The Kenyan Maasai Market is a must-do for any visitor to Kenya. You must have heard of it. The Maasai Market now refers to any art and craft market, usually rotating between malls on different days of the week. You’ll find it at the Village Market on Fridays, in the city centre on Saturdays, and so on. It features hand-made Kenyan art and occasionally art from different African countries.
Here you find jewellery, table art, wall art, baskets, beadwork, candle-holders, carvings in all sorts of local materials. There is no better place to find a gift to take from Kenya back home for friends and family abroad. And if you live here, you will find something to add character to your home decor.
The souvenirs can be functional articles such as the famous maasai leather sandals, the wrap cloth in leso (khanga) or kikoy fabric, a woven kiondo (google them) or candle-holders made from horn, metal or wood. If you want something less practical and more decorative, then go for display pieces. These include carvings of animals and abstract art made from wood, metal or Kisii soapstone.
The soapstone is a heavy stone that originates in Kisii in Western Kenya. It is white in colour with streaks of beige or light pink with marble-style texture. It lends itself particularly well to sculpture and ends up with smooth, carved items. It can be painted on and this gives it a variety of finishes. However, the soapstone is very heavy and quite brittle. It is not practical for anyone traveling. An elephant carving that is only half a foot tall will easily weigh 3kg. In addition, a drop will send it cracking. The smaller pieces are not suitable if you have children who like to throw things across the room.
If you want something lighter, then opt for carvings made from various wood types or sculptures made from scrap metal. The former can be dark or light wood, polished and representing any animal. The latter have a rustic finish and can be made to order if you have time in your hands. Life size pieces of giraffes and elephants look very elegant in hotel or office lobbies. Just ensure that there are not sharp edges.
Different materials are available depending on how well they work on the end-product. Common materials are horn, gourd, various woods, metals, soapstone, banana fibre (dried out bark of banana plant), lots of beads, leather, glass, etc.
My personal favourites are the household glasses, bought from any local stores, then etched to create images or writings. This personalizes your wine glasses and the same can be done around mirrors. I also love the banana fibre mosaics.
A piece of advice: if you do end up at the market, remember that prices are not what is first quoted. Items are prices according to the buyer. If you announce that you have just arrived in Kenya for the first time, you pay double or triple price. Haggle and bring the quoted price up to less than half. If you don’t know how to do this, go accompanied by an experienced buyer.