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Traditional potters mould a fortune from clay and sand

Ms Dorine Nyasi, a member of the Oriang Women’s Pottery Group displays a water pot fitted with a tap. Photo/Jacob Owiti
Ms Dorine Nyasi, a member of the Oriang Women’s Pottery Group displays a water pot fitted with a tap. Photo/Jacob Owiti 

Every day for the last 30 years, Salina Oremo has been earning a living by working with clay and this has enabled her sustain her nine children and pay for their education.

The 60-year-old widow moulds pots for cooking, storing water and for decoration. She has mastered the art. Each day she makes four pots commonly known as agulu.

“I look at my products after they are complete and they impress me,” she says of her job.

Many of her neighbours in Homa Bay county prefer cooking in clay pots rather than aluminium cookware because they believe it is good for their health as they can get iron from the clay used to make the vessels.

Besides moulding cooking pots, Salina makes some specifically for water storage which is popular in many households because they cool water and save more energy compared to fridges and dispensers.

“Most of my customers say they prefer clay pots for cooking because they reduce fuel consumption,” says Salina.

She sells them at Sh500 to Sh1,500 depending on the size, quality and usage.

Salina also says that some buy the pots to cook githeri (a mixture of maize and beans) and other traditional foods which require prolonged cooking. This is because pots use less energy.

Wycliffe Oloo, a senior curator at the Kenya National Museums, says the future of pottery is switching from domestic to commercial.

“The traditional uses of pots like cooking and serving food are dying because potters are becoming fewer and most traders have shifted the usage of the earthen vessels to commercial,” he said.

Pottery is an ancient art that is a source of livelihood for many local communities and its products remain beautiful, functional works of art and craft.

In response to the growing demands for safe water facilities in rural areas, Mrs Oremo says that ceramic have been on high demand in the markets and the retail price has grown much higher.

‘‘A big ceramic pot sells at between Sh500 to Sh1,500 depending on the design and size. Others have in-built taps,’’ says Mrs Oremo.

At Oriang Women Pottery Group in Kendu Bay, Homa Bay County, 23 women make a living through the messy but viable enterprise.

According to Mrs Dorina Nyasi, the secretary of group, they can make at least 30 pots in a day which takes only two to three days to dry before firing them in the kiln.

Even though the products have not gained markets internationally, she says that they have been able to sell them locally and at times they make sales worth Sh15,000 day if the market is good.

The soil is excavated about a 10km away from their pottery site where the women knead the clay using their hands.

This she says is done to eliminate air bubbles and to make it more pliable and easier to work with.

‘‘Little sand is also sieved and mixed with wet clay to make the mixture finer,’’ she says as demonstrates the process.

When the kneading is finished, a handful of the mixture is rolled into a long rope called a coil.

Mrs Nyasi says that while moulding the bottom of the pot, she needs to start from one end wrapping the coil in a spiral until she gets to the neck of the pot.

The clay pots are decorated using a brush that is dipped in aloe known as okaka in the local Dholuo language.

When the pots are ready, they are allowed to completely dry before they undergo a process called firing which takes about two hours.

This is done to make the pots durable. The vessels are then cooled and a boiled juice that is extracted from the bark of a thorn plant is sprinkled on them to give a shiny dark colour.

Modified clay

The modified clay pot exhibits a flat base for stability and a narrow neck to prevent access which reduces the chances of contamination.

‘‘We make at least 30 in pots in a day since each member is expected to mould three pots in a day’’, says Nyaseme who is a member of the group.

The biggest pots retails at Sh1,500 while the smallest one retails at Sh250 which they sell locally.

‘‘Pottery products are often on high demand so in a day we can sell as many as 30 which is a total of Sh15,000,’’ quips the secretary of the group.

The only challenge they face is the breakage and spillage of pots which occur during the firing and when they are being transported to the markets.

Since it is a group project, 10 per cent of the money goes to the savings account while 90 per cent is divided equally among the members.

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