It was Friday aka Day 8 of a project where all joys and pains were been collectively borne. The previous day had only yielded a small set of images and Cindy and Sebastian weren’t having a repeat of that.
We started with a trip back to the quarry. A man in a large, loose polo shirt and pick axe slung over one shoulder was waiting for us. His ebony skin was tough and dry, body, a solid block. Sebastian positioned him at various spots and each time he whacked at the rock with all his might. Onyancha had been at it for 30 years now so he didn’t know how to play-act, to slow down for the camera.
But he loved it. “Nikiwacha nitagonjeka,” he said.
Our next model had been to six nations in the Far East and recently played in Washington DC. He’s also the composer of that popular 90s obokano-led jam, ‘Monday morning I went to school’ (Couldn’t find a YouTube link. Find me and maybe I’ll croak out the tune for you.)
The 42-year-old was jolly and had a fly shoe game.
“Unazaliwa nayo. It can’t be taught,” stated Ontiri Bikundo. Ontiri was 18 when he first picked up his grandfather’s obokano and he hasn’t stopped plucking it since. As we drove around looking for a good spot to shoot him, Ontiri proudly announced that he’d performed for former president Moi once. Leading a good clean life is the reason why he’s the only surviving member of the original Kisii Kamba Nane, an eight-member band.
We found a spot at the edge of a forest where the roots of a trees had formed a natural shelf. Sebastian stationed Ontiri beneath the overhanging roots, got him to strum as he lit him up.
Jus then, a dancing queen emerged.
And the Kisii superstars just kept coming.
We walked into soapstone sculptor brothers Gabriel Mugendi and Joseph Rachami’s compound and a curious figure sat on the grass. It wasn’t the gigantic rendering of the Virgin Mary that made me stop short but rather the wide-eyed Lisa Simpson.
Gabriel and Joseph were part of a trio contracted to produce 4-inch busts of popular characters from the show to sell as Simpsons Movie merchandise in 2007.
Sadly, the partnership fell apart but not before 700 pieces were carved, shipped and paid for. Joseph told me they’d even formed a small self-help group to produce 50-150 pieces a month. And that the project had taken two years to complete.
In any case, when we found the pair, they had happier tales to share including the creation of the aforementioned Holy Mary statue and a sculpture that would soon to be unveiled at a local university.
Keeping a close eye on things was Hesbon Orina. An artist himself, he manages other sculptors. As Sebastian organized how to hold up a tree that was obscuring the shooting area, Hesbon told me about stone talk: “You look at something, it gives you a picture and you start carving. Its nature guides the artist on what to do. It says, ‘I want you to carve me this way’.”
Intrigued, we got Hesbon to hop into our van and show us the way to Paul, a man he claimed was the best at stone talk. He wasn’t kidding. As bust after chess board after coaster were brought out, we were deeply impressed and Sebastian was soon furiously clicking.
Here’s the funny thing about a Wanzalla shoot in the wild—it is full of perplexing gadgets and gizmos.
We’d gotten used to it by then but every time the strobe lights, two-tone reflector and portable battery pack came out, the crowds surged forward (including plenty of booty shakers!) Once, Sebastian was asked to declare all his equipment at a hotel in Webuye. He had to request a second sheet of paper.
There had been an old man helping to move things around per Sebastian’s wishes during that last shoot. Turns out he was Paul’s father. He was so moved by our work that he followed behind us and pressed small gifts into our palms as we boarded the van to leave.
It was a beautiful and happy moment that warmed our hearts all the way to Homa Bay that night.