A small town located in the middle of the vast south-eastern Kenyan county of Machakos hosts one of the most reputable wood artisans in East Africa, commonly known as the Wamunyu artisans.
Their magnificent wood carvings continue to traverse the world to the delight of art lovers.
However, the artisans are now faced with a challenge stifling their work, COVID-19, a disease that came fast and swift, and destabilized their market which is pegged on tourists.
“Our biggest market has been foreign tourists so when governments across the world instituted mobility restrictions, we took a hit. Right now we are desperately trying to survive,” said Mwema Mutunga, head of sales department, Wamunyu Carvers Society.
Wood carving is not only an artistic form of expression for the residents of Wamuyu who are predominantly from the Akamba community, but also their source of income.
At the onset of the pandemic in March, their business was severely affected with little prospects of a speedy recovery.
The art of wood carving in Kenya was pioneered by the Akamba community who has over the years influenced other artisans across the country to take up the time-honored craft.
Their works range from ornaments to sculpture and functional items among other designs depicting the African culture.
Mutunga said during a recent interview that the number of carvers has halved over the past six months as some took up alternative sources of income to stay afloat.
“We would have about 60 artists working from the society’s compound before COVID-19 but right now there are hardly 30 people. There is a handful that carve from home while engaging in other revenue-generating activities,” said Mutunga.
Informed by the need to avoid getting duped by middlemen, the carvers from Wamunyu came together to form a society that markets their products both locally and internationally.
The society came into existence in 1963 and has a showroom displaying carved items. On account of low sales, one artisan now plants kales and spinach within the Society’s compound for domestic consumption.
“When it became clear that things will not change immediately, planting food crops appeared like a wise idea to pursue. I sometimes sell the surplus but not often because I have planted on a small piece of land,” said the male woodcarver.
The majority of the artists said that some of their local business partners have closed shops, chiefly because buyers have other competing responsibilities to meet.
“Maasai market in Nairobi city was an ideal destination for our wares because both local and foreign tourists would throng the market famous for hand-crafted bead works and sculptors but right now only a few traders are making orders,” said one of the artists.
According to Mutunga, items that embody the African culture while being functional at the same time such as spoons, walking sticks, and bowls are popular with clients while decorative items are not flying off the shelf like in the past.
Justus Mutua Ndunda, an artisan said that so dire is the situation that one of his children has been sent home for non-payment of school fees.
“I have two children both in senior classes and one has just been sent home due to lack of fees, being the primary breadwinner I feel backed up against the wall,” said Mutua.
Kenya schools resumed phased in-person learning on Monday catching parents flat footed and inflicting upon them the burden of fee payment during tough economic times.
Mutua said that he currently earns daily wages not more than 100 shillings (about 0.93 U.S. dollar) compared to 3 dollars that he previously earned from a vocation he has always cherished.
The father of four said he has been forced to sell his works through brokers who can be evasive when it comes to payment.
Earlier in the year, the government launched a nearly 1-million-dollar stimulus package to cushion artists, musicians, and actors from economic hardships linked to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although some funds trickled down to the artists, not all of them benefited from the state bailout.
Part of their recovery strategy for the Wamunyu woodcarvers has been the aggressive marketing of a tree nursery set within their society’s premises.
The trees are essentially meant to replenish the old ones which they fell to support their trade.
“We are creating awareness on the importance of tree planting especially in our area where dozens of trees are cut down and we hope apart from fetching a few coins for ourselves, we are playing a crucial role in preserving the environment,” said a male artist.
As for now, the showroom housing thousands of wood designs sits deprived of visitors, with the items slowly gathering dust.
Nevertheless, the artists remain hopeful that their fortunes will improve amid the ongoing post-pandemic recovery efforts in Kenya.