Tribal-print sarongs sway on dirt roads. Brightly scarved heads balance food, water and other staples. Parades of women are walking together to provide necessities to their children and communities.
These images of African life, the paintings of Zimbabwean artist Barry Lungu, capture the elegance in simple daily moments in the vivid colors of his homeland. And from the walls, Lungu’s women watch over patrons of Kunjani Gallery and Coffee Shop: a fusion art space, coffee house and community awareness hub in Naples.
Just as colorful, just as purposeful as the women exhibited are the two owners of Kunjani: refugees from Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe who have crafted a blissful spot for gathering, shopping and showcasing the artisans of their Rhodesian birthplace.
“Kunjani” means “How is it?” in Shona and serves as a casual greeting in southern Africa. Sitting down with owners Nicola and Stephanie Bunnett, I learned how it is and how it was before the family made their way to America—and what they’re doing through Kunjani to help.
After years of civil and political discord, Zimbabwe was in chaos by 2000 when the family managed to escape to America. Basic infrastructure was collapsing, uprisings were commonplace, and daily life was perilous, especially for women. When Nicola was offered work in Naples at a local art gallery, she; her daughter, Stephanie; and her son, Jeffrey, were able to flee to safety in the U.S. Fiercely connected to the colors and spirit of her homeland, Nicola knew she wanted to spread the story of Zimbabwe’s people. She recites an old saying: “If you do not stand up to your oppressor, you stand with your oppressor.”
After several years in Naples, the time was right to open Kunjani and showcase the craftwork, art and “kunjani spirit” of Zimbabwe in this coffee shop. All the paintings—of local peoples, of street scenes, of wildlife—are by African artists, and portions of their proceeds benefit community and children’s organizations locally and abroad. In fact, nothing sold here is without benefit to those still living in conflict.
Taking in the gallery, one feels the true essence of art; the art of uniting as one human family. Nicola sees herself as part of a bigger picture to serve and highlight her African family, she says. “Those of us who made it out … God scattered us throughout the world to shed light on the perils of our people and show their beauty.”
The gallery makes clear its resolute goals: “Our mission at Kunjani is to connect talented and previously disadvantaged artisans with a worldwide audience by giving them a platform to share their story. Kunjani is a business created through love and built on humanitarian principles. (We) strive to make a long-lasting positive impact on the lives of our artists, especially those in Africa. A place we will always call home.”
Showcasing African art can help in a number of ways, Stephanie says. “First, and the most obvious, the sale of art provides an income to support one’s life and the lives of others. Second, I believe it can provide hope and add purpose to life.” The sale of the art often empowers the artists’ communities by enabling funding of medical services, English classes, women’s health initiatives, education programs. Lungu, whose burnt oranges, reds and yellows so effectively take Stephanie back to Africa, is a prime example of this, she says. “He works very closely with underprivileged or orphaned children in Zimbabwe by providing art lessons and a safe environment for artistic expression. The ripple effect of this kind of work throughout the community is huge.”
Displayed among the paintings in Kunjani’s main showroom are African artisan pieces such as beadwork, hand-painted cloths, leather bags, sandals and ceramics. One such company, Oh Voila, produces jewelry using the skills of women, allowing them to generate income for their families and gain a sense of independence and empowerment in a safe community setting.
“Hope Hippos,” hand-painted clay hippopotamuses, sit in a colorful herd in another display. Originally sold by a Kenyan mother of seven to provide income for her family, these hippos now reach a larger audience at Kunjani. The sale of each one, at just $60 or less, helps 70 people in Africa with classes for head-of-household women, clean water initiatives, school supplies and other programs. They are also Stephanie’s favorite. “They truly embody what we are trying to do and the people we are trying to help,” she says. “They are called the ‘Hope Hippos’ because that is what they represent: hope.”
Outside the shop doors, a community garden sits behind the reading room, providing herbs and lettuces “for whoever needs them.” And every month, the shop also selects a Southwest Florida nonprofit to collaborate with. Kunjani acts as a venue for outreach and promotion, and all proceeds from designated donations benefit the highlighted organization. “The Kunjani Project” was recently granted nonprofit status to continue all the shop’s efforts locally and worldwide.
On the patio, milkweed plants draw monarch butterflies that greet seated patrons. Amid the aromas of cappuccinos and pastries indoors, other customers pore over newspapers and laptops. The humanitarian principles anchoring the gallery attract like-minded regulars. As Stephanie says, “I think people come back because we are so much more than just a coffee shop or an art gallery or a gift shop. People feel safe when they come to Kunjani. They feel the peaceful soothing energy here.”
“Before we opened,” she continues, “Mum and I wanted to create a space where it felt as though we were inviting our friends into our home for a cup of tea or coffee. We wanted to create an environment where you feel as though you are sitting in your favorite comfy chair in your own living room. I think that’s why people come back, and we are so grateful that they do. Once people hear our story and learn about our mission of supporting and empowering so many women, they get a new perspective on things. It’s very easy to get caught up in our own lives and forget that there is a whole world out there.”
The Bunnetts and I are interrupted briefly as we chat, by a patron holding a gift shop token and thanking Nicola for this special place. The patron explains that it is the 10-year anniversary of her heart transplant, and she wanted to mark the occasion at a place that holds heart in all its endeavors.
Stephanie recalls to me childhood memories of watching women ferry water as Lungu’s painted women do, and describes the perils they face to access it. The World Health Organization estimates that 1 in 3 people in Africa lack clean water, leading to disease and easily preventable death. Women in Africa can walk the distance of a marathon to obtain clean water for their families, and they are often at risk of kidnapping and rape as they do so. In response, The Kunjani Project is adding to those endeavors by spearheading The Water Carrier Series, to help improve water infrastructure in Zimbabwe, South Africa and Zambia.
Those proud, powerful women, real and painted, carry on their heads the most fundamental needs of their communities with grace and purpose. So, too, I found, the Bunnetts walk brightly through our own community, balancing the needs, responsibilities and talents of the community of their featured artists.