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Tabaka craves technology to aid large-scale mining.

Though the members of the Kisii community are known for their exploits in agriculture, they also have a history of cottage industries.

The more pronounceable among them is the soapstone industry, where they exploit the soft stone for art purposes.

Soapstone (also known as steatite or soaprock) is a talc-schist, a type of metamorphic rock. According to Wikipedia, the stone is largely composed of the mineral talc and thus is rich in magnesium.

It is produced by dynamo thermal metamorphism and metasomatism, which occur in the zones where tectonic plates are subducted, changing rocks by heat and pressure, with influx of fluids but without melting.

It has been a medium for carving for thousands of years. Rich historical but fragmentary pieces of evidence point to substantive early excavation and exploitation of soapstone among the Kisiis as early as 1890s.

Artists like Elkana Ong'esa say the soapstone industry generally involves the extraction of raw materials and applying some processes to produce various finished products, some of which adorn palaces across the world.

The industry was well-established in pre-colonial times, with products getting as far as to neighbouring communities, who had the sophistication for the art.

Handcrafts forged out of the stone form part of tangible cultural aspects, which have by extension helped catapult the community into the global arts stage.

The national government has already identified Kisii county as a village tourist destination with the aim of promoting cultural tourism. The locale of all this is Tabaka, South Mugirango constituency, where vast unexploited deposits of the soapstone mineral still lie.

UNTAPPED POTENTIAL

In Kisii, residents lament lack of technology to help them conduct large-scale mining. With better resources and equipment, they would make the most out of the mineral.

Soapstone can also used for inlaid designs, sculpture, coasters, and kitchen countertops and sinks. There is archaeological evidence, too, that some Native American tribes and bands had been making bowls, cooking slabs and other objects from soapstone.

In the US, quarried soapstone was used for grave markers in 19th century in northeast Georgia, US, around Dahlonega, and Cleveland, as simple fieldstone and "slot and tab" tombs.

Small blocks of soapstone (8" x 10" x 1") were heated on the cook stove or near the fire and used to warm cold bedclothes or to keep hands and feet cosy while sleighing.

Today, various artefacts forged out of soapstone are displayed in various places; museums, offices and galleries.

Despite its immense potential, little government involvement has left many of those who depend on the stone for a living to continue using archaic means.

This has put the brakes on an industry that could help leverage the lives of thousands of people directly and indirectly.

The challenge in the resource utilisation, Ongesa says, remains at the core of the bottlenecks hampering the full potential of the mineral.

Lack of organisation, relevant education, poor exposure and lack of market intelligence also constitute some of the growing list of challenges the craft artists have to deal with.

The artists are now lamenting that there is little stakeholder engagement, which could help them find better markets for their products and lock out exploitative middlemen.

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Publication:The Star (Nairobi, Kenya)
Date:May 9, 2019
Words:597
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