Hoisting the Bird of Peace

Birds are meant to fly, aren’t they? But not this one. ‘The bird of peace emerging from the stone of despair’, it is called – echoing one of Martin Luther King’s speeches. And the stone of despair weighs a full three tons. Last Tuesday morning, it took the KWS crew a good hour or more to hoist it from their lorry and tether it gently and precisely on its solid plinth beside the Murumbi graves in City Park – watched very attentively by the sculptor, Elkana Omweri Ong’esa.

If you are a regular reader of this column you will know that over the last few years I have followed the saga of the Murumbi Graves and the City Park – the vandalising of the graves of Kenya’s second Vice President and his wife; the threatened grabbing of a portion of the park for a housing development.

Well, thanks to the efforts of the Murumbi Trust – led by Alan Donovan, friend and business partner of Joseph Murumbi and supported by the Ford Foundation – the Murumbi Memorial Park is almost complete, with a number of dramatic art works. And it seems that the land grabbing threat has receded. But William Ntimama’s confirmatory signature, as Minister of National Heritage and Culture, would make the final and very welcome act.

Tuesday morning was my first meeting with Elkana. Before the hoisting began, there was chance to talk about his work and his travels. He comes from Tabaka village in Kisii, where there is a quarry of the famous soapstone. Many children tried their hand at carving – but Elkana had a special flair. When he was still a high school student he won first prize in a Freedom from Hunger competition for his carving of an emaciated man chewing on a maize cob.

In the late1960s Elkana went to study at Makerere University in Kampala. That was a time of great academic optimism and artistic energy in East Africa – with painters like Elimo Njau and writers like Okot p’Bitek. But Elkana went on to study in Canada – and since then he has travelled the world in exhibiting his sculptures.

He joined an artists’ group working in bronze in China; he has been the artist in residence at Hofstra University in the United States. His sculptures can be found in many places: at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, at the UN headquarters in New York, at the Caltex Oil Company base in Texas, and at the Changchun World Sculpture Park in China.

But Elkana has always maintained his ties with his home community. Way back in 1965, when he was a student, he met Lyn and Arthur Dobrin, who were then Peace Corps volunteers in Kisii. Now, the Dobrins are supporting a primary school, Sema Academy, in the place where they lived and worked more than forty years ago. And Elkana has put on sale a number of his soapstone sculptures, for which 30% of the proceeds is donated to the school.

On Tuesday, I asked Elkana why he has given so much of his time these last two years to the Bird of Peace sculpture for the Memorial Park. He told me that Joseph Murumbi – who assembled a most magnificent art collection at his house in Nairobi – was one of his early patrons. In fact, Elkana – with the Nigerian artist, Bruce Onobrakpeya – in 1973 put on the first exhibition at African Heritage in Kenyatta Avenue, which Joseph Murumbi had founded with Alan Donovan.

Murumbi bought a few of Elkana’s pieces – and you can now see them very well displayed in the National Archives. A few years before Murumbi died, he told Elkana that it was his wish to have one of his sculptures at his graveside.

It has been a very challenging task for Elkana – the first time he has carved in granite, so much harder than his familiar soapstone.

‘I have had to learn new skills,’ he said.

It is certainly an imposing sculpture. Elkana has worked with and along the grains of the huge piece of granite quarried from the Lukenya hills. A bird’s head and feathered body unfurl from the stone. As if on guard, the bird’s eye is turned to the graves.

No vandals should intrude now – no land grabbers.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation