Meet the makers of Prof Wangari's casket

By Nicholas Anyuor

When Nobel Peace Winner Prof Wangari Maathai passed on two weeks ago environmentalists and Kenyans were concerned about what kind of casket would be made for her.
Members of Kisumu Innovation Centre who made Nobel laureate Prof Wangari Mathai’s coffin (from left) George Otieno, Evans Obudo and Isaac Agina. Photo: James Keyi/Standard

For many, a wooden coffin had no place in her burial because of the lifetime crusade she had led in protecting trees and the environment.

But the answer to the tricky issue lay in the obnoxious water hyacinth in Lake Victoria.

For three Kisumu artisans George Otieno, Evans Obudo and Tom Okoth it had never occurred to them that in their careers they would be called upon to weave a Nobel winners’ casket.

The artisans based at Kisumu Innovation Centre, Kenya (KICK), have been training community members on the economic viability of the hyacinth.

The trio admitted that the invitation to make Maathai’s coffin was a challenge and the notice was short, but they had to battle the odds and ensure the laureate was accorded the farewell she had wanted.

KICK Manager Isaac Agina says he was approached by the renowned writer Asenath Bole Odaga a former KICK board member when it was still operating as an NGO.

"It was my first time to meet Asenath. She came to this place and asked if we could give Maathai a good send off by weaving her coffin," Agina said.

He said the only way they could contribute to Maathai’s final farewell was through weaving the coffin.

"We did not charge for any other cost apart from the payment of labour (for the three artisans), bus fare (public means) and money for materials," said Agina.

However, at the time they were approached with the task, the three artisans had travelled to Yala to train locals on how to use hyacinth and waste materials to make furniture.

But despite the short notice, George, who was the lead artisan and his colleagues returned to Kisumu and by 6pm, they had gathered enough hyacinth and papyrus reeds from Dunga beach, Kisumu town.

"I didn’t even go back to my house and that very night we took a bus to Nairobi where we reached the following morning and headed to Maathai’s home in the upmarket Lavington estate as we were in constant touch with her family members," adds George.
Kisumu Innovation Centre members, Evans Obudo and George Otieno at their Workshop in Kibuye, Kisumu.Photo: James Keyi/Standard

George said after arrival they immediately embarked on making the coffin with the help of a carpenter.

"We worked the whole night on Thursday and by Friday morning we were left with making the four handles and the lid. We cut some of the bamboo that was in her compound to do all the work that required bamboo," says Evans.

The artisans found weaving the coffin quite challenging and they had to come up with joints they had never thought of.

To beat the deadline of Friday, they resorted to division of labour with Evans taking care of the four handles while Tom and George weaved the lid.

"By noon on Friday we had finished the work. We took the next bus for Kisumu. For the days we worked we never slept," George says.

Kisumu Innovation Centre, Kenya was started as an NGO in 1993, but later, in 2004 collapsed due to lack of funds.

It was later revived after artisans came together and bought shares to revive it as a limited company, which it operates as now.

Since it was revived about six years ago, it has attracted about 72 artisans who work there when there is an order or are allowed to look for orders and work from the KICK.

The products are not only sold in Kenya, but some are exported to the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand through their agent based in Mombassa.

They say 90 per cent of the products, made from hyacinth, bamboo, and papyrus reeds such as furniture, earrings, necklaces and papers are exported.

"When KICK does not have orders the artisans are allowed to look for any and we also have our agent in Mombassa to cater for export issues," says Agina.

"It doesn’t matter where the artisan will be doing the work from. He can even do it from his house and bring the product here. We have been operating as a family," Agina adds.

George, who was the lead artisan at Maathai’s coffin making, left fishing at Liunda beach, Bondo over ten years ago because of water hyacinth that made it difficult for him to fish in Lake Victoria.

"I then left it and came to Kisumu to look for a job and ended up using the water hyacinth to make things to earn a living,’ he says.

KICK also provides consultancy in Nyanza and it offers training on how to utilize natural resources.

Most of those who have opened up workshops in Nyanza to make furniture from natural resources graduated from KICK.

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Wangari Maathai hyacinth Kisumu Innovation Centre Kenya KICK