Nani Croze, German artist and community activist, settled in Kenya many years ago. Her flower-child idealism has inspired a complex of Gaudi-esque buildings with smashing use of recycled materials, as well as several health and education projects to help those around her. She answers some questions from HAND/EYE editor Keith Recker and our roving scout Jacqui Starkey.
What brought you to Kenya? Why have you stayed so long?
I came from Tanzania, Serengeti where we had been studying elephants. We had planned to drive back to Europe in our VW combi but No 3 son had outgrown the space allocated to him, so we stayed. I had always wanted to come to Africa, Germany for me was endlessly boring, ordered, regimented and as my father was famous I was always in his shadow.
You came as an artist, and continue to develop as one. How has Kenya affected what you create? Do you have any favorite work you'd like to tell about?
No, I developed being an artist here in Africa, like almost everyone who has lived in the bush and experienced the colours of this continent must do. I always swore I would NOT be an artist, having grown up in an artist's family where even my grandmother and grandfather were artists, forever poor: the smell of printing ink and turpentine in my nose! I wanted to be a scientist! I had been a goosegirl with Prof Konrad Lorenz. It did not take me long to find out that my talents were not in that direction, too impatient. But my art talent was there and could not be subdued so that's what happened. I painted and painted, and was able to pay for a whole year of pediatrician fees. Admittedly, my kids were very healthy.
One day a client came to look at some of my work and as I pulled out canvas after canvas, I discovered that termites had eaten all of the fabric and all that remained was a thin film of oilpaint. Then I decided easel painting was not for me and Africa. I started murals and used concrete for relief – miles and miles of relief work, public buildings, ministries, hotels, UNEP.
Favourites? I have always liked BIG , so if I could not make it beautiful, I made it big. And finally when that did not work, I found SHINY. That's when I started stained glass. But of course stained glass did not just happen. To make it work in Africa I had to recycle it, find a source of energy to fire it and someone to teach us etc etc etc endless story
Your inventiveness does not stop at art: tell us something about the buildings on your property? They look exuberant and inventive and utopian in a 60's way -- an energy we don't see or feel often enough in "the West" these days.
60 ‘s? That was when I first looked at a book of Gaudi and I never left him. My inspiration stems from that first glimpse. But it was much later that I was bold enough to build wild! Ferroconcrete over bent metal in any shape that would appeal. Using strawbales, mud, grass ,anything that I could harvest. Living in our climate we did not need roofs over showers, or walls when in a tree house, but did need wire mesh in the vegetable garden to stop the baboon onslaught.
You've also been creative in terms of social engagement with your community. What projects do you focus on right now? Are they working? Do you get satisfaction from your social projects?
City park is still battling but just about saved, this project is running with the help of wonderful Kenyans and will win in the end. Silole Sactuary is doing as well as can be expected in this time of drought and dying cattle. Watamu Beach and Forest too is still there, lots of good people, though the odd devastated plot and needs to be replanted. My Eco Tower around the Doum Palm is my latest project there, apart from our glass furnace powered by coconut oil.
The most active project is always the Rudolf Steiner/Waldorf School Mbagathi. As chair and founder of the first Steiner School in black Africa 18 years ago my duties are not too strenuous. We have now over 200 kids. 4 of those are in my care and quite a strain in the holidays as they get older. The other project that involves the School is our Masai women literacy program, manned by Steiner teachers; here I am in serious financial stress as funds have run out.
How do you fund the projects? Can HAND/EYE readers help?
Funny you should mention that...did you notice the phrase "financial stress"? The project is running for 4 years now. Masai women are often denied education and in later life cannot fend for themselves as they cannot read or write and their men cheat them. It was initially funded by UNEP director Klaus Topfer and recently by the new director Joachim Steiner. But I cannot ask them again as it comes out of their personal funds. I need new sources.
I am curious to know how you see your home-country, and "Western society", now that you have a lifetime of experience in Kenya. Are there lessons we need to learn from Kenya?
When I return to Europe, apart from the appalling weather (except for summer), I am shocked by the complications life seems to present there and yet things are supposed to be CONVENIENT. Even changing money or using a phone presents problems. Noone smiles, the streets are empty, and its difficult to find bananas. And you have to carry your own luggage!
Please visit kitengela-glass.com for more insight into Nani Croze and her world. Make a donation to support her work if you can!