Don’t Sit on Your Talent!

Published on 30th November -0001

Can anything good come out of a slum? In the heart of Kibera, the second largest slum in East and Central Africa, second to Soweto in South Africa, lives Pius Musyoka aged 45. The father of eight who hails from Mamole in Kitui speaks with The African Executive, without pausing from chiseling, for he has to beat a deadline of supplying wooden spoons and crosses to his clients.

AE: What are some of your products?

Musyoka: I make all types of wooden carvings be they sculpture in relief or on the round.

AE: Did you acquire your skills from school?

Musyoka: No. this is a God given talent. While young, I just dreamt that I was carving and upon waking up, I took a panga and started carving an animal. Surprisingly, it came out so well except the feet which were a bit wide apart. Since then, none of my carvings has ever been rejected as bad.

AE: What is your most memorable moment as an artist?

Musyoka: I recall two main ones. First, the Catholic Church in Kibera wanted a design for its altar. Several artists were asked to submit their designs based on a furnished concept. My design won and I was awarded the tender of making relief sculpture on the church’s wooden altar. Second, there was a refugee who happened to come my way in search of food. As you know, Kibera is a slum and most people here are poor. As she sat beside me, I secretly studied her features and within a short time I made a carving of her face and bust which I showed it to the priest. He was so impressed that he bought it. Since then, the church allowed me to use its compound to do my work.

AE: How much money did the altar project fetch for you?

Musyoka: Ksh 17,000, although considering market prices then, it was worth Ksh. 60,000.

AE: What tools do you use?

Musyoka: An axe, files, sandpaper, saw, chisels, mallet, glue and wood of course.

AE: Where do you get your wood from?

Musyoka: I mostly buy it at Gikomba market although I occasionally carry some from my home area. The wood is sold in terms of length and width. One foot is sold at Ksh 100.

AE: How much wood do you purchase per week?

Musyoka: It depends on the orders made and amount of money I have. I buy an average of twenty feet of wood per week.

AE: From your experience, what sculpture designs are popular and sell most?

Musyoka: Animal carvings especially the gazelle, giraffe, rhino and elephant.

AE: Who buys most sculptures generally, in Kenya?

Musyoka: Foreign tourists.

AE: Why?

Musyoka: Most of their countries don’t have such animals in their natural environment. It is like a lesson to them. After seeing real animals, they purchase its replica for remembrance. Africans on the other hand have seen a lot of animals hence seeing a carving may not excite them much. Town dwellers are most likely to buy because they do not see these animals in towns. I used to see rhinos in my village but I no longer see them today. As such species become extinct; Africans will be forced to buy their resemblances. Africans too have a moral dilemma on whether to buy such items or food. The case applies to other commodities. Why should I buy a newspaper for example at Ksh 35 when I lack maize flour? Why buy a painting at Ksh 5000 when my son lacks school fees? Economic hardships make Africans to term some services and commodities as "luxury."

AE: What challenges do you encounter?

Musyoka: I don’t have enough capital to order wood in huge amounts. I am forced to travel to town each week to purchase the wood in bits. This proves expensive considering the transport costs and wasted man hours. Right now I have an order for buffalos but I have no wood. With capital, I can buy an entire tree hence make life size sculpture. My place of work is hidden from view. If I would get a room in an open place, I am sure more customers would be attracted. I look forward to a day when I will have a big store to keep wood.

AE: How much do your items cost?

Musyoka: The animal prices range between Ksh 250- 2000 depending on the size. The price of spoons and other small carvings lie between Ksh 20-300.

AE: Have you ever considered networking with other artists to raise income and pool resources together?

Musyoka: The idea has never crossed my mind but I will now consider it. We learn from each other you know.

AE: How do you market your goods?

Musyoka: I walk to curio shops show them my sculptures and some of them place an order. I also visit offices to advertise my carvings. For wooden cooking spoons, most people here know that I make them so a few come to purchase. A Catholic priest who visited the church that has my design has also requested that I make another unique design for his church altar.

AE: Any comment for artists out there?

Musyoka: Don’t ever ignore your gift. Exploit it. Don’t play with your work. I am self employed, I take my work seriously even if I get tired, I persevere. If I joke, what will I eat? It is good to be self employed for this creates personal discipline and market plus survival forces cause you to keep working and be innovative.

AE: Can I be your student?

Musyoka: Certainly yes. In a week’s time, you will have known how to carve a spoon at least, if your head won’t be too dense. All the same, it would be good for you to spend your energies on developing what you are good at. If all of us were tall, who would bend to pick the needle under the bed?

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