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Revealed: How ministry officials denied Kenyan artists Smithsonian dollars

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stand-picIt kicked off with a theatre of the absurd, crystalised into a scandal of the white elephant and now the Saturday Nation can reveal how the government shortchanged artists at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, DC last month.

The scheme saw the ministry of Arts and Culture minting dollars off bent backs of poor artists who spent two weeks at The National Mall, showcasing and selling Kenya to the world.

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Ministry officials and festival organisers hatched and executed the plan months to the annual event produced by the Smithsonian’s Centre for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

It all started with the organisers withholding crucial information released by the Smithsonian from the over 80 participants and later on, snatching a golden business opportunity from the artists.

In February, the Smithsonian sent a delegation to Kenya to buy artistic merchandise that would be sold at its shop during the festival that ran from June 25 to July 6. The world’s biggest cultural institution buys and sells artworks during the fete to help cover costs of its Marketplace infrastructure and pay staff.

The delegation’s plan, according to 2014 Smithsonian Folklife Festival Marketplace consultant Halle Butvin, was to buy animal sculptures, jewelry, wood and stone carvings, and housewares like doorstops from the participants.

“That is one of the changes (buying goods from the participants) I introduced once I took office,” Butvin told Saturday Nation.

However, the ministry and organisers of the event delayed coming up with a list of participants, and the US team ended up buying goods from traders in Nairobi— to the chagrin of the group that travelled to DC to represent Kenya.

Participants from China— the other country featured at this year’s festival— landed the deal, according to Butvin who, together with festival curator Preston Scott, led the US delegation.

The team had also come to receive and transport artefacts that the participants wished to sell at its Marketplace at The Mall. That chance was also lost because the ministry and the organisers chose not to pass the information on to the artists and artistes.


The over 40 musicians, who on June 28 turned Ngoma Stage into a theatre of the absurd over unpaid allowances, were informed that they could sell their CDs in the US three days to the event— months after the Smithsonian team had flown out of Nairobi.

The ministry allowed them to carry only 20 CDs each to sell at the fete that attracted over 1.5 million visitors.

“The participants’ list should have been finalised while I was there. I could have met them then we could have air-shipped everything,” Butvin said. “We don’t allow hand-carrying (of artefacts) because it is very hard to go through the customs authorities. Most people don’t know how to do that.”

Months after the US team left, the organisers and some ministry officials grabbed the artists’ chance, bought a container-full of artefacts and shipped it DC for sale in the Smithsonian shop.

The merchandise, which arrived in DC on June 25, was bought, shipped, presented to the Smithsonian and sold in the name of the Government of Kenya, although there were claims that some organisers and ministry officials held stakes in it.

According to Butvin, the goods were delivered with receipts purporting that the cargo was sourced from the participants— a claim the artists denied.

“It’s a lie. They (organisers) are stating that the goods were bought from our cooperatives but some participants like me don’t belong to any cooperative. I coordinated bead makers in Kajiado and I didn’t see anybody seeking to buy beads from us,” Suzan Nketoria, head of a bead and jewelry making NGO is Maasailand, said.


However, Kenya Mambo Poa Project Manager Elizabeth Ouma maintained the goods were bought from “groups and cooperatives directly associated with the artists”.

While admitting that “it may not sound politically correct to you”, Ouma told Saturday Nation that the government chose not to reveal the business information to artists “for their own protection”.

“How many times have we seen Kenyans getting stranded with tones of goods abroad where they took them in the hope of selling… and in the end it becomes a ‘serikali-isaidie’ issue?” she said.

“The purpose of the festival is really to showcase the indigenous Kenyan culture and its meaning. When the commercial aspect comes into it, it dilutes and the whole message is lost.”

Before the show started, Kenyan participants were already two-time losers but a rude shock awaited them during the festival: the handful of artworks that the government helped them airlift from Nairobi to DC were not allowed in the Smithsonian Marketplace until one day to the end of the event.

World renowned stone carver Elkana Ong’esa, for instance, had 16 cartons of soapstone carvings that he hopped to exchange for greenbacks. He was ordered to keep them hidden under tables in his Stone Art tent until July 5.

The much Mzee Ongesa,70, and a team of seven stone artists he travelled with to DC were allowed do for the most part of the 10-day event was to showcase their products to visitors.

They were also free to demonstrate to curious art students how the carvings are made using the tools the stone artists were to use to erect a 13-tonne elephant sculpture that was act as Kenya’s centre-piece at the event.

The monolithic granite carving never made it the US after national government officials out to milk kickbacks screwed up its transport tender. Millions of taxpayers’ money were lost and others are hitherto stuck in the sculpture’s belly at the National Museum of Kenya.

Although the US National Park Service laws prohibit hawking and selling of goods outside the Marketplace, the restrictions imposed on the artists in some way were to ensure the cargo bought by the government sold out as fast as possible.

The men and women worked hard under the sweltering summer heat, explaining and showcasing their wares to visitors but when guests expressed interest in buying— and many did— people placed at the back of the tents by the Smithsonian and Kenyan team directed and even walked the customers to the Marketplace.


Investigations by the Saturday Nation revealed that the ministry used some of its staff and Smithsonian volunteers— mainly Kenyans living and working in the US— to watch over their fellow citizens and ensure they did not sell anything.

While some volunteers said they did not like the exploitation the artists were undergoing, they added they had to follow instructions. Many participants were left heartbroken and disappointed.

“I told my children I would bring them schools fees, dresses, food among other needs but I don’t think I will make it because our goods are for display, not for sale,” Wilfred Kibegwa, 67, a stone carver from Kisii and a father of 10 said.

Saturday Nation spotted some participants selling their wares in underhand, hushed transactions as Park Police and volunteer ‘watchdogs’ patrolled the alleys of their tents. Some of their antics bordered on shame, given that most of them were respected individuals in the society and in some cases, old, weary people.

Confronted with facts about Kenyan participants’ pain, the Smithsonian on July 5 sent its staff to collect and take the artists’ wares to the Marketplace for sale— 24 hours to end of the show.

While the change of heart was dressed to look like a big win for the dollar-thirsty artists, some still lost big time after they were paid Kenyan rates for their goods, with some getting as little as Sh200 for items that were selling for over $6 (Sh520) at the marketplace.

Saturday Nation’s efforts to unmask faces of the people who pocketed the difference hit a snag after the Smithsonian refused to give information, saying business and proprietary reports are protected by law.

Smithsonian Chief Spokesperson Linda Saint Thomas also refused to state the amount of dollars the ministry minted out of the grabbed venture. Other artists lost out after the Smithsonian returned the goods it had not sold at the conclusion of the festival on July 6.

Most of them left Washington DC with what the organisers and ministry officials thought rightful belonged to them after a two-week service to the nation— $1,500 (Sh130,500) participation fee.


The Kenyan stand at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival that attracted thousands of visitors keen on sampling the Kenyan culture including cuisine, songs and art. PHOTO | BMJ MURIITHI

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