There is an old adage that says people who live in glass houses should never throw stones. But the good news is you can live in a glass house and not worry about stones.
Hidden in the hot Kitengela plains of Kenya, is a three-decade-old factory that uses recycled glass to transform homes, hotels, offices, churches, museums and other buildings into spectacular sights to behold.
Kitengela Glass Trust and Studio is located in the outskirts of Kenya’s Capital Nairobi and borders the Nairobi National Park. A drive to the studio will take you a little over an hour as half the journey is an adventure of navigating a rough dusty road. The factory stands out like an oasis in a desert. It is the home to glass blowers, cutters, artists, and sculptors who turn recycled glass into amazing works of art.
How Nani Croze came to Kenya
The glass studio is owned and run by Nani Croze originally from Germany. A muralist turned glass blower, Nani has been in the glass business for over three decades now. “I am still a German although I feel completely Kenyan. I am waiting to be given honorary citizenship,” she says. Nani came to Africa with her first husband Dr Croze in the late ’60s. “We studied elephants in the Serengeti but after four years when were planning to go back to Europe in a VW van that we had converted for our three children, my eldest son had grown too big to fit in the van and we decided to stay.”
Her Scientist husband got a teaching job at the University of Nairobi where he taught about animal behaviour. The family lived in Limuru in Central Kenya in a rented home. Unfortunately, the owner died and without informing the Croze family, the house was sold to people who then came and fell the trees in the compound. “The new owners were cutting the trees and it hurt me. I decided to look for somewhere with no trees so I could plant my own (trees) and no one would be allowed to cut them.” The search for land took them to Kitengela, an environmentally protected area where her husband had previously done some work. However, her husband could not handle the transformation and they divorced.
“He once went to Geneva for a conference and his colleague told him; ‘excuse me Dr Croze, I think you have a tick on your neck! ’ We were living in the bush and he could not take it any longer.” Divorced and with three children to bring up, one of her architects advised her to try glass blowing because, “with murals, I was not going to make enough money to pay for my children’s education,” she says.
That was how Kitengela Glass was born. Since then Nani has never looked back. “The major milestone for us was importing glass because it is very expensive, heavy and fragile – it breaks very easily. I thought, ‘why don’t we make our own?’ Slowly we built a kiln and I started collecting waste glass.”
Nani went to the UK to do a three-week take a glass making course and she was told she would need 30 years to learn. When she came back and started melting glass she learnt a lot of lessons through experience. For example, she found out all glass is not compatible and that you have to heat glass under different temperatures. “It took a long time! But I am happy we invented glass making in East Africa!” She also credits a Dutch Catholic Priest in Uganda for teaching her the tricks of the trade. “I went and visited him because he also made stained glass in the 1970s. He made his own lead, tools, and imported glass though from France. I learnt a lot from him, he showed me how to make glass in the bush.”
Kitengela Glass has resurrected the art of glassmaking in Africa. The factory prides itself as one of the pioneer glass makers in East Africa. Glass making traces its roots in Egypt and part of the Middle East in the second millennium BC. “To my knowledge glass was never made in East Africa. My interest is in a new craft for East Africa – making glass from recycled glass. We make coloured sheets for stained glass windows locally. We don’t import from Europe, the United States or anywhere else!”
From glass, Kitengela Studio produces vessels – anything that can hold a liquid – bowls, flower vases, tumblers, and water glasses. Out of glass they also make sculptures, jewellery, functional items like key holders, sinks, chimes, and chandeliers.
But Kitengela Glass is perhaps best known for making dale de verre (French for glass blocs), a new technique of making stained glass which is a popular art form used to decorate buildings like churches, libraries, banks, homes, learning institutions among others. Famous Cathedrals that have used stained glass include the Cathedral of Chartres, in France that is decorated using 11-13th-century glass and the Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church in the United States that has an extensive collection of stained glass windows. Apart from windows, stained glass can also be used for decorating things like walls, picture frames, clocks, cabinet doors, and doors.
According to Nani, Dale de verre is new to Africa - except South Africa. The glass form was used for making glass a long time ago but sadly no one is making it anymore. “My initial work with Dale de verre are various buildings in Nairobi like the Barclays Plaza, CFC Bank, and the American Embassy canteen wall.” Dale de verre is popular with banks because it is secure as it is made of thick glass, concrete and metal binding all reinforced. “It looks very beautiful in the right setting.”
Used bottles and glass are taken to Kitengela Glass to be smashed and melted before they are either blown into vessels, jewellery beads or flat glass. Nani describes glass blowing like flying an aeroplane, “you must do it all the time.” Currently, she is working on a major project that involves making a centrepiece mural from stained glass for a new Catholic Church in Arusha Tanzania. “In the lower section, the foreground will have images of creation like the Savannah grassland, the acacia tree... some footprints to represent Africa as the cradle of mankind... Above this a scene of the Spirit hovering over the earth as in Genesis, creating a new earth depicted by using yellows and reds,” says Mike O’Sullivan, the contractor of the Arusha project.
The Arusha church project has forced Nani to read the creation story in the first book of the Bible – Genesis. “I have to understand how God separated the earth from water and air, and made animals, flowers and beasts of the earth, and man!” she says with a chickle.
Dale de verre is also used for making staircases, tables and memorials. “We have a memorial in honour of Dan Eldon a Reuters Correspondent and photographer who was killed in Mogadishu, Somalia.” The memorial is about eight and has a lens to represent his profession and face made of glass. “It looks nice when the sunrays shine through. Glass needs light from the opposite side,” says Nani.
Nani describes herself as an artist who has resurrected the art of glassmaking in East Africa. She is also proud that Kitengela glass does not import glass and has made a positive contribution to environmental conservation. The furnaces used to melt the glass are heated using used engine oil which is then mixed with water to fire the glass 1,600 degrees centigrade. It is this glass that the artists convert it to different art pieces from facial masks, floor tiles to wine glass glasses.
The art objects at Kitengela Glass are inspired by the artists who work there and apprentice students from all different parts of Africa who come to learn about glass making. “They come up with their own ideas. If they are workable, we work on it. Some ideas work, others don’t work.”
Kitengela Glass Studio also decorated the Kenyan home of the Alec Nathan Wildenstein, a French billionaire businessman, art dealer and racehorse breeder who died in 2008. Alec and his wife lived in a 66,000-acre ranch called Ol Jogi in Laikipia. Nani has also made a memorial piece for Kenyan Nobel Laureate, the Late Prof. Wangari.
For Nani, glass is her first and only love. She says glass has evolved so much that people will forget its beauty. “No one knows about medieval glass anymore. It is like the taste of tomatoes, people have forgotten how organically grown tomato tastes like!”