool dry winter, was the hardest season, after autumn nuts were exhausted, villages concentrated around waterholes, and most plants were dead or dormant. Meat was most important in the dry months, when wildlife could never range far from receding waters.

Traditionally the San were an egalitarian society. Although they did have hereditary chiefs, the chief’s authority was limited and the bushmen instead made decisions among themselves, on a consensus basis. Women's status was and is relatively equal. Women did not begin bearing children until about 18 or 19 years of age due to late first menstruation because of the low calorie and low fat diet and had them spaced four years apart, due to lack of enough breast milk to feed more than one child at a time, and the requirements of mobility leading to the difficulty of carrying more than one child at a time.

Children were very well behaved and treated kindly by their parents and group. Children spent much of the day playing with each other and are not segregated by sex, neither sex is trained to be submissive or fierce, and neither sex is restrained from expressing the full breadth of emotion that seems inherent in the human spirit".

The San economy was a gift economy, based on giving each other gifts on a regular basis rather than on trading or purchasing goods and services.

Bushmen had an advanced early culture evidenced by archaeological data. For example, Bushmen from the Botswana region migrated south to the Waterberg Massif in the era 10,000 to 20,000 years ago. They left rock paintings at the Lapala Wilderness area and Goudriver recording their life and times, including characterizations of rhinoceros, elephant and a variety of antelope species (resembling impala, kudu and eland, all present day inhabitants).

Around AD 1,000 Bantu tribes began to expand into bushman occupied areas and pushed the bushmen into more inhospitable areas such as the Kalahari desert.

The Bushmen of the Kalahari were first brought to the Western world's attention in the 1950s by South African author Laurens van der Post with the famous book The Lost World of the Kalahari, which was also a BBC TV series.

The 1980 comedy movie The Gods Must Be Crazy portrays a Kalahari Bushman tribe's first encounter with an artifact from the outside world (a Coke bottle). In 1969, the director of this movie, Jamie Uys, had directed Lost in the Desert, in which a small boy stranded in the desert encounters a group of wandering Bushmen before, and is helped by them and then abandoned due to a misunderstanding created by the lack of a common language and culture.

John Marshall documented the lives of Bushmen in the Nyaer Nyaer region of Namibia over more than a 50-year period. His early film The Hunters, released in 1957, shows a giraffe hunt during the 1950s. N!!Ai: The Story of a !Kung Woman (1980) is the account of a woman who grew up while the Bushmen were living as autonomous hunter-gatherers and was later forced into a dependent life in the government created community at Tsumkwe. A Kalahari Family (2002) is a five-part, six-hour series documenting 50 years in the lives of the Juǀʼhrtoansi of Southern Africa, from 1951 to 2000. Marshall was a fierce and vocal proponent of the Bushman cause throughout his life, which was, in part, due to strong kinship ties, and had a Bushman wife in his early 20s.[19]

In Wilbur Smith's The Burning Shores, the San people are portrayed through two major characters, O'wa and H'ani, and the Bushmen's struggles, history and beliefs are touched upon in great detail. The Burning Shores is a volume in the Courtney's of Africa series.

PBS's series How Art Made the World compares San cave painting 200 years ago to Paleolithic European painting 14,000 years old. Because of their similarities, the San can help us understand the reasons for ancient cave paintings. Lewis Williams believes that their trance states (traveling to the spirit world) are directly related to the reasons people went deep into caves, experienced sensory deprivation, and painted their visions onto the cave walls.

Spencer Wells' 2003 book The Journey of Man—in connection with National Geographic's Genographic Project—discusses a genetic analysis of the San and asserts their blood contains the oldest genetic markers found on earth, making the Bushmen humankind's "genetic Adam". These genetic markers are present on the y chromosome and are therefore passed down through thousands of generations in a relatively pure form. The documentary continues to trace these markers throughout the world, demonstrating that all of humankind can be traced back to the African continent and that the San are the last, most genetically unadulterated, remnant of humankind's ancient ancestors.

Zanzibar Tribal Art

1731 L Street   Sacramento CA 95811

(916) 443-2057