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Undugu: Hand Carved Soapstone Cremation Urns

by Polly Giantonio

 African craftsman creating soapstone pottery.

The story behind Undugu or “brotherhood” urns offers a unique perspective into a product line. The Undugu story is one of integrity and successful empowerment. Undugu is a current and relevant program that supports families to gain and sustain a livelihood, and provide educational opportunities for their children.

The story began in 1973 in Tabaka, Kenya. The newly formed Undugu Society sought to address issues of abject poverty and loitering street children in Kenya.

“Undugu is like our father,” says Athanas Matoke Sure of Tabaka. Athanas refers to the domino effect and positive impact of Undugu on a huge “chain” of workers. The chain begins with extractors who work at the quarries to extract the soapstone, to people who carry and transport the stones, to the artisan carvers, and to the many women who do sandpapering.

Athanas began in Undugu’s youth program. He gained special skills as a carver. Social workers identified his adept skills and abilities, and assisted him in forming a youth group. Undugu supplied the group with orders to fill. The group continues to work together – physically and emotionally - rather than in separate homes. Their “brotherhood” allows them to “help and educate each other,” says Athanas.

One of the Oldest Fair Trade Groups in Africa

Undugu is one of the oldest fair trade groups in Africa. The Undugu line of work provides local artisans with income to meet their daily needs, and the ability to find fulfillment through work and community. Parents find a way to care for their families. The program successfully addresses poverty and subsequently provides support to families. Children attend school and learn skills that eventually lead to work. Sustainable work has replaced loitering in the streets that was once rampant.

Cremation Urns with Heart

When Ira Woods, president of OneWorld Memorials, attended a show in Europe, he was particularly attracted to the contemporary design of the turquois soapstone urn on display. The expanded soapstone line by Undugu artisans includes the mosaic soapstone child urn, as well as other cremation urns. Each piece is hand carved and hand painted by the artisans. For Woods these were not only urns with heart but had a back story he wanted to support.

Ira spoke with the Undugu representative and found their story fascinating and their mission inspiring. The sale of the products funds education for youth and their families. A primary goal of the Undugu Society is to teach young people a practical skill so they can get a job and not be part of the street cycle that leads to drugs and a sense of hopelessness. The learned skill becomes a life-long instrument for sustainability and community building.

The Undugu Society provided us with information on their story:

As part of our economic empowerment initiative, Undugu encourages savings and investments among its members through 20/10 principle in which every 20 cents saved by the member is matched with 10 cents from Undugu. We also provide capacity building services on market information, costing and pricing, product development, quality management, and self‐management among other topics. They [Undugu artisans and workers} are registered members of National Health and retirement schemes.

The impact that Undugu has made on the members are seen far and wide in terms of meeting their daily needs, parents ability to take their children to good schools, building modern houses, diversification into new income sources, the capacity to supply other market participants among other impact areas.

Evans Some, a soapstone artisan, speaks about the impact of Undugu in his life. “I am a parent of four, with two children in high school. Through Undugu, I am now able to pay my children’s school fees comfortably and the best part about it all is that I am not restricted to just sell my produce to Undugu, and therefore make extra money by selling some of my produce locally.” (quoted in “Undugu” at www.webaraza.com)

Irene Obuya of African Laughter states that, “the company [Undugu] is currently working with over 60 Jua Kali artisans who own crafts businesses that support employment of more than 800 people.” 

The simplicity of Undugu’s mission and the story of Athanas are inspiring. They incite reflection against the backdrop of commercialism in the US. Upon close consideration of the stories and circumstances, the world community is brought to our doorstep.

Polly Giantonio has developed and co-facilitated workshops and classes on creativity and poetry. She has taught students of all ages, and mentored in a volunteered capacity. Her greatest daily wish is to be kind and to experience life as a gift. Her poems have appeared in various journals including The Wisconsin Review, The Café Review, and the Aurorean.

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