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Art Safi Self Help Group, Kisii & Nairobi, Kenya
Kisii is the region where most of the world's supply of soapstone originates. Soapstone is a relatively soft stone, a calcium carbonate. The stone naturally occurs in three colours; white, peach- pink, and black. The black is the rarest stone and the white the most common. They vary is hardness with white being the softest form and black very hard. Over many generations the people of Kisii have learned to carve beautiful artefacts from the stone. Some are hand painted while others are left natural. The process is described below. Despite the area being one of the world's largest producers of soapstone it is extremely poor. There are very few cars here and no electricity apart from in a few places such as shops. Most of the children walk barefoot and the poverty is obvious when you visit any of the villages surrounding Kisii. Everyone here lives a subsistence lifestyle (i.e. just enough to survive and buy basics such as food, water and some clothing) earning small money from working with the soapstone and growing their own food and keeping chickens, cows and goats.
The cousins manage our orders by employing a number of skilled carvers and artists. We ensure they are well paid by paying between 25% and 50% above the local market wholesale price in Kenya. However to be sure that all those involved in the long process of making a soapstone item benefit we encouraged Charles to set up a registered self help group. This was done in 2005 with seven members registering. However thanks to the large orders we are being able to give them the group has grown significantly and at present there are over 25 people working on Zuri Design orders. This group is split with 16 in Kisii and 9 in Nairobi.
Zuri Design is continuously working with this group to formalise their self help group structure and to encourage the group to distribute shares so that committed members have a real chance to increase their standard of living by working with the group. As mentioned we pay higher than the going rate for soapstone items. We pay 50% of order value upfront and ensure that the balance is paid on time. Often the soapstone workers are taken advantage of by buyers who can make them wait three months and more before they are paid.
We want to see a significant change in our soapstone producer's standard of living and hope that in the future this will encourage other buyers in Kisii to pay a price that allows these skilled people to move forward from their subsistence lifestyle. We aim to help by having one of the project managers from an established self help group work with them and offer advice until they are set up fully.
We will update this page with the progress of the group regularly.
Members of the self help group include carvers, artists and those who sand, wax and pack the items. By working with a number of designers we are developing our unique soapstone range which we will be excited to introduce you to soon.
The Process

Mining

First the soapstone is mined by hand in open mines. No machinery is used to mine, and as a result it can be a dangerous job, particularly in the rainy season. The stone is removed using hand held picks. Depending on what the stone will be used for the big rocks are cut into smaller sizes using no more than a saw, as shown in the photo.
Carving & Sanding

Carvers usually specialise in one or two items, as it is a highly skilled job, and each item requires different techniques. For example the carver that makes cats will not make chess sets. The right size of stone is first chosen by the carver. Then using a hammer and a chisel he begins to carve. A knife is sometimes used in addition or at different stages of the carving. Using these tools he gets the rough outline he requires. The stone is then placed in water. Sandpaper is used to smooth the chiselled stone. This is a long process and different sandpaper is used until the stone is completely smooth and there are no chisel marks left. The women often do the sanding.
Painting & Polishing

If the item is to be left in its natural colour the stone is shined to reveal its colour using clear polish. Beeswax may also be used. Items to be painted are usually those carved from plain white stone. The paint used is a mixture of natural and man made paints. The stone is painted, often using a sponge to mix colours. Once the paint has dried the designs are hand etched into the stone using a knife and a very steady hand! No outline is drawn. The designs are carefully carved into the stone to reveal the white under the paint. Designs are constantly changing and nZuri group are now working with a number of designers who are allowing us to develop an even more unique range which we will be excited to introduce you to soon.
   
 
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