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Holiday pop-up shop features handcrafts from East Africa

Beth Magomolla displays her collection of handmade items at a craft fair.1 / 2
There is a large variety of items that can be found in Touched by Africa: anything from cow horn bracelets to carved wooden giraffes and animal bookmarks.2 / 2

This year, you may find yourself decking the halls with African sisal angels or setting up your nativity set made from banana leaves if you visit one of the new pop-up shops called "Touched by Africa."

Touched by Africa Imports is a small business run by Beth Magomolla which features handcrafted items bought from artisans in East Africa. The shop is located in Suite 204, at 315 W. Superior Street in the Skywalk above Bagley's Jewelers. It is in the space that used to be The Candy Express & Gourmet Shop.

The shop will be open starting Monday, Nov. 18, from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday and 12 p.m. to 5 p.m.

on Saturdays.

Magomolla personally buys the crafts while on trips to Africa to ensure that the crafters receive fair prices for their work. The business, once called "Magomolla Enterprises" started back in 1999 when Magomolla, needing to raise money to help pay for her African niece's school tuition, bought some grass baskets to sell here in the U.S.

"I got the idea because I saw these beautiful baskets over there," said Magolmolla. She said she decided to bring some home with her to see if Duluthians would buy them.

People did buy, and Magomolla was able to raise enough to cover her niece's tuition. She started buying crafts to bring back every time she travelled to do missions work.

The baskets Magomolla buys have a story behind them. She says that in the village where she gets them, the girls learn to weave them when they are 8 years old. But the market for woven baskets isn't very good in the village, because nearly everyone knows how to make them. So Magomolla says that the girls have to travel a long distance on the train to find a marketplace in which they can sell them.

"So the girls were saying, 'Why should we learn to weave when there's no market?'" said Magomolla. "Of course, I'd like to see the art of it continue."

And the art of basket weaving does require some patience. Magomolla watched her sister-in-law make a basket.

"She picked out the grass one blade at a time. She knows the stage of development that the grass is in. She needs a stiffer grass straw to go on the inside of the ribs and a softer grass to be woven around," described Magomolla. "It takes about 15 minutes to weave every two inches."

However, it would appear the finished product is worth the effort, as Magomolla says she has seen baskets that have lasted 50 years.

She has expanded her craft collection to include more than grass baskets -- from silk scarves woven in Ethiopia, to banana leaf frogs and nativity sets formed in Kenya. Also in her collection are cow bone necklaces, bracelets and earring sets. She also has spiral-beaded necklaces, beaded coasters and beaded bowls. There are fabric wall hangings of animals and fat quarters of fabric with unique designs for quilters. The shop also sells handbags made from thread formed from the bark of a baobab tree.

How can a bag be woven from bark?

"The weavers peel the bark off, soak it and roll it on their legs and create threads. Then they weave that. And the bark of the tree grows back," says Magomolla.

Baobab trees are known for having large trunks and Magomolla said some of the trees can live to be 1,000 years old.

Until now, Magomolla has mostly sold only at craft shows and churches. But she has been buying enough lately to fill the shop.

"I have so much. Every time I was over there I'd buy. My motivation to buy is that when I buy there, immediately that day, people can eat," said Magomolla.

Magomolla says she will also give 10 percent of her gross profits from the pop-up shop to two organizations in Africa. One is the YMCA in the slum of Kibera, which is right outside of Nairobi, Kenya. The other is Rise Malawi Ministries, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating children and youth in Central Malawi. Currently, two of the leaders of these organizations, Ken Owade and Tinashe Saka, are staying with Magomolla to help spread the word about their organizations in the area.

"I think it's really thoughtful," said Owade about Magomolla's business. "Instead of coming over there to give them money, it works to empower the people more."

Both Owade and Saka will be presenting on their organizations at Duluth Hub at 1001 East Ninth Street on Tuesday, Nov. 19, at 7 p.m.

Touched by Africa

What: Pop-up shop which carries handcrafts from East Africa bought by Beth Magomolla

Where: 315 W. Superior Street, Suite 204, in the Skywalk above Bagley's Jewelers

When: Opening Monday, Nov. 18. Hours: Mon.-Fri. 10-7 p.m. and Sat. 12-5 p.m.

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