Vicky Njoki Ngari has a plan. The London-based Kenyan former beauty queen has a problem with the way many Kenyans have been so keen to embrace Western ways of modernity that they have lost track of their own identities and cultures.
At the same time, she knows she is no exception. She was born and raised by a single mother in Kenya. But then, at age nine, she was taken by her mom to UK where she’s been educated up through university.
Currently on sabbatical from Berkshire College of Agriculture where she lectures in the Creative Art of Storytelling, she is here in Kenya to tell the story of the humble kiondo.
One of the central elements of indigenous Kenyan culture, she says, the original kiondo made with sisal fibre is what inspired Vicky to come home, work with rural women weavers, and spread the word through film that sisal kiondos are not just representatives of Kenyan indigenous culture. They are also marketable in the West for their authenticity, durability, and (with a touch of contemporary design) their fashionista potential.
“I already have a market for these bags both in the UK and US as well as in Sweden,” says the former Miss Kenya UK.
What inspired her to take up the challenge of promoting indigenous culture, and specifically the sisal kiondo, was her experience on the streets of London.
“I saw women on the street carrying colorful kiondos made out of synthetic fibres from China. I was shocked to see the way our kiondo had been copied and what was worse, remade in plastic!” says Vicky who has already begun casting women for her film.
A firm believer in Kenya’s creative economy, she is working initially with one group of young women in Rongai.
“I love the idea of working with young women, training them in skills best known by our grandmothers,” says Vicky who has also identified the star character in her story.
It’s Miriam Mueni, a 28-year-old single mom who has learned from her grandmother not just how to make quality kiondos, but how to make the sisal threads used in the original basket.
“The film will feature the entire process of stripping the bark from the sisal tree, fashioning the fibre, and then weaving in a circular style starting with what is called the ‘crown’ which finally becomes the base of the basket,” she adds.
Vicky has also found a local blacksmith who is making brass handles and her logo to enhance the fashionability of the bags.
She admits she is still at an early stage of developing her film. But she has her story clearly in mind. It’s about illustrating the full process of kiondo-making, including its social and spiritual dimensions, so the public can understand the genuine kiondo and recognise the value of buying the real thing.
Vicky has done a lot of preparatory work including extensive research into her project, its feasibility, and marketability.
“But I realized I had to be here to find and help train the women in the actual making the sisal kiondo,” says Vicky.
She fortunately has received lots of assistance from an NGO based in Rongai.
Keep the Fellowship founder, Daniel Njeru, had seen her giving an interview on one of the local TV stations back in 2015. At that time, she was speaking as the former Miss Kenya UK since she had held that title for two years, from 2009 to 2011.
“I was speaking at the time about empowering women, especially young women. Daniel asked me to speak to the young women in his group,” she says. “They are one of the reasons we are also running workshops to train young women in the traditional skills of making kiondos from start to end,” she adds.
Miriam’s grandmother, Fibi Khlasesa who is based in Sultan Hamud, has also been recruited to show the women how to strip the bark, make the sisal threads, and also boil the bark to create organic dyes, Vicky explains.
That training has already begun as has the process of creating prototype bags to bring to the international marketplace.
“There is also a spiritual dimension to making the kiondo that will be part of the story,” says Vicky who adds that one of her goals is to blend the contemporary with the traditional.
It’s a challenge that this 34-year-old single mom has chosen, but she’s confident the project will be beneficial to all.