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A group photo of the Tabaka Chigware self help group

The magic of soapstone carving

Meet a group of young Kenyan artisans who are trying to change their world for the better

A group photo of the Tabaka Chigware self help group

We are excited to work with a special group of young artisans in Kenya, who produce stunning products carved from soapstone for us. They’re called the “Tabaka Chigware Youths Self-Help Group”, and have been crafting and exporting their beautiful goods since 1996. 

Today, we’ll tell you more about the unique history of Kenyan soapstone mining and carving, and how you can help these young men and women, who are battling to continue their craft while their trade is being badly affected by the Covid pandemic.

What is soapstone and how is it used?

Soapstone is a special rock that largely contains mineral talc. It is relatively soft and can feel similar to soap when wet, hence the name. It also comes in different natural colours, from white and light pink to brown and even black. While it is easy to carve, it’s durable and heat-resistant and has been used for cooking and heating equipment all over the world for many centuries.

Several colored samples of soapstone.

In Africa, historically soapstone has been carved to create pots and baskets, but also for decorative purposes, including amulets and statues

Mining and crafting soapstone is essential for the Kenyan economy. In 2014, it made up 40% of Kenya’s craft exports. Today, one of the most well-known African soapstone mining areas is near Kisii, the capital city of Kisii county in south-western Kenya. The municipality also includes the soapstone mines and artisan workshops in Tabaka, which is located 24 km from Kisii. About 7,000 families are provided with an income just through mining alone.

Mining the stone without protection can be dangerous. It is done by hand only and large boulders have to be carried to the workshops, which can be up to 10 km away. There is no public transport, and the area has little electricity or running water. Ethical groups like the ones we work with are trying to improve conditions in the area.

Our artisans: the Tabaka Chigware Youths Self-Help Group

Karakorum is proud to work with the Tabaka Chigware Youths Self-Help Group, a community of young artisans, which launched in 1996 with 40 young members aged 18 and over. An even mix of young women and men, their group successfully started improving their families’ and communities’ livelihoods. They still have the same number of members today.

Through crafting soapstone goods, they have been contributing to improved housing, clean water initiatives, medical facilities, and better education for their children.

Bonnie, a representative of the group, tells us that their work has helped “empower women and young girls” aged over 18 years, to prevent e.g. early marriage. 

Bonnie inspecting soapstone dishes
Bonnie inspecting soapstone dishes

While finished soapstone products are completely safe, there may be some risks to workers who mine or carve raw soapstone. Without sufficient protection, they could be exposed to unsafe limits of talc dust via inhalation and skin or eye contact, which can damage the lungs. Bonnie tells us that the Group members often wear masks for tougher jobs and normally work outdoors to minimise risks. 

We are also working with the group to help ensure everyone’s safety.

How our soapstone goods are made 

The men in the Tabaka Chigware Youths Self-Help Group mainly focus on carving the soapstone. Women normally will sand, wash, paint and wax the products. Increasingly, however, female group members are also taking on the better-paid jobs of carving.

There is no School of Fine Art nearby. All artistic skills are being passed on from generation to generation instead. Teamwork is essential here. Everyone has their own specific skill set that contributes to a perfect end product. So, how do they craft their wonderful goods?

Carving process

First, the boulders are sawn into manageable blocks and then hacked into smaller pieces with machetes called ‘pangas’.

2 men cutting soapstone into smaller pieces

After this, a smaller chisel or knife is used for carving the more delicate details. As soapstone is fragile, it’s important to be careful when carving.

man carving soapstone outside
square soapstone carver working outside

Sanding and Washing 

Next, the women will sand and wash the soapstone several times, until the surface is completely smooth.

Ladies polishing soapstone
Colouring soapstone

Painting and waxing

Finally, the finished product is painted (if desired) and polished with a creamy wax. The female group members often take over the designing and painting tasks.

From start to finish, it can take several hours to craft a small tea light, and up to a whole day for a larger bowl.

Women holding up soapstone painting that she created

The effects of Covid-19

Bonnie tells us that, before the pandemic hit, the group received many orders, which meant that all members had sufficient income to make ends meet. 
However, Covid-19 hit the community badly. Bonnie says that they have received very few orders for new products because of the lack of tourism. “Life is very hard for some of our members now. We hope for the end of Covid-19. Hopefully, we will get more orders and make more income.” 

Currently, their only hope is to increase the export and sales of their goods abroad with the help of fair trade and ethical companies like Karakorum.

For example, the sale of just one of their lovely tea light holders can already purchase 2 kg of potatoes in Kisii.

You can help by buying their products and spreading the word!

A group photo of the Tabaka Chigware self help group

Karakorum’s soapstone products

We are proud to stock beautiful soapstone tea light holders, flower vases, soap dishes, plant pots and bowls, which have all been handmade by the Tabaka Chigware Youths Self-Help Group.

Do have a look in our shop and see for yourself how much Bonnie and his colleagues have achieved!