Written by Bee Friedmann
On the way up to Uganda in March, I paid a visit to our soapstone carvers in Tabaka – a small village near Kisii. Kisii is known globally as the Soapstone Capital of Kenya. We began working with this group during Covid and over the years we have developed a friendship via whatsapp, so I was very excited to finally shake their hands!
Kissi has no major tourist attractions so tourism does not reach these parts of Kenya. After a week travelling up the Rift valley through a drought stricken landscape I now know a totally different landscape. The little taxi I was in battled against the torrential rain that came and went. The air cooled and the landscape changed to undulating hills covered in green tea bushes and lush forest. As always, baboons sat at the side of the road waiting for passing vehicles to throw morsels of food and people went about their business - walking, riding donkey carts and rickety bicycles. The towns became less frantic and the pace of life slowed.
Home for a few days was a small resort called Itibo run by a very friendly man who asked me if I came to work at the hospital. It seemed that that is what visitors from overseas usually did. He was very intrigued to find out that I had come to meet our soapstone carvers and to visit the soapstone quarry. He was more intrigued the next day when a boda boda (motorbike taxi) arrived to pick me up. I love this way of travel but I do choose where I take these motorbikes as in the bigger towns and cities they can be rather harrowing. Up here in the cool climate of the highlands where there is little traffic it is the best way to get around.
Fifteen minutes of bumping along took us to the little rocky pathway leading up to the busy workshop of the group we work with. The group, a NGO, started in 1996 is made up of around 96 members. The leadership structure includes a chairperson, two vice chairpersons, a secretary, two vice secretaries and a treasurer. The chairman, Charles Nyakangi, is the founding leader of the group and father to Boniface and his brother Victor. Boni is who I have been in contact with since 2019. All the profit made goes towards supporting the members, paying for healthcare, education, accommodation and daily expenses.
At AARVEN we pay for our orders in full before we receive them. We pay a 50% deposit when we place the order and then the balance is paid off as the order is made. This enables the group to buy the raw soapstone and pay their bills as they make our order.
I was also taken to the Soapstone Quarries where I met one of the owners. Rosie had been lucky enough to find a seam of soapstone in her back garden of the small plot her family owned. She explained that as much as she would like to buy mechanical diggers they are so expensive and heavy to use on the soft soil so work has to go on in the old way – manually by hand in the open quarry. Extracting the stone is done vertically versus horizontally as digging horizontally would cause too many dangers.
There have been collapses in the past so the quarry owners strive to uphold the safety of the mine by removing the soft top soil in the wet weather and pumping out accumulated water. Rosie explained that she takes her responsibility to keep the quarry safe very seriously as she does not want to be responsible for a collapse. Communities in this area are very small and close knit and if this happened she would face closure and paying compensation for any accident would financially ruin her. Once the soft rock has been removed it is placed in a pile and local carvers come to purchase it. This is the lifeblood of this town. Without soapstone it would not exist, without soapstone the people would not have any income. Everyone works hard for the same gain.
Then the work begins – the stones are cut down into smaller pieces and the initial carving is done using a variety of hand tools. Sanding is done using sandpaper and water which stops the fine dust from being breathed in and makes this process easier. The water also makes the soapstone more malleable. After this the pieces go for decoration. They are either painted or left natural and polished further. AARVEN uses beeswax to polish our stone which is mixed with cooking oil. This combination is less likely to cause skin irritation than the traditional method of polishing with floor polish.
There are challenges that the group face including procuring the raw stone. As this area is very wet, all mining in the quarry will stop during the rain and this can affect the availability of the stone. They will not work with unscrupulous quarry owners. Kenya, like the UK, is experiencing a huge cost of living crisis so the raw material costs are increasing. The group’s also have difficulty bringing their products to the market as there is high competition and the effects of the pandemic on the tourism industry are still being felt.
The group we work with are part of a National Health Insurance Scheme of which the group are all members have medical and hospital coverage. When you speak to the group members about their wishes for the future there are always 2 wishes – good health and that their children will go to school and do well. The biggest employers in this region are the tea plantations and from asking about them the response was a negative one – like a lot of enormous farming industries, exploitation and lack of worker’s rights dominate so the only alternative is to work in small groups using the natural resources of the region – soapstone.
Boni and his family treated me to the most delicious lunch of potatoes cooked in tomatoes and roasted bananas. We managed to procure a donated laptop from Macnamara (a company who runs a scheme to refurbish laptops) and Natalie, our shop manager, kindly gave me her old phone as a gift to them as well.
I hopped back onto the waiting boda boda and waved farewell to this group, at least for now.