Carved into statues, vases, bowls, and more, African soapstone is one of the most well-known handicrafts from East Africa! Learn all about this popular material and how it goes from giant chunks of rock to beautiful art.
What is Kisii Soapstone?
African soapstone, also known as Kisii soapstone, comes from Kisii county in southwestern Kenya. Soapstone is one of the softest known minerals, making it easy to carve. While it can be found all over the world, Kenyan soapstone is considered unique and naturally comes in all different colors. White and pink colored soapstone is softer and easier to work with, while black soapstone is the hardest.
Mining Kisii Soapstone
Kisii soapstone is mined from quarries located in the county’s fertile Tabaka Hills. It is a labor-intensive process that uses little to no machinery. Instead, miners work with shovels, picks, axels, and machetes to dig out large soapstone chunks.
Carving Kisii Soapstone
Once the soapstone is mined, it is then fashioned into different household accents. Craftsmen carry out this work using only simple tools. Large knives known as pangas are used to break large soapstone rocks into smaller pieces. Hammers, chisels, files, and smaller knives are reserved for more detailed work. Sometimes craftsmen immerse the soapstone in water, making it slightly softer and easier to carve.
Once a piece is finished, it is then sanded and polished. Depending on the piece, the soapstone can also be dyed and painted in bright beautiful colors. Men are in charge of mining and carving while women are responsible for sanding, dyeing, painting, and polishing.
The Soapstone Trade
Most Kenyan soapstone is mined, carved, and sold by members of the Kisii tribe, also known as the Gusii tribe. They originally used soapstone for domestic purposes, creating bowls and baskets for their homes. Now, the soapstone is used to make statues, figurines, paperweights, and more! It has become the main source of income for many families, with beautiful soapstone creations sold throughout Kenya and as part of the worldwide market!