At the junction of University Way and Koinange Street over looking University of Nairobi, a young man wearing a cap sits on the floor the whole day with a bowl of beads, and wrist bands displayed on the floor.
He told me his name is Chris and comes from Kilgoris. He is self taught in the art of making wrist bands from beads which he sources from downtown. A wrist band with your name goes for about Sh150, without goes for a Sh100.
He is one of the loneliest hustlers, sits by himself all day on the street. Selling about 5 bands a day. He should be around 20 years old and very patient.
Rarely do youngsters learn the old arts; they are left to the elderly. That is why crocheting has slowly died, but mechanisation is also to blame. Beadwork seems to defy mechanisation. Most of the traditional necklaces, belts, hair bands and keyboards are handmade.
It is not clear why beads have a deep connection to traditional societies. My last visit to a Native American reservation, Choctaw in Mississippi surprised me with their beadwork very close to Masai of Kenya. The Choctaws is one of the many Native American tribes often called red Indians. They were so fascinated by my Masai belt that they picked me for their traditional dance!
Back to Kenya. The young man’s beadwork is a bold attempt to keep an old art going outside a university which symbolises modernism. How many men of his generation can make such items? How many young men and women can sew, crochet or make a mwiko?
It is a matter of concern; why arts that have been there for thousands of years be allowed to die under our watch? Will the competence based curriculum teach arts and craft again? What will happen to such arts as we progress? What will happen to Masai belts? Their Masai shuka has got global recognition and should be declared the national dress. What of the other artifacts from Kenya‘s many communities? Are curios sold to wazungus enough?
There is something sentimental in our traditional arts despite all the modernity. Chris is playing his small role in preserving these arts. It seems the easiest way to preserve them is to make money from them like Chris and others who toil every day to make such delicate items. I was mesmerised to see a wine glass with a handle covered with bids.
After Masai market and this young man, we need other community markets from El Molo to Kamba, Taita and others. Will this be led by the invisible hand of the market or the visible hand of the governments? The loneliest hustler should get company. Will you join him?