Stephen Kamau Nganga
Conserving The African Tradition Of Ostrich Egg Carving
Ostrich eggs adorned and incised with images are an ancient artistic tradition in Africa's Southern and Eastern reaches. The oldest found ostrich eggs are dating back 90 000 - 100 000 years ago. They were decorated and used to carry water. The African tribes adorned and incised them as a form of expressing their cultural identity. The decorated ostrich eggs were seen and handled as high luxury items by ancient African tribes.
My name is Stephen Kamau Nganga. I am 29 years old and I am from Kenya. I came to South Africa, Cape Town, 7 years ago together with my father and older sister. The main reason for me moving here was to continue my tertiary studies. It is here in Cape Town that I fell in love with the art of carving ostrich eggs. I was fascinated by this art and an older friend of mine from Zimbabwe who also happened to live in Cape Town showed and taught me how to do this craft. Soon afterwards I was creating my own pieces and showing others how to do it.
What I like the most about the craft of ostrich eggs is that the craft is completely natural and sustainable. If you make a wooden sculpture, a tree needs to be cut down. If you make a stone sculpture, there needs to be a quarry. Even if you make a painting the materials need to come from somewhere. Yet with my craft, nothing needs to be cut down or dug up. The eggs themselves are collected from an ostrich farm in Karoo, South Africa, where the ostriches are farmed for their meat. The eggs are a by-product of these farms. One egg on its own can feed up to 10 people. The fact that this craft is 100% sustainable is important to me, as I am myself a vegetarian.
After the inside of the ostrich egg has been extracted for food, the leftovers from the yolk need to be scrubbed from the shell. This is a long and difficult process that can easily take up to a full day. This process is mostly done by older women. Afterwards, the empty eggs get sold to craftsmen like me, who are keeping an ancient African tradition alive of carving ostrich eggs into beautiful pieces of art.
Sometimes I let my younger colleagues whom I taught do the sketches. Other times I do the sketches myself. Then I take my drill, which looks like a tattoo machine and start making the 3D sculptures into the eggs shell. This is a long process and just one animal takes a minimum of one day. To finish a whole ostrich egg takes me up to three days or more. You need to be very careful during the process of carving not to break the eggshell. One wrong move with the egg drill and the egg scale can break and you have to start all over from scratch again. It’s a very delicate process.
I am only the last person of a whole chain of people to produce one decorated ostrich egg. The whole process involves and employs a lot of people. Especially for younger people like me, this is important as unemployment is a big enemy of the youth here in South Africa. This craft holds a lot of young people like me and many other colleagues from the streets by providing us with a respected and beautiful job. I can proudly say that I am an ostrich egg craftsman, a craft that dates back many centuries to the African tribes of Eastern and Southern Africa. I wouldn’t want to trade my profession for anything in the world!