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SOAPSTONE CARVINGS FROM KENYA

 

   

Hand carved & fairly traded

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Our exquisite collection of soapstone dishes, bowls, boxes and figures hail from far-flung Kenya, an ancient bastion of the famed Swahili Coast of eastern Africa.  Each piece is carefully hand carved then decorated. 

In the past century, Kenya has become renowned for its soapstone (called kisii stone in Africa) carvers. Soapstone carving didn't catch on in Kenya until the 1940s, after Indian laborers arrived to build the railroad from the Kenyan coast to Uganda.

Soapstone is actually a variety of talc, a soft mineral of a soapy feel and a greenish, whitish, or grayish color, usually occurring in foliated masses. It is hydrous silicate of magnesia and forms by alteration of these magnesium-rich rocks and minerals at low temperatures and high pressure.  Rocks consisting mainly of talc are known as steatite or soapstone, and are soft enough to carve into various shapes.  Soapstone is the softest mineral on the Mohs hardness scale (soapstone being a 1, or the softest and 10 being the hardest, i.e. diamond). Whew!  You made it through that scientific gibberish.  Want to make it simple?  Its a soft rock, about half the way between chalk and marble and its easy to carve and porous so it can absorb coloring and dyes.   Kisii stone typically exhibits coloration ranging from creamy white to yellow to red to dark grey, depending on the mineral(s) present in the stone.

Kisii stone is only available in the Tabaka Hills of Western Kenya, and the Kikuyu men of the Kisii community mine and carve the stone. The stone is mined using hoes, pick axes, shovels, iron rods and pangas, which are large knives used to chop the stone into smaller pieces.   Most of the carvers are not professional carvers, but are actually sustenance farmers who carve in the evening and in the dry season.  These men typically live in small villages with their families and often have to walk five to seven miles to the soapstone mines. 

We partner with several families and small workshops in Kenya who provide us with most of our soapstone.  Our soapstone is fairly traded with the artisans receiving a living wage and a significant portion of the proceeds from the sale of their handiwork.  We purchase all that these artisans can produce, buying products from them consistently over extended periods of time.  We strive to have them produce only the highest quality products and while they are sometimes more expensive than pieces that are carved in factories paying low wages, we feel that the finished products reflect the people who struggle to produce it. 

In addition to assisting our artisans with a variety of projects (including paying for a well to be dug so that the villagers would not have to walk 3 – 4 miles to take water from a dirty ditch) we also donate a portion of the proceeds from all of our soapstone pieces to the Makindu Children’s Center.   The proceeds of our soapstone is donated to the Makindu Children’s Center – a place where orphans (primarily from HIV-ravaged families) come to school and get two meals six days a week; and learn sustainable agriculture and market skills.  Ask us for more information on this worthwhile organization or visit their website at:  http://www.makindu.org/

Our carvers do not use any form of power tools – only hand made tools usually of their own design.  After finding a suitable size piece of soapstone, a rough carving is made, and then refined using a small knife called a kisu. The finished carvings are polished using wet sand, and then cleaned with a small brush made from long animal hairs.   Men do most of the carving while mainly women apply painted and dyed patterns to the kisii stone carvings. Traditionally natural pigments are used: clays and ground minerals, goat fat mixed with charcoal from the fire (for black), crushed shells for white, berries or boiled barks for red, roots of the indigo plant for blue, etc. The painting is finished with mineral pigments and natural vegetable dyes. Incised patterns are added after dying. Truly our soapstone pieces are singular works of modern folk art to be cherished and enjoyed for many years.

Zanzibar Trading Company and companies like it share an important relationship with these carvers. Since independence, Kenya has struggled to maintain a strong, conscientious government and economy. Dependent mainly on the revenues the large game reserves garner from tourists, too few Kenyans have steady work, and thus many are subsistence farmers and only carve to supplement their incomes.

At Zanzibar Trading Company, encouraging free thought, creativity and imagination among the workers is a priority. Each design is collaboration between the carvers in Kenya and our staff here in the States, a system that keeps our carvers from stagnating on the same product.  Creating functional products for American consumers challenges our Kenyan workers to learn more about Western culture. We in turn must find new ways to bring our cultures together in a way that emphasizes the positives of both while providing an opportunity for people to expand their opportunities. 

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Zanzibar Trading Co.

1731 L Street Sacramento CA 95814

(916) 443-2057