Friday, May 15, 2015

Malindi's Artful Crafters in Dire Straits

Words and Picturess by Barry Greville-Eyres


The socio-economic demise of Malindi’s crafters (painters, wood and stone carvers) is just a part, at a specific coastal geographical location, of an insidious Kenyan-wide challenge that has seen tourism related revenue decline in 2014 by an ‘official’ figure of 7.3% due to visitor no-shows. Precipitated by dramatic, high profile, impact and mortality Al Shebaab perpetrated terrorist attacks including the Westgate Shopping Mall event in the Westlands district of Nairobi in September 2013 (resulting in 67 deaths) and more recently, the 3 April 2015 attack at Garissa University (resulting in 148 deaths and scores of injured and maimed) this does not auger well for Kenya’s second highest foreign-income earner. Tea is the country’s largest foreign-income earner. 
Kenya's Kamba people renowned for fine wood carving work and the mainstay of Malindi's Muungano Handicrafts

Jambo jambo bwana!
Following the latest attack, the Somali terrorist group Al Shabaab renewed its threats to attack the domestic interests of countries such as Kenya that are contributing military forces to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). A snapshot of current, foreign country online travel advisories specifically to Kenya (by the governments of Canada, US, UK, Australia and New Zealand) confirms that the situation and prospects for the immediate future are, indeed, bleak. This is in spite of a recent Kenyan print media report confirming that ‘the marketing budget for ailing tourism has been increased six-fold as the country prepares to battle the effects of travel alerts that have crippled the Kenyan tourism industry.’ Interestingly, the spread of Ebola in West African nations was also cited as a contributory factor in the decline of tourist visitors to Kenya in 2014/15.

Sign of the times! A government-funded billboard in the heart of Malindi flagging challenges that lie ahead with an insidious insurgency

Closer scrutiny of these travel advisories is both an education in bureaucratic jargon and the harsh reality facing Kenya generally and Malindi specifically. Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada advises against non-essential travel to the Eastleigh neighbourhood of Nairobi (where several attacks have recently taken place) and Mombasa for the time being (due to the current elevated threat of terrorism). Travel to all compass points of neighboring ‘border’ countries ie Somalia, South Sudan and Ethiopia is advised against.
Handiwork in Action!
Wood carvings galore
The British UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advise against all but essential travel to:
·         areas within 60km of the Kenya-Somali border
·         Garissa County
·         the Eastleigh area of Nairobi
·         Lamu County and those areas of Tana River County north of the Tana river itself
·         within 15km of the coast from the Tana River down to and including Tiwi; this area includes Mombasa Island, Moi International Airport (including transit through the airport), Malindi, Kilifi and Watamu
Raw materials are sourced predominantly from within the area with an emphasis on sustainable resource utilization

Work station with a difference - Swahili time and location

Malindi-based wood carvers support their tribal counterparts in Mombasa via the Akamba Handicraft Industry Cooperative which at one stage employed over 10, 000 people in the greater Mombasa area (


The US Travel Warning is an emphatic and blanket one stating: ‘We issue a Warning when we want you to consider very carefully whether you should go to a country at all. Examples of reasons for issuing a Travel Warning might include unstable government, civil war, ongoing intense crime or violence, or frequent terrorist attacks. We want you to know the risks of traveling to these places and to strongly consider not going to them at all. Travel Warnings remain in place until the situation changes; some have been in effect for years.’
Earthy East African community taking shape........
Work on a mortar for grinding local East African spices
The Australians are as brusque as ever stating: Nairobi, coastal areas from Lamu county to Mombasa and outskirts – reconsider your need to travel; Kenya overall – exercise a high degree of caution; and Border regions with Somalia, South Sudan and Ethiopia – Do not travel.
Akamba artistry!
Wood carver from Democratic Republic of Congo working alongside fellow crafters
The array of Akamba wood carving skills is exceptional and the transformation from raw timber to finished polished product is extraordinary
The Kiwis conclude with: there is high risk to your security in the cities of Nairobi and Mombasa due to the ongoing threat from terrorism and we advise against all tourist and other non-essential travel to these cities. We continue to receive reports that terrorists are planning attacks in Nairobi and Mombasa. The 2013 attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi and a series of incidents and attacks in 2014 continue to indicate there is an ongoing threat from terrorism in these locations. There is some risk to your security elsewhere in Kenya due to the threat from terrorism, kidnapping, violent crime and civil unrest and we advise a high degree of caution.
A 3-legged palm wood stool
Unique palm wood grain

Stock in abundance at the Malindi showroom of Muungano Handicrafts
A sobering set of conclusions – if hardcore, die-hard, rugger-bugger Aussies and Kiwis are limiting their travel to Kenya then there is little wonder that there is a general stay-away from most countries. Secondly, after the fact and travel too many above mentioned areas, I did indeed feel like a lonely-planet traveler to the Kenyan coastline – potentially also a product of the off peak and rainy season. In all my naivety and possibly, stupidity, I never once felt unsafe and would not have had it any other way. 
Quintessential East Africa - definitely Kenya!
A riotous amalgamation of colour, texture, motion and subjects!
Having dispensed with the histrionics, let’s revert to the real issue of Malindi’s crafters and how they are impacted by the latest downturn in the tourism industry. The Kamba people of Kenya (also called Akamba or Wakamba) make up 11% of the country’s population (3rd, 4th or 5th largest ethnic group in Kenya of 48 – source dependent) are renowned for their fine work in wood carving, basketry and pottery.
Kenyan safaris - surf 2 turf!
The artist and man at the centre of it all - Davis Kebabe Mochama - - Malindi Tourist Market

Uniquely East African!

Many members of Malindi’s Muungano Handicrafts (tel. 042-31967 & cell. 072 226 4843 and 073 380 2615) are Akamba and their ‘cooperative’ have been practicing their craft and plying a successful trade therein for many years. An abundantly stocked showroom is testimony to this but because of declining market demand for artistic pieces (dwindling tourists locally as well as in Mombasa and Nairobi) they are now required to turn they handiwork and energies to lower paying, mass ‘production line’ work churning out cooking utensils including spoons and pestles and mortars. With a trend in declining sales its easy to see why a younger Akamba generation are perhaps reluctant to enter into the tradition and craft based on emerging realities and the fact that newly developed skills may soon become redundant.  
Silky soap stone carvings by James Matiro - Tabako Curio Shop No.35 - Malindi Tourist Market
James Matiro - proudly displays his artwork at the Malindi Tourist Market

Walk right in ..... colouful characters and artistry amassed at the Malindi Tourist Market

My meagre contribution is to draw attention to their plight and play a small role in ‘promoting’ their unique craft. The Malindi Tourist Market, located at the main town waterfront, faces an identical predicament – having flourished under a tourist boom they are now facing an industry that could be going bust – and very soon indeed.
Geoffrey Shop No. 13 Malindi Tourist Market

A deserted and desolate Malindi Tourist Market waiting for returning droves of tourists and better times


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