Tabaka carvers live from hand to mouth while brokers benefit

Renowned sculptor Elkana On’gesa (left) admires some of Mr Amos Omweri’s ( right and inset) works as he displays them for sale. PHOTOS| BRIAN MOSETI

What you need to know:

  • The hundreds of carvers here endure the biting morning cold in these highlands to mine the stones and transform them into beautiful carvings that have put the region on the global map.

  • For instance, the works of Mr Elkana Ong’esa, one of the renowned sculptors from Kisii, have been exhibited around the world.

Mr Simon Omari is sitting cross-legged in his curio shop in Tabaka, deftly putting the final touches to the carving of a giraffe he has been working on using a knife. As he goes about his work almost effortlessly, he describes what he’s doing to me, making it sound fairly easy. Then he encourages me to give it a try.

But when he hands me the knife, I only fumble around, sending the five women helping him into peals of laughter which they try hard to suppress.

Watching the sculptors create beautiful items from soapstone, one might not quite know the kind of effort that goes into making the curios that are transported from  Tabaka in South Mugirango Constituency, Kisii County.

During a recent visit to the area  a DN2 team found that behind the decorative and functional artsy pieces lies a story of courage, endurance and skill supporting a huge informal industry in the area that is the sole means of livelihood for many families.

“The process of turning a piece of bland, rough stone from the Nyakembene mine into a  polished, eye-catching carving is painstaking work,” Mr Omari says.

The hundreds of carvers here endure the biting morning cold in these highlands to mine the stones and transform them into beautiful carvings that have put the region on the global map.

For instance, the works of Mr Elkana Ong’esa, one of the renowned sculptors from Kisii, have been exhibited around the world.

One of his most famous works, Bird of Peace, graces the entrance of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation building in Paris, France. Ong’esa’s works have also been exhibited in the US. as well as in Asia and Africa.

Most of his pieces are made from a type of soapstone popularly called Kisii stone, which is found mainly in Kisii in south-western Kenya.

UNIQUE VARIETY

Although soapstone is found in many other countries around the world, the Kenyan variety found in Kisii is unique. It comes in a variety of colours such as white, pink, grey and even black, and is relatively soft compared to the ones found in other countries. Soapstone is formed through the cooling and solidification of magma or lava.

Notably, communities in this area have been using soapstone for generations, with rock art carvings being the earliest examples of its use as an artistic material.  

So unique is the variety of soapstone in Kisii that  few other places in the world have it in equally large  amounts.

Nyagenche village alone has more than five quarries bearing tonnes of the rare stone.

Yet despite this natural wealth, most of the people in the area still live in grinding poverty. Lack of government support, coupled with the unsatiable greed of middlemen, leaves the soapstone miners and carvers with nothing to show for their hard work. 

Mr Omari says that many of the miners and carvers troop to the mines every day with the hope of selling at least an item to enable them to put food on the table.

“The county has let us down. It has failed to cushion us against unscrupulous middlemen who take advantage of our poverty to swindle us of the fruits of our sweat,” he said.

He adds that the county’s department of trade and industry has failed to regulate the market or even come up with a system how the craft should be handled.

Omari, 37, says  a stone carver’s day begins at seven in the morning, when he heads to the quarry. After getting the stones he makes a variety of items, most of which are sold at Nyabigege, a centre on the Kisii-Isebania Highway, to wholesalers.

“I learnt to carve by watching other people carve. There are no schools here to train us,” he says.

“This is my only source of income. I carve for a whole week making different things, but I don’t do the finishing.  I leave that to the person  to whom I sell  so that they can r finish them the way they want. I go to Nyabigege every Saturday to sell my carvings,” he explains.

Mr Omari does not own the quarry from which he gets the stones but buys them from the quarry’s owner.

“I buy the stones for Sh300 or Sh400 depending on the amount  I agree upon with the quarry owner. I can make up to 12 bowls a week, which I sell for between Sh200 and 300 each,” he says.

He says lack of a ready market has compounded the carvers’ problems. 

 “The county government keeps saying it will help, but it has not done anything so far,”

Mr Omari’s statement is corroborated by Mr Joseph Ombasa, a 25-year-old computer science student at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology who helps manage his father’s quarry when he is on holiday.

“We sell the stones depending on the size. There is really no generally agreed-upon form of measurement. You just assess it visually and negotiate the price with the buyer,” he says.

“Some people transport the stones to their workshops while others prefer to carve on site,” he adds.

Sadly, says many lives have been lost as a result of accidents in the quarries, where the stones are mined manually.

“No modern tools are used in the mines. The tools are all traditional and very basic,” he laments.

Mr Ombasa goes on to explain that there are two types of stones, of which only one is  suitable for carving.

“One type cracks when exposed to sunlight while the other can withstand centuries of punishing weather,” he explains.

The non-carvable type is sold to businessmen who crush and use  it  to make things like make talc powder. Talc is pure and odourless. It  is used, not just to make  talcum powder and toilet soaps, but also in detergents and washing powder.

It is also used widely in the ceramics and paint industry, particularly in marine paints and protective coatings.

Due to lack of official support, some of the carvers have formed groups in order to streamline their work. For instance, Amos Omweri, 32,  belongs to the Cream Team Organisation, which is made up of close friends, all of whom are artists.

They have sold many items and have a steady supply of clients at the United Nations, the World Bank, Nairobi’s Village Market and even some private collectors.

Mr Omweri first started carving when he was in primary school. And like his colleagues, he also learnt by watching the more accomplished carvers.

 “My first carving sold for Sh25,000 but I only received Sh2,000. I later learnt that the rest went to a broker. I was in Standard Five at the time,” says the talented artist, whom we find sitting on a stool under a tree  surrounded by a variety of carvings.

He mostly does functional art (pieces that are both beautiful and useful), but he does it with  great detail, that making  them very attractive.

Mr Omweri explains that behind every carving lies a story of painstaking hours spent chipping away at the stone to create a work of art, adding that middlemen have contributed to poverty in the area.

“Art pays well when your work has got out there and you are recognised. But before that, middlemen will frustrate you. Most people around here sell their carvings for about a tenth of the true value; something should be done about that,” he says.

However, he notes that efforts to bring the carvers together to improve their bargaining power have not been very successful. 

“Some years ago, we formed a Sacco to bring the carvers together, but it failed after the members pulled out, citing mismanagement of funds, which they said were benefiting only a few individuals,” he explains. 

According to Mr Elkanah Ong’esa, a sculptor recognised the world over, both the county and national governments are not doing enough to help the sculptors.

He says there is a lot of potential in the area, especially if the people could be encouraged to do more abstract art.

“There are a lot of talented people in this area with original works that will amaze you. The only problem is that they have not been given exposure, or even support,” he says.

“Although the county government is only two years old, it  has recognised the importance of soapstone and is  proud of it. But we were expecting that by now it would have come up with an agenda to develop the industry,” Mr Ong’esa says.

“Both levels of government are supporting only individuals who are already established or well known while those who are just starting out are left to suffer,” he explains.

Meanwhile, Mr Daniel Apepo, the Tabaka Ward County Assembly member, is concerned that deposits of the carvable soapstone  are getting rapidly depleted since those who mine the non-carvable variety  do not bother to differentiate between the two.

“We want to see action from government institutions aimed at protecting the stone since it is a very rare and unique variety,” he says.

“Soapstone items comprise about 40 per cent of all handicrafts in Kenya today. In Tabaka, it employs more than 30,000 people directly and indirectly, which is why we expect action from government so that more wealth can be created and these people can all benefit,” he says.

MINING CONDITIONS NEED TO BE IMPROVED

“The mining conditions also need to be improved; we need electricity and water in the quarries so that the people can use modern methods and machines to mine, and improved safety,” the MCA says.

Recently, the Kisii County Government revealed plans to establish an organisation to regulate the multimillion-shilling soapstone industry.

Mr Apepo says the county government, led by Governor  James Ongwae, intends to set up a soapstone development authority, which will operate as a county parastatal.

The ward rep says at least 90 per cent of soapstone carvings made in Tabaka are exported annually, 40 per cent of them through trade fairs in the US and Europe.

He stresses that it is necessary to establish an authority to streamline the industry.

“From the quarry owners to the miners, middle men, carvers, exporters to other players in chain, the industry has been operating without order,” he says. “That is why we found it necessary to monitor the sector. We want to have an authority to regulate its operations.”

Mr Apepo said that even as the county government explores ways of regulating the trade, it should help the small-scale traders to get markets for their products.

According to a Bill before the county assembly, the authority will issue permits to all dealers. The Bill calls for studies into the environmental impact of mining soapstone, as well as the facilitation of training in mining and research in the field.

Last year, Governor Ongwae said his government intended to establish a soapstone industry in South Mugirango Sub-County to add value to the products.

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