August 07, 2018

By Tommy Brown Saint Louis Zoo Gift Shop Manager 

If you have ever walked through one of the gift shops at the Saint Louis Zoo, you may have seen soapstone carvings in the shapes of cheetahs, lions, giraffes or other animals native to the African Serengeti. As a part of my Saint Louis Zoo-sponsored Crafter Journey through Kenya, I stopped in the village of Tabaka, where some of the best soapstone craftsmen in all of Africa live and work.

Along the way, I visited the mines from which the Tabakans cut the stone and carry the rock out by hand. The mining is very difficult work. Between the strain of the labor and the pressing heat, the villagers rest between each load they carry up the mountainside. Once the soapstone has been hewn from the mine, it is hauled to the nearby village, where the master artists set to the work of bringing the rock to life. The men of the village are the miners and the carvers, but there is also a very important place for the women of the village in this crafting process.

The women of the village put the “soft touch” on the rough carvings. They sand and smooth the little sculptures, then polish them to a high gloss. This is a time consuming and delicate process; the women need to fine tune the work that the men of the village have done. Without the finishing touch of the women in the village, the soapstone carvings would not be nearly as beautiful. As they work, the women sit together, socializing and telling stories. The children of the village attend a school and, after school is out, play in the dirt roads while the moms sit nearby crafting and keeping an eye on the children at play.

The children of the village were amazing. We laughed and sang songs, and they tried earnestly to speak English with me as many of them were learning this in school.  These children will be the future crafters of the village, and instilling in them why their crafts are so important will keep these arts alive for future generations to enjoy.

As part of the Zoo’s efforts to help promote education throughout the world, a book drive was organized to help supply a children’s library in Mombasa, Kenya. These books will help the children of crafters and other children in the area learn English. Additionally, I had the good fortune to help feed more than 300 children that showed up that day to the library. Some of these children had walked close to 10 miles to get a plate of food and a book. Some of them did not even have shoes. Yet they arrived with smiles and joy, making me feel welcome. Our contributions to these people, however big or small they may be, make a huge impact, especially on the children.

Life in the village is very simple, but the villagers’ teamwork is the best I have ever seen. The villagers know that each person depends on everyone else in the village to make their livelihood. No one can do it alone. It literally “takes a village” in Kenya to have great success. The villagers rely entirely on craft sales to the EU and the USA to make their income. Most of the buyers come from zoos, aquariums, theme parks and museums. Because zoos are a big part of their income, there is an incentive for the villagers to help with conservation efforts like reporting illegal poaching, taking care of their local environment and reducing their carbon footprints. By purchasing their soapstone statuettes, you help the people in these Kenyan crafter villages and give back to conservation efforts in their part of the world. So, thank you all for helping to make a difference in people’s lives when you buy stone art from the Saint Louis Zoo.

Click picture below to enlarge image.