Nerding in Nairobi

A few months travelling, living and hacking in Kenya

Kibera Boneworks

I have to admit I was a bit nervous when Liz suggested I take a matatu alone into one of worlds more infamous urban slums. I hopped out onto the busy Kibera street still uncertain where we were meeting and struck off walking with false confidence. I picked a somewhat discrete spot down the road and sat to wait.

Watching

Liz had matatu troubles and I ended up watching life in Kibera roll by for about an hour. Matatus blew diesel smoke across the road, men struggled uphill behind heavily laden wood carts and others just walked about their business. Shopkeepers worked out of tin-roofed shacks along the road. The men next to me joked around and worked on the exposed wires stealing electricity for their food stand. A few people came up to say hi to the Mzungu sitting by the side of the road.

I was pretty nervous when I found myself pinned in a corner by two talkative Kenyan men – a position I try to avoid on unfamiliar ground. They joked with me for a bit and eventually wandered off saying “please, feel safe here in Kibera”. A bit later another man came up, asked where I was from, chatted for a few minutes and also left me with “be at home here with us”. A third man approached me, clearly to beg money. A few minutes into his speech, some of the other men nearby approached and challenged him:

“Why do you beg, why don’t you find some work?”
“Stop bothering people in the streets.”
“Look, you are in good health you should find some work to do.”

He responded only: “Yes I have my body health but there is inside too.” That was the only beggar I met in Kibera.

Boneworks

Liz and I walked to Veronicah’s workshop in an unassuming little building down the road. I listened while they talked about a custom necklace for a Soko marketing video. Liz was trying to determine, “just how big can one make a cow-bone bead?” Turns out the answer is about the size of a quarter or silver dollar but not a fist.

From there, Veronicah walked us over to Victorious Bone Craft where several of our artisans work. Victorious turns scrap bone from the butcher into beads and pendants to sell to women who make jewelry. They’re known for providing free training to Kibera youth who want to join them in the business. Everyone was friendly and happy to show off the pieces they were cutting, grinding and polishing.

Our final stop was Steve’s shop up the road. I had met Steve at the office and already knew him to be quite a character and salesman. His work is diverse and incorporates materials like bone, horn, glass and hand-forged scrap brass or aluminum. We talked business and took a new profile picture for his page on Shop Soko. Liz bought a necklace and asked him to customize some bracelets for her. Before we left he announced to his workers, “we sold a nice necklace, do you guys want fish or nyama choma [BBQ] for lunch today?” Great guy!

Veronicah, Lucas from Victorious and Steve all make some great products. Please click on their names to see their stores on Shop Soko!

  • Talking shop in Veronicah’s office
  • One of Veronicah’s workers grinding bone
  • Home of the Victorious Youth Group
  • One of the guys showing us how to make an arrow pendant
  • He really wanted to see his picture taken!
  • Steve posing for his new profile picture

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