JOHANNESBURG - If the choice had been hers, Elizabeth Kioko would have followed her dreams of becoming an academic. But family pressures and lack of finances forced her to think differently.
“I was clever and always wanted to learn more about the environment and the world’ she says. “I would have loved to have had the opportunity to learn more and perhaps becoming a top professional,” she says. “Instead it was a matter of coming up with ways that I could earn enough money to look after my own needs and be a breadwinner for my family.”
It was a tall order for anyone starting out on a business career with few credentials to her name.
For Kioko that different way of thinking involved making use of her talents as an artist, a seamstress and a wood sculptor, crafts she says that have been part of her family tradition for as long as she can remember.
“I was about six years old when my Dad taught me how to chisel out wood and make little statues and my mother taught me sewing and intricate stuff like French seams and buttonholing. Those are life lessons you never forget. Thank goodness they did that because I would not be anywhere today without those skills.”
We meet at her small flat, near Durban’s beachfront, where she is packing huge canvas bags with the goods she will be taking to the Shongweni Market, an hour’s taxi ride away.
“I have to start very early in the morning as the market starts at about six” she explains. “But it’s a privilege. I mean that. I have been doing the same morning run every week for nine years. I have wonderful customers who have become my friends. And I can make enough money that I don’t need anyone to help me survive. That’s the bit that makes me feel good inside.”
Kioko’s roots are in a small village in Kenya’s Eastern Province where she grew up and went to school and where her parents still live.
“But I knew very early on that to make anything of my life I would need to move away and follow my ideas of becoming what I call, a gift maker, a good one.”
To understand that journey you would need to follow her route to her Saturday morning stall. You can’t miss it. Vibrant colours, splashes of turquoise, pink and sun yellow, striped fabrics, bags of every shape and size and rows of delicate carvings.
“No Chinese imports,” she says with pride. “Everything you see here is handcrafted. I make all the bags and shirts, plus I often customize clothes made from East African cotton, and then I search for the rest, always looking for new things.”
Always thinking of other elements she could introduce into her gifting business, Kioko says that listening to what her customers want is essential.
“One lady asked me if I could make a dressing gown out of the sarong fabrics I sell. I said, of course, come back next week and I will have it ready. Her friends came too, and it’s been a good addition to my business.”
Her searches are not only for locally made crafts, but those made in the rest of Africa.
“I am a traveller at heart. As soon as I have enough money I fly to Kenya to see my family and collect things they have made for me. Then I go to countries like Uganda and Tanzania and look for the handcrafted goods. We have five Christmas markets coming up soon, so I will be travelling far and wide looking for new items. I say to my craftspeople, make me something that will surprise me. Make me something that people can’t resist.”
One of her popular lines are the colourful soapstone sculptures, no bigger than your hand that are the hallmark of her stand.
“They are all made by men. I think that’s great, and makes a difference from women always making things.”
Kioko, in her late 20s, says she is passionate feminist.
“I believe too many women think that the only way to be successful is to have a man look after you. I say that is a recipe for disaster. You must look after yourself first. I have a fiancé, but I will only marry when we both have financial independence and can afford children.”
It’s a good message in the current programme of activism against gender abuse. It’s a good lesson from someone who walks the talk - and makes soapstone and stripes sing a very likeable and valuable song.