#13-2013 The Banana Leaf and Maize Husk Workshop (by Maya)
After the first Maasai market trip, Granny saw an article in the Daily Nation (Kenyan newspaper) about a workshop in Nairobi that made nativity scenes and other gifts out of dried maize husks and banana leaves. She recognized some of the figures pictured in the paper as ones she’d ordered at the market from a man named James Njoroge. She got in touch with James, who confirmed that it was his family’s workshop in the paper, and arranged for us to go check it out.
On Monday morning, Granny, Ben, Jecinta and I drove up to Nairobi, although where we were didn’t look like the busy, trafficy, metropolis I’d seen before. We parked off of a dusty road and waited for James to arrive by Matatu. Considering how long and unpredictable matatu rides can be, he was surprisingly prompt. We welcomed him by squeezing him in the back seat beside Granny, Jecinta, and some backpacks. None of them individually take up much space, but it was hot and there was a lot of stuff back there so one could say it was a cozy ride for them. I get the privilege of sitting shotgun because I’m prone to carsickness, especially with all the swerving and overtaking on Kenyan roads. I’m not sure how much Granny has described of the driving etiquette here, but there isn’t really any.
James directed us into a narrow opening among the trees and maize growing along the road. I expected the workshop to be right there, but the path split in more than one direction and there wasn’t a building in sight. The road was dirt, but it wasn’t dry and dusty like every other road I’d seen. The soil was deep brownish-red and maize, bamboo, and banana trees grew thickly all around us. I especially loved seeing the banana trees- up close they are really neat. Bunches of two-dozen or so green bananas hang around the trunk and underneath them hands an odd twiggy brown piece with large brown bulbs at the end. Here is a photo of me admiring them.
The road wound around the plants until it finally widened and ended. We were parked in front of a large patio where people were sitting at a table or on benches in the shade. When we got out, we could see that they were delicately crafting little people. One boy, who said he was in middle school, was wrapping wire figures with thin pieces of dried banana leaves. A younger girl, maybe seven, used strings of pale maize husk to wrap x-patterns around the legs of the figures. The tiny dolls were passed down the assembly line until they were clothed and accessorized. I tried to help but I was useless at it.
Here is the family, working at the table. Notice the completed figures on the right.
At first glance, the piles of completed figures all look the same. However, when you look closer, you can see that some have wooden stands, and others are meant to be hung or tied in a nativity scene. Some carry drums, spears, or baskets, and some have necklaces, belts, skirts, shirts, and or trousers. Others aren’t people at all, they’re animals and angels and things. Some are for individual sale, but most are for the many different nativity scenes that the article featured.
Two dogs lay in the sun, chickens wandered about, and there was a sheep who baa-ed for attention then ran into his shed whenever someone came near. The little kids, of which there were many, ran around barefoot and giggled at each other. There seemed like far too many people to all be living in the dark little house built next to the patio.
Here are some of the kids – there were plenty more. The boy in the blue hat on the right wanted his own personal photo shoot so I have lots of cute pictures of him.
James explained that everyone here was family, and his family had been living on this land for many years. This wasn’t the only house that his family owned. We hopped back in the car and drove a little ways to wooden cottage. We met several more adults, including his mother and grandmother. Everyone was very kind. After a brief chat, James directed us up toward another wooden cottage. Here, we met some more relatives and a newborn baby – see picture in last email.
To our confusion, we were introduced to another lady who was James’s mother and two more women who were his Grandmothers. At the next wooden house, we again met several family members. He presented another mother, his second-youngest apparently, and his oldest grandmother, a woman of over 100. Granny finally asked how many mothers this gentlemen had, and he replied, “Seven.” If I had seven mothers I’d never get away with anything.
Our last stop with James was his shop in downtown Nairobi, where he kept most of his stock. He owns a stall in the middle of a big a group of stalls, so we had to pass several hopeful sellers before we reached his merchandise. We ordered some of almost everything he had, and I’m excited about several of the things we will have to sell this year. He may be the first African to offer a good price right away to a mzungu. What a nice man.
**more pictures of the workshop to follow**