NAIROBI, Kenya — Despite growth in the area, Kenya is one still one of the 30 poorest countries in the world. According to the 2006 Human Development Index, Kenya places 152nd out of a total of 177 countries. Economic disparity is prevalent throughout the country with 44 percent of national income belonging to the top 10 percent of Kenyans. However, artists and entrepreneurs have begun to turn this poverty into opportunity.
The FlipFlop Recycling Company in Nairobi successfully turns garbage into art. Due to ocean currents, garbage constantly washes up onto Nairobi shores from as far away as Indonesia. This garbage not only endangers wildlife like sea turtles, both in the ocean and ashore, but also contributes to pollution issues in the country.
“The Indian Ocean is the poor man’s ocean,” said Julie Church, Founder of The FlipFlop Recycling Company. “It’s where most poverty is in, and it’s in quite a confined area. We’re taking the poor man’s waste and giving it a value.”
Artist John Kinywa turns these collected flip-flops from the shores into art for sale across the world. The flip-flops are collected by local women, washed and sold to the recycling company. The artistic process involves the gluing together of the material followed by carving, sanding and rewashing the product before delivering it to the store for sale.
The recycling company is reported to be one of the only businesses of its kind in the world and makes a total of 100 different products from the flip-flops.
The art has even been modeled in fashion shows in Paris.
Other area efforts include artist Jonathon Lento’s organization Ocean Sole, which is partnered with Kenya Lamu Conservation Trust in an effort to collect flip-flops from Kenyans shores. The partnership aims to gather 400,000 flip-flops per year. The materials are gathered by local community members and sold to Ocean Sole, providing yet another economic opportunity in the country.
Entrepreneur and artist Apollo Omondi Omware began his career search hoping for a cushy office job with a comfortable salary but, like many other Kenyans, did not have any luck finding employment. The result was a pursuit of arts and crafts.
Omware weaved baskets and turned soda caps and other materials into jewelry. His pursuit eventually led to him forming a company and workshop that employs 35 Kenyans. Omware engages children in the area to participate in the process but does not pay them or hire them. Rather, he offers them something in return but does not require them to participate.
The business also pays local women well because of their valued skill set in creating rope from “the stems of water hyacinths,” which Omware explains is “perfect” for weaving baskets.
Master artist Isaac Kibe collects his recycled materials from city streets. Kibe creates full mosaics, sculptures and even homes from beer bottles, ceramic tiles and mirrors. His artwork is featured on the national mall in Washington, D.C.
Kibe also works at the local Kitengala Hot Glass studio in Nairobi melting glass to create jewelry and sculptures. He has been doing this work for a span of eight years and has taught approximately 30 young Kenyans the art form behind mosaics. These Kenyans are now employed by him to develop mosaic art for floors and walls.
Employee and artist for the FlipFlop recycling company Dan Wumbai explains, “I feel like a celebrity… someone who comes all the way from Europe…or America to come and buy something that I’ve made with my hands,” said Dan Wumbai, an employee and artist for the FlipFlop recycling company. “It surely makes an impact, and I’m proud of it.”
Struggle and poverty brings out the artist in people. Art has been credited as a form of self-expression, a coping mechanism and a source of pride. For these Kenyan artists, it is all these things and more. It is a way of life and provides many with the economic resources to escape extreme poverty, while also providing others with the same opportunity.
As Kenyan artists continue to recycle creativity and turn junk into art, more and more Kenyans will be inspired to do the same.
– Christopher Kolezynski
Sources: Voice Of America News 1, Voice of America News 2, NPR, UNICEF
Photo: Cool Things