Fall 2018
Crafting through Kenya By Tommy Brown

A step-by-step journey from the mining of raw materials to the beautifully handcrafted work on your store’s shelves

Have you ever walked into a store and saw some amazing handmade crafts and wondered where they came from and how they were made? This story will transport you to Kenya to explain how some of their crafts are made and how crafts impact the people of these small east Africa communities.

Our adventure starts in Tabaka, where the famous Kisii stone comes from and is crafted into beautiful art pieces. Kisii stone is harvested by hand from sustainable rock mines in the heat of the African sun. This is no easy job but the miners know that the rock they are harvesting will become great pieces of art when they reach the hands of the artisans. Once the miners deliver the rock to the small crafting village the men of the village go to work chiseling the stone into shapes of animals and household gifts. This can take hours to get the shape they desire but once they get it in the shape they want, it goes to the women of the village to sand and polish. The women work together, using sand paper and bowls of water to get a lustrous shine on the stone, and once they get that shine it is put into the storage hut to be picked up and delivered to the Port of Mombasa.

Tommy Brown is the conservation manager and retail buyer for the St. Louis Zoo. Brown recently took a trip to Kenya to see the mining and creative process for handmade goods there.

Some of the women of this village have been crafting for over 30 years and say they have a nice time visiting with each other and knowing they are making something beautiful for sale in the United States. It is very special for them to connect their culture and crafts with a nation half the world away.

Next we will look at the wood carvers in Mombasa — a large crafting village that has been producing some of the finest wooden crafts in the world for more than 50 years. These carvers come together about five or six days a week to chisel, cut and sand their unique wood creations. It is truly a passion for these wood carvers and way to make a living in a country with high unemployment. They truly appreciate international trade with U.S. museums, zoos, aquariums and gift stores because these arts are so appreciated by clientele of these institutions. They are so excited to know they are making something that matters in life and will touch other lives across the ocean.

Let’s not forget that some of these stone and wooden crafts may need a little paint. There is also a place in Mombasa that employs painters to paint the art works collected throughout Kenya. Because not American wants a raw stone or wood piece, color is sometimes needed to help sell the product in the U.S. market. Women and a few men spend their days in an old home just painting figures as a nice breeze comes off the ocean. It really is a quite lovely place to work with everyone working together to get orders out quickly.

Now we are off to Lewa, home of the National Rangelands Trust (NRT) and Bead Works. This area in Northern Kenya has many of the bead crafters that create beautiful jewelry and accessories by hand. The beads are painstakingly threaded one at a time and it can take hours just to complete one item. Bead Works’ goal is to empower the women of Africa and give them jobs so they can have a better life, all while supporting conservation efforts.

As we continue on this crafting journey, we end up at the Masai Market place in Nairobi. This is a collection of crafters from all across Kenya and a great place to source handcrafted products. You will see everything from gifted oil painters to real Masai women making traditional beaded crafts. This market place is like going to a gift show in the U.S., except it is outside and most items are displayed on blankets on the ground.

If you are now wondering why buying African crafts is so important, we are going to let you know why. First of all it is suppling jobs to people that really need a source of income, second it supports conservation efforts in Africa and third it keeps indigenous arts and culture alive.

Some crafting companies, like Stoneage Arts Inc., also supply food and library books for children through their nonprofit Ammas. The Saint Louis Zoo has been actively in Kenya as well, supporting conservation efforts with crafters and donating books for educational outreach. Working with conservation institutions is very important to these people of the land because their lives depend on conserving what is around them.  Conserving the crafter and the environment is more important than ever before, so next time you are out buying, look for indigenous arts and crafts that make a real difference in people’s lives and in the world around us. 

Tommy Brown is the retail manager/conservation buyer for the Saint Louis Zoo. He also is a longtime member of the Zoo & Aquarium Buyers’ Group (ZAG).






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