Ilesi: Using pottery to attract guests
By Alex Wakhisi and Jackline Inyanji
| January 4th 2017
For decades Ilesi village, Kakamega County, has been known for its pottery.
Locals of the village, located about six kilometers from Kakamega town along the busy Kakamega - Kisumu highway, say pottery is part of their daily life and they cannot live without it.
They have since converted this skill into a tourism attraction and use the proceeds to pay dowry, school fees, put up permanent houses and cater to other basic needs.
One potter, who has made his name in this village, is Jacob Mate who started his business - Mate Pottery in 1962.
The 69-year-old said he dropped out of school while in class three to join his grandfather and father in molding pots.
“I learned the skills from my late grandfather and father after I dropped out of school at a tender age to venture into pottery and it did not take me much time to learn how to mold traditional cooking pots,” said Mate.
Mate recalls walking hundreds of kilometers in search of market for their clay products. Back then, carrying cooking pots, water storing pots and local brew pots on his head was the order of the day because there was no other means of transportation.
That was until 1972 when a European based company arrived in the village to train locals on modern skills in pottery and Mate says this changed their way of doing things.
“We were trained on how to make cooking jikos and also how to mold different types of pots depending on their function. We also widened our scope and now started targeting markets like Shinyalu, Malinya, Lubao, and Kakamega,” said the father of ten.
He said a cooking pot would go for Sh3, Sh5 for a pot used to store water, Sh10 for one used to brew local alcohol and Sh20 for one that would store millet and other grains.
Things are different now and anyone who wants to buy any product from the potter must be willing to part with between Sh100 to Sh1,200 depending on the kind of product they want.
Mate has also widened his scope of work and he is now engaged in making flower planters which are special pots used to plant flowers in the house or compound. These are quite popular and Mate has to hire between 10 - 15 people in order to meet demand.
Another popular product is the chick warmers which is a special basket used to cover young chicks at night which retails for Sh100.
The work is however, not without its challenges and fluctuating market prices as well as lack of market are some of the issues that Mate and his colleagues have to deal with in their quest to make a living out of pottery.
“Transporting soil is also a problem. We have to get brown, black and special sand for our work,” he said.
Mate says most of their time is spent working on the clay brought in from distant swampy places in order to make it use-able for the molding of domestic use pots.
To make a pot, one has to mix the soil - grind and sieve to remove stones and roots. Next, add water while mixing the soil using your hands then a nylon paper, referred to as luchio, is used to shape the pot.
After this, it is placed in a dry place for three days to dry up. The products are then put inside a traditional kiln where a fire is lit the whole day and they remain covered for over 24 hours.
“I use my head to calculate the temperatures needed and after two days, these pots are ready for painting using different colours,” he said.
With tourists and others visitors go to western Kenya, they will often stop at Ilesi to sample the different wares and Mate and his colleagues make a kill from such visits.
The demand for the products in neighboring Uganda and Tanzania has triggered a frenzy of activity among villagers who want to exploit the opportunity to turn around their economic fortunes.
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