Carving out a living: A corner of Africa that's forever Springfield

The master carvers of a Kenyan village were eking out a living from soapstone statues. Then, somebody had a bright idea: why not make them the official suppliers of 'Simpsons' merchandise.Steve Bloomfield reports from Tabaka
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The Independent Online

Normally, when someone tells you that The Simpsons changed their life, your first thought is they watch too much television.

That's not how it happened for Enosh Onsombi. Where he grew up there was no electricity, let alone a television. But there's no doubting he's now a true believer. "Life has changed so much," the 45-year-old says, beaming. "The Simpsons has changed everything."

There is a cold, hard reason for the arrival of Homer, Marge, Bart, Maggie and Lisa in this remote village in western Kenya, and it lies right beneath his feet. Under the fields of maize and tea that surround the wooden huts of Tabaka is a wealth of soapstone.

Two kinds of men inhabit Mr Onsombi's village: those who mine the soapstone and those who carve it. And that is how this community eked out a living until the world of merchandising arrived at the door of Mr Onsombi's workshop.

Along with a Simpsons Monopoly game, eight-foot inflatable Bart dolls for Christmas, and the lounge lover's favourite, the Homer drinking-hat that feeds you beer through a drip from cans secured above your ears, you will soon be able to purchase a Tabaka soapstone statue of your favourite character.

Mr Onsombi swings back a wooden door to reveal the new world. Inside sit the Tabaka master carvers - a team of 16 male sculptors - and a dozen female assistants who wash and polish the men's finished products. Perched on wooden stools, the men chip away at the soapstone while referring to a plastic yellow doll at their feet. The workshop is a hive of activity.

Each carver is given their own character, but not all Simpsons are equal. The long, crooked nose of Montgomery Burns, the evil owner of a nuclear plant, has caused endless frustration. "You are almost finished," says one of the craftsmen, Daniel Oigo, looking up from his carving, " then the nose snaps off". Chief Wiggum, the fat, lazy police chief, is another tricky one. "It is hard to get the hat right," he says.

By now Tabaka's residents can rival your average British teenager in reeling off the names of the cartoon's minor characters, from Sideshow Bob to Groundskeeper Willie.

It wasn't always like this. With a sweep of his arm, Mr Onsombi surveys the rolling hills: "We are a long way from America, aren't we?" he laughs.

We are a long way from Nairobi, let alone the United States. It takes three hours by bus to reach the nearest major town, Kisumu; 10 hours in all to get to Kenya's capital, Nairobi.

Ornate, curved soapstone statues from villages like Tabaka have long been a feature of the markets in Nairobi, where unsuspecting tourists spend thousands of Kenyan shillings on statues that cost the market stall-holders a pittance to buy.

It was along those pot-holed roads and dusty tracks to the markets that Mr Onsombi and his friends trekked with their wares. It wasn't an easy living.

In a buyer's market, middlemen could get the sculptures for next to nothing. Often, Mr Onsombi and his friends would be forced to wait for days while the dealers decided what, if anything, they wanted. "Every day we were in Nairobi we were spending money. We would come home with very little."

If Tabaka is a long way from the US, it is even further away from the fictional town of Springfield, home to the world's most popular cartoon family. However, although Tabaka may not have electricity for the most part, it is now a firm part of the Simpsons universe. As the rest of the world prepares for the premiere of The Simpsons Movie at the end of the month, the master carvers have 300 statues to finish by the end of the week.

The unlikely relationship between Springfield and Tabaka was the brainchild of Paul Young, a business-studies graduate from Darlington, Co Durham, who had the idea for soapstone carvings of pop-culture characters three years ago. His sister had been living in Uganda and had sent carvings of elephants and lions to the family in England.

"They were all of a uniform standard and quality," he remembers. "I thought, if they could produce something a bit more Western, it might be really popular." Star Wars and The Simpsons were the two brands he considered before abandoning the Force after realising the actor-based statues might take longer to get right.

After making initial contact with the two groups of carvers via a crafts company based in Nairobi, Mr Young started sending as many Simpsons models as he could get his hands on to Tabaka. "I sent models, pictures, a shampoo bottle with Bart's head on - anything I could find," he said.

The carvers began to produce prototypes, taking pictures of them which were sent back to Mr Young's company, Craft Village UK, in Darlington. Problems soon emerged - most notably the weight of the statues. In the master carvers' small office, Mr Onsombi picks up an original Homer. It is about 10 times the weight of the far smaller statues his colleagues are currently carving.

The cost of posting such a heavy statue back to the United Kingdom was too steep. "We had to completely redesign the product, making it a lot smaller and lighter," Mr Young said.

Even with the redesign, it was far from plain sailing. Crucially, Mr Young needed to get permission from the makers of The Simpsons, Twentieth Century Fox. He flew out to Kenya in 2005 to meet the carvers for the first time and to video the carving process, from mining to polishing.

He took his home movie to Twentieth Century Fox in the United States. " I thought we would have a better chance if I could show Fox how it was made and who would benefit," he said.

He was right. Fox designated the Tabaka soapstone carvings as official Simpsons merchandise in July last year. Elie Dekel, a vice-president for Twentieth Century Fox, boasted of the link earlier this year as a testament to the programme's "cultural reach". (The "cultural reach" is clearly only one way. Mr Dekel referred to the residents of Tabaka as "tribesmen" and seemed amazed they had the skills to produce a Bart replica.)

It was not until Mr Young turned up in Tabaka two years ago that the villagers were able to watch the cartoon. While The Simpsons can be seen in Kenya, it is only available on satellite television, a luxury that few can afford in a country where the majority live on less than 50p a day. The entrepreneur brought a video, found a television and a generator, and gathered the stone carvers together to watch a couple of episodes.

"It was ... very interesting," Daniel Oigo remembers. They may not have got the political references or the satires of Western culture, but some humour always travels. "I laughed at Homer," he said. " He hurts himself a lot."

Sitting in the shade of a wooden gazebo in the middle of a field, Mr Oigo and his team of 15 carvers are working on new characters. Twelve models have been given the official Fox seal of approval - and now the carvers are keen to expand.

It takes several attempts to get the form just right but, once Mr Young has approved the benchmark, the carvers are able to reproduce it at a rate of almost one a day.

Since The Simpsons came to Tabaka, life has changed immeasurably. The carvers are paid 450 shillings (£3) for every statue, an amount that has enabled all of them to put their children through school. "Without The Simpsons, my children would not be getting their education," says Mr Onsombi, who has a family of eight.

The carvers have been given their first pairs of steel toe-capped boots and their work is regular. Previously, weeks would pass by without any work at all. Around 80 people are employed through the project, from the miners who provide the soapstone to the women who wax and polish the carved statues.

But Tabaka, like its fictional counterpart Springfield, has a darker side. Over the brow of a hill, 20 minutes away from the master carvers' workshop, a group of men are digging for soapstone in the local quarry. It is back-breaking work, smashing rocks for 12 hours day in temperatures that regularly reach 35C. It can also be deadly. Around 20 people have been killed in the past year in the dozen or so mines in the Kisii area. The miners have no protection - no goggles for their eyes, no hard hats for their heads. "It is very easy for rocks to slip and fall on your head," said Mr Onsombi. "We have lost many friends this way."

The quarry is owned by a local businessman who charges miners a daily fee to dig. They are then able to sell whatever they manage to retrieve.

Deep inside the quarry, a young man called Joseph chips away at a piece of soapstone two feet long and a foot wide. In his other hand he clutches a photocopied picture of the Egyptian queen, Cleopatra. "He will do it," said Mr Onsombi. "No problem. He is very good."

While many in the village still do their own statues, Mr Onsombi and Mr Oigo are keen to encourage more carvers to switch from Cleopatras to Homers. "We have so many to make," said Mr Onsombi. "We need more carvers."

The Simpsons statues go on sale in the UK next week. If they are successful, the Tabaka carvers will be able to train more young men to join them. " One day, maybe everyone in Tabaka will be making Simpsons statues," said Mr Onsombi.

The influence of The Simpsons can only go so far though. Mr Onsombi draws the line at changing the village's name to Springfield. "No," he said, "Tabaka is fine."

Springfield, Vermont, hosts premiere

Forget New York or Los Angeles, The Simpsons movie will make its international premiere on 21 July in Springfield, Vermont, population 9,500. The New England town beat 13 namesakes to win an online competition and submitted a winning video showing a Homer Simpson look-alike chasing a giant doughnut through the town. It also boasted similarities to the cartoon Springfield, such as having a nuclear power plant near by. Matt Groening, The Simpsons creator, set the show in the fictional town of Springfield because it is one of the most common place-names in the US.

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