Tuesday, 11 October 2011


By Valentine Obara vobara@ke.nationmedia.com
When members of the St Julia Women’s Group in Nyakach received an order to supply strings made from the hyacinth weed two weeks ago, they treated it like one of the many they have handled over the years.
Little did they know that this time round, their product was going to be used in making a casket for Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai.
The group members are drawn from the nearby Bala beach from where they source their raw materials for making the ropes.
“We normally get orders from different people, mostly from Kisumu, but we are not interested in finding out what items they are going to be used to make,” one of the group members, Mrs Esther Oywa, said.
Labour intensive
The strings are usually bought by craftsmen at Sh15 per metre and they are used to make toys, furniture, ornaments and other household items.
The group, which consists of 25 women, turned to the hyacinth decorticating and twining activity after the water weed made it difficult for them to keep on depending on fish trading as an income-generating activity more than five years ago.
The activity is labour-intensive, with those involved in it having to expose themselves to a harsh working environment.
“When harvesting the hyacinth, we encounter risks. There are snakes and leeches, and we have to stay in the water for long hours without protective clothes. This exposes us to water-borne diseases, but we have no other option since it is our way to earn a living,” Mrs Oywa said.
Obtaining fibre from the hyacinth is also done manually, which is not only time-consuming, but also leaves their palms with bruises.
But the news that their perseverance had enabled an icon to be accorded her last respects as she wished, without having to bring down a tree, has served as a boost to their morale.
“That is great news. It feels great to know that our work contributed to giving a sendoff to one of the country’s greatest leaders,” Mrs Oywa said.
Her sentiments were echoed by Mr Evans Otieno, a founder of the Zingira Nyanza Community Crafts that was contracted to make the special casket.
Never interacted
Prior to this, it had never occurred to the organisation that they would one day be making such an item from hyacinth.
According to Mr Otieno, the organisation never interacted with the icon at a personal level and the chance to make the casket to be used in her funeral was more of an honour.
“We never got to shake her hand when she was alive and it was an honour when we got the privilege to contribute to her final journey,” Mr Otieno said.
The group was approached by the funeral organising committee, after which three of its members were sent to Nairobi to construct the casket, whose design was proposed by the client.
However, he said, they had to bend their rules in order to match the requirements that were brought before them.
“In my opinion, using bamboo is not walking the talk of environmental conservation since bamboo is a rare species that needs to be conserved,” he said.
Most of the items made by the organisation are framed using metal bars, most of which are obtained from scrap metal dealers, but this would not have blended well since the body was going to be cremated.
Mr Otieno said they are optimistic that more people will be giving orders for the same type of casket. They consider this as another way of utilising water hyacinth and creating employment opportunities.
He said the use of coffins made from hyacinth would go a long way in conserving the environment given the rising mortality rates. Their use will see trees being saved.
“Every strand of hyacinth used in making an item, be it furniture or a coffin, will never find its way back to the lake and if everyone would think along the same lines, then we will help Wangari Maathai’s fire to keep on burning,” he said.
The organisation, which was founded in 2000, offers training in entrepreneurship and hyacinth craftwork to jobless youths.
In Kisumu, more than 60 youths are involved in the organisation’s projects, with several groups being trained at various beaches on the outskirts of the town on how to use the weed by turning it into a money-making venture.
The hyacinth is normally washed in industrial salt to kill bacteria and fungus and also to strengthen the fibre before drying after which the twining is done and the fibre converted into rope.

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