BY BETT KINYATTI
There’s a secluded clearing of trees off James Gichuru Road. It sits in the valley of the road, where the dip from Westy and the dip from Lavi meet. You’ll find Charles Oyoko here – underneath the trees, the river behind him, going about his hand weaving in the back.
Today, on this Thursday, I find him stitching the sponge padding onto the frame of dog basket. These are the final touches. It’s a basket made of bamboo, he tells me, it’s taken him about three days to weave it. It’ll be ready today for shipping off to the client.
I don’t know if you’re aware (because I keep banging on and on about this to whomever cares to listen, even my dentist. It must be why he stuffed my mouth with extra cotton wool, so I could shut the hell up), I run a column in the Saturday Nation. It’s huko in the back pages, after the pages for county ads and ng’ombes. If you get to the obituaries and you haven’t seen my page, then you’ve gone too far. Come back.
The column doesn’t have a name but I call it my ‘Crafts and Culture’ column. I’m mighty proud of it. It didn’t exist in the paper before I began to write it. Because it spawned from that mini-series I did last year about the ‘Hungry lioness that hunts’. The one that featured akina Newton and Wanjiru. Remember it?
Anyway, columns are animals you learn along the way to tame and leash to a tether. Weekly column deadlines get here way too fast.
On this Thursday, I wake up without a story and without a person to interview. (I know.)
After we’d left the digs that morning, I dropped Muna in school, dropped GB at his office then me and my camera drove around Westy and Kilimani looking for someone to interview. Hahha. I swear.
My first prospect – a weaver like Charles – is based off Chaka Road. He flatly says no. Didn’t even give me room to negotiate.
Pengine naeze ku…?
What if we do it without a…?
Na nikitumia jina ya your…?
Then I went to the weavers on Lower Kabete Road, behind Sarit. There were a handful but their first impression didn’t convince me that they’d make me a good story.
I wasn’t giving up. A story had to be found. The space in the paper had to be filled.
Then I remembered seeing these baskets here on James Gichuru Road. So I drove there. I wasn’t even sure it was on this road.
When I turned off Waiyaki Way and took the curvy turns down James Gichuru, I spotted the baskets from a far. I was idiotically thrilled. I remember shrilling to myself, “We have visual, people! We have visual.”
I pussyfoot before asking Charles if I we can chat about the baskets and the process and the business of the baskets for a feature in the gazeti.
Charles is no spring chicken. He’s from Bondo, or some lakeside county. He speaks in a way I imagine he also weaves his baskets – with an experienced thought-about balance of mild sentimentalism, maturity and no bullshit.
He’s a tapestry of the old Nairobi that was built on red-roof maisonettes and the new Nairobi that thrives on Pinterest decor for its modern tight spaces.
He swallows spit for a very long time then finally says, “Sawa. Ni sawa.”
Beyond Charles is Nairobi River, sluggish with urban decay. The sound of its trickle is drowned by the blast from his radio. A radio that has more static than signal.
It’s sunny today. The earth has that rich unforgettable smell of the rain from last night. I know there’s a word for that smell but it’s an ugly word for such a beautiful smell, I refuse to be part of it. In front of Charles is a wide-angle display of the products he’s woven by hand – baskets, storage chests, boxes, magazine racks and pets’ baskets.
I especially love the baskets and storage chests. They have such personality, such texture, such characteristic African-ness in them. The thing about them is that they’re a investment, something you buy once and forget about. And you must buy them gradually because they’re not just functional and versatile and long-lasting but they’re also strong pieces for interior decor – if you’re not careful, they could disrupt your interiors’ cohesion and end up looking like clutter instead of art.
And that’s the other thing, you have to know how to style them.
Pinterest helps a great deal.
I’ll later return to Charles to buy some baskets and chests for Muna’s bedroom, then the pantry then my bedroom. A month for each of them. We moved house so there’s space for me to move the furniture around and try my hand at styling. At ‘making my space beautiful’.
(Sorry about the lousy and scanty photos, by the way. Someday I’ll get better at manoeuvring my manual lens and getting some kick ass pics to use here. Let’s work with these. For now.)
This is Charles’ story:
I used to be a casual worker tending flowers. It got to a point where clients were asking for the papyrus baskets to hold the flowers in their balconies and backyards. I knew how to make the baskets, my people back in Western had taught me how to when I was still a young boy. I made one basket, it sold. Made another, it also sold. Made another. I saw a business opportunity.
In 1994, I began to make and sell the baskets fulltime. I’ve been here off James Gichuru Road [Lavington] for 15 years now. You’ll always find me here every day of the week, Monday to Sunday. Morning to evening. Even on the days it rains I’m here.
I weave using papyrus, Napier grass and bamboo stems.
Business was at its best in the early 2000s. Kibaki’s government. There were several tourists coming into the country and others staying. They loved the baskets and chests I was making. Do you know what’s interesting? Foreigners love my products more than Kenyans do. It’s a pity. I’ve noticed that Kenyans prefer the shiny factory-made imports from China; they’re not drawn to these local handmade products.
Most of my clients are now Kenyans. They buy once in a while, some return, several don’t. The dog baskets and sideboards are the most popular products.
My wife and I have three children, they’re all still young, they go to school. I wouldn’t push them to follow in my footsteps and carry on with the business, but I wouldn’t mind it either, if they do. They’ll pursue what their hearts desire. I haven’t taught any of them how to weave yet.
I make the dog baskets from Napier grass and all the other products from papyrus. Napier grass has a property that makes it bend better than papyrus. Papyrus can fold. I reinforce the papyrus products with wire frames, it easily folds around these frames.
Apart from the skill of hand weaving, I’ve also mastered basic carpentry. I make the wooden frames that some of the boxes sit in. For example, the frames for the sideboards. I haven’t learned how to weld metal, I have a fundi who welds the metallic frames for me.
I source the weaving materials from all over Kenya. The papyrus is from Budalangi and Mombasa, but mostly from Budalangi, because that’s where it’s grown on a large scale. I buy the papyrus in a roll. It takes four days for the farmers to process it into a roll ready for weaving.
The quantities I order depend on how many orders I have. Sometimes I order a pickup-full, sometimes it’s only a few rolls.
There’s a lot of competition in this business now. I’m not the only one in this area making the baskets. Down the road, at Peponi Road, there are other weavers. There’s also another weaver on Chaka Road and several others on Ngong Road. We just have to make do with the orders we’re able to get. There’s enough market for everyone.
I’ve never advertised my business. Not by word of mouth, not on social media. I open shop every morning, carry on weaving in the back there, with my radio playing, and wait for clients to walk in.
I source the Napier grass from Kiambu, because there are several dairy farms there. I go to Kiambu myself and search around the farms – there isn’t one farmer I consistently buy from. Some farmers give me the grass at no charge, others sell it to me at a throwaway price.
The thing with Napier grass is transporting it to my workshop here on James Gichuru Road. I buy the grass in huge bundles. I don’t bend or break the grass until I’m ready to use it to for my weaving.
Sometimes people come here to take photos my baskets then they go ask another weaver to make it for them. There’s nothing I can do about it. That’s just how business – and people – are. I’m happy with the ones who order from me.
Bamboo is the most expensive material, it’s sold by the stem. I won’t even tell you how much a bundle of stems cost. I buy it from individuals around Nairobi who grow it on their gardens and backyards, the rich folk. Items made from bamboo last the longest and are more appealing, but they cost an arm and a leg. I haven’t made an item from bamboo in a long time.
These products can last…forever, as long as they’re properly taken care of. They harden with time. Water is the one thing that completely ruins the baskets. Varnish helps to maintain their usability. My clients sometimes return their baskets here for me to add another layer of varnish.
To clean products, dust them with a dry cloth or vacuum them to suck out the dust, never use a damp cloth.
Reach Charles: 0717302351