BY BETT KINYATTI
Many harvests ago, I interviewed a craftsman for a magazine column. She back then handmade children’s furniture from her workshop on Ngong Road. She made them from MDF.
It was charmingly gorgeous furniture in baby pink and cream white, coral blue and playful red. The colours of urban procreation and parenting.
(She’s no longer in the business, by the way.)
She called me on the day the story ran in the magazine, bouncing with giddiness on the balls of her feet. She thanked me as if I were a messenger who had delivered good news. She said, “Bett, whenever you’re ready to become a mother, give me a call. I’ll make you a baby cot and a chest of drawers at no charge.”
I took her promise and put it in my pocket, knowing I would call it in when the time was ripe.
But you know what the monks say, don’t you? The monks say, ‘Do not promise when you are happy. Do not reply when you are angry. Do not decide when you are sad.’
Anyway, in August 2015, I called her and said, “Guess what? I’m ripe with child. He will be born in November, Inshallah. I pray he has better hair than mine.”
I reached into my pocket and pulled out her promise. She looked at it, thought about what the monks say, nodded and said sagely, “It shall be done.”
I selected a sleigh baby cot in brilliant white with a matching chest of drawers. The top row of drawers was painted in lime green and sunshine yellow. I was proud of my selection. We met over a cup of tea on Kiambu Road to tweak the design elements to the form and function of my daily use.
She said things such as, “This section of storage needs doors because the kids get to a point where they remove all the things you’ve folded and put in there.”
“The chest of drawers should just be high enough for you to change your baby on. You can also change her on the changing station on the side of the cot.”
“The cot will be standard size, you can get a mattress and mosquito net for it from Biashara Street.”
The greatest mistake she made, one I suffered through, is that she didn’t make the base of the cot adjustable. I should have been able to adjust it up or down as Muna grew older. It should have been raised higher when I was moving her out of her Moses Basket to the cot, then lowered it when she learned how to stand.
Much much later, it should have been closer to the floor, that way she wouldn’t hoist herself out of the railing and land on the floor in a hard slump. WWF style.
She delivered the furniture a week before our daughter – Muna – was born.
That was back in November 2015.
The furniture has seen Muna through the seasons up to her toddlerhood. She’s three and half now. She still sleeps in the cot. Not because she has not any grown bigger (with her head-full of hair. She has) but because it was unusually large – she will sleep in it until she turns five, maybe six years old.
The only cavil I have with the furniture is that it’s not ageing gracefully. The MDF is falling apart with wear and tear.
By the way. MDF translates to ‘medium density fibreboard’.
Google tells me that MDF is an ‘engineered product made by breaking down hardwood or softwood residuals into wood fibres, often in a defibrator, combining it with wax and a resin binder, and forming panels by applying high temperature and pressure.’
MDF is mostly used on children’s furniture. I have also seen it grow popular in recent years for the fittings in kitchens, wardrobes and flooring. It has almost – almost – the same characteristics as naturally grown timber only that it has a more consistent quality, wider variety and a smooth finish.
It is also a more environmentally sustainable option in forests where trees are felled and not replanted.
Strange thing though, MDF costs much more than naturally grown wood.
I have spoken to my fundi. He says a four by eight foot MDF board costs anywhere between 3K and 4,500. That’s about 400 bob per foot.
A foot of mahogany (hardwood) costs 150. Teak (hardwood) is 180. And cypress (soft wood) 70.
Yet for its steep price, MDF falls short in longevity. I compare the baby’s furniture to a bed I invested in at around the same time. My fundi custom made it from a design I had downloaded from Houzz, the app for home interiors and exteriors.
The bed has an unusually tall headboard. I sometimes find myself staring at it because it strikes the fine balance between beautiful art and practical craft. He made the bed from mahogany. And you know how mahogany ages? It absorbs oxygen – as if it’s breathing and maturing – and gradually takes on a darker richer hue. It also hardens the more.
Muna has rammed her bike into the foot of this mahogany bed countless times, coloured the headboard with crayons and biros, swung from it, spilled food in her tantrums… the bed has withstood her madness.
She has done the same to her MDF furniture and it’s falling apart. The paint is chipped and uneven, smudgy with stains. It can’t be wiped clean. Nanny Viv is lunje; she likes to scrub everything very hard with a lot of water and a lot of detergent. She put her back into that bed and it didn’t listen to her. Haha.
The drawer’s railings are coming loose, the corners separating from the joints… Argh. Shutting a drawer you’ve just opened is a fighting match. A battle of brains and brawns. It’s like pushing a cow that has been taken to the river and is refusing to drink.
I’ve asked around – fundis tell me they can’t repaint it for a fresh look because it can’t be sanded down. Wood must first be sanded down before you can apply a fresh coat of paint.
My MDF furniture has defeated whatever hopes I had of handing the furniture down to our next baby and the next. It has barely done its time yet it has already hanging its boots.
Well, so have I. I keep looking at that furniture and wondering what the hell I’ll do with it. Will someone buy it if I posted it on Pigiame? Should I donate it, instead? Why couldn’t she have built it such that I can disassemble it into parts that I can maybe reuse for other purposes, or put aside to come back to later?
Anyway, you know what the monks say – you’ll do better next time because you know better.
I hope you hear that, MDF.7