Gusii - Arts and Crafts

In this page:
Soapstone carving


The Gusii were very good ironworkers. Their blacksmiths (abatuli) made very fine hoes, axes, needles, spears, razors, arrowheads and knives. They were also known for their ornamental ironwork, such as leg-rings, arm-rings and earrings.

The Gusii were also great weavers of baskets and of granaries. The baskets ranged in size from small ones which were used as dishes for potatoes, ugali (maize meal) and green cooked maize, to large ones used for harvesting or storage. They jokingly refer to their granaries as huge baskets with roofs. Both granaries and baskets were woven from pliable thongs cut from a tree known as ekerundu. All granaries had thatched roofs to keep rain off the grain.

But the Gusii are most famous for their soapstone carving, which has become one of the stock-in-trades of the tourist curio shops scattered throughout Kenya.

Soapstone carving

Kenyan soapstone or "kisii" is found only in the Tabaka Hills of Western Kenya, a few kilometres southwest of Kisii town. A soft and easily worked stone, it comes in a variety of colors ranging from cream and lavender to black. The odd thing, though, is that the Gusii seem not to have acquired their tradition of stone carving until the twentieth century - the only references I've come across to working stone before then was in the form of large and presumably undecorated blocks used to fortify villages and cattle bomas.

Regardless of the lack of old tradition in the art, the artistic products of the stone carvers have become one of the stock-in-trades of Kenya's tourist-inclined curio market, which throws up anything from miniature pink and blue elephants and gaudy egg-shaped globes to bowls and vases painted with abstract one-off motifs - real and beautiful works of art.

For an intriguing comparison of Gusii and Makonde sculptures, see the page about figurative Makonde wood carvings.

From the quarries in Tabaka, the large blocks of stone are broken into smaller pieces using large knives (pangas), before being carried off to the workshops, which can be several kilometres away. Craftsmen then cut out the rough shape of the carving with a knife, before carving out the detail using a small knife called kisu. Following this, the carvings are polished with wet sand and cleaned with a small brush.

You can buy items from the various websites mentioned alongside the full version of the photos, as well as from Oxfam's Fair Trade program. Their Tabaka Mother and Child Self-Help Group is helping single mother and mothers who have suffered domestic violence to earn an income through the sale of soapstone carvings. The group has a small savings and loan scheme to help with school fees, buying livestock, putting up fences and planting grass-seed.


Traditional Music & Cultures of Kenya
Copyright Jens Finke, 2000-2003

also by Jens Finke
Chasing the Lizard's Tail - across the Sahara by bicycle - fine art photography