Kenyan Soapstone is becoming more and more popular in the UK as people travel and learn more about it.
But there is still confusion as to what it actually is.
This blog post hopes to explain just that – where it comes from, what it can be turned into and give you a little of the fascinating back story of the people that make beautiful Kenyan soapstone products and gifts.
WHAT EXACTLY IS SOAPSTONE?
• Soapstone is a metamorphic rock consisting mostly of the mineral talc. It is a relatively soft stone, a calcium carbonate.
• There are 3 different kinds, white being the softest, peach pink and black being the hardest and rarest.
• It is very tactile. Heavy, yet quite brittle.
• As the talc in soapstone is soft to the touch, it gives you the smooth feeling of rubbing a piece of dry soap.
• Thus the name was derived as “soap” stone.
• Just to be clear, however – no, you can’t wash with it and it won’t produce any soap suds!
WHERE IS SOAPSTONE FOUND?
Kisii in south western Kenya is where most of the world’s soapstone originates. A vibrant town of approximately 180,000 people located in the Nyanza region of the country.
The town is 192 miles to the west of Kenya’s capital city, Nairobi.
Soapstone quarrying takes place in the hills around Tabaka, south west of Kisii town.
Over many generations the local people have learned to carve beautiful artefacts from the stone and have come to rely on it as one of their major sources of income.
HOW IS SOAPSTONE MINED?
As most Kenyan soapstone is mined in the Kisii area, the stone is known specifically as “Kisii stone” – named after the Kisii tribe who use it domestically and more recently for handmade carvings for export and local trade..
Kisii stone is a specific type of soapstone that can range from 300 to 400 million years old.
The soapstone is mined by hand – no machinery is used. It can be particularly dangerous in the rainy season.
The mining of these rocks is carried out using crude tools and is clearly labour intensive.
The raw quarry stones are excavated by hand and carried to workshops that are up to 8 miles away.
When the soapstone is mined, a big pit is dug in the ground (maybe 50-75 feet in diameter) using picks and shovels.
The earth isn’t gouged by heavy machinery.
Interestingly, the local workers retain all of the fill, so when they have extracted the soapstone, they refill the pit.
After 5-10 years the soapstone begins to re-form, and so new soapstone becomes available.
TURNING THE ROCKS INTO OBJECTS OF ART
Individual carvers usually specialise in 1 or 2 types of items, as it is a highly skilled job.
Key is the right size of stone being chosen by the carver.
The stones are first worked with a panga (machete), to break the stones into a manageable size and get the rough shape. Then a hammer and chisel and sometimes a knife are used.
When they have a rough outline, the soapstone is immersed into water so that it is easier to carve.
Once the stone is dry it will stay in its solid form.
Colour is used to give a brighter look and is added on to some of the carvings.
Sandpaper is used until the stone is completely smooth and there are no chisel marks left.
The paint used is a mixture of natural and man-made products.
Once the paint is dried, the stone is etched with a very fast and steady hand.
No outline is ever drawn.
A kisu (smaller knife) is then used for more detailed work. Finally, increasingly fine-grained sands are used to polish and finish the piece.
In general, the men do the mining, carving and painting and the women do the sanding, washing and packing.
The women’s part also involves polishing and washing the finished products as well as applying the shining wax cream popularly known as cobra wax.
The result may be a beautiful Kenyan soapstone dish, bowls, ornamental plates, keyrings, paperweights or carved, decorative animals – all making perfect gifts for someone special.
AND THE KENYAN PEOPLE BEHIND THE WORK
The local people who own the land actually live on it – their houses are next to the mining pits and they are paid by the kilo for the soapstone that is removed.
Their property is very valuable, so the houses stay within the families and the people are very motivated to keep the land in good condition.
The area is extremely poor. There are very few cars and no electricity apart from a few shops. Most of the children walk barefoot and the poverty is obvious when you visit. Everyone here lives a subsistence lifestyle.
Carving useful items from Kisii soapstone brings supplemental income to several families in the district
The Fair Trade producers I work with are being paid 25 – 50% above average local market price in Kenya.
At present, there are about 25 people working on orders with The Art Safi Self Help Group and I hope by boosting sales of Kenyan Soapstone products it will ensure them a sustainable future.
“Have you purchased any Kenyan soapstone?
If so, why not tell us about it in the Comments section below?
As always, thanks for reading” – Paul.
And if you want to find out more about the country, my Blog post —> 19 Fascinating Facts About Kenya will help.