Saving the Swahili Cultural Center


If cultural traditions link us to our past and help define ideas for our future, then no institute can rival the symbolism behind the Swahili Cultural Center, a vocational/trade institute based in Kenya. What sets this institute apart from other training colleges is that it emphasizes teaching the traditional Swahili crafts; mainly in the woodworking and tailoring fields. Swahili crafts are world renown, and some of the most popular cultural exports from the Kenyan Coast are the kuchonga (elaborate carving) style furniture pieces that have graced homes and magazine spreads alike. Sadly, Swahili furniture making is a dying craft and to date no other institute has dedicated its resources for the sole purpose of keeping the Swahili aesthetic spirit alive.

Swahili style bed
Swahili style bed featured in Elle Decor

The Swahili Cultural Center was set up as a joint effort between the National Museums of Kenya and the International Labour Organization in 1993 as the training hub of future handwork entrepreneurs. The first Center was started in Mombasa and another one was later opened in Lamu. The Center’s goal is simple, yet vital: to provide hands-on woodwork and dressmaking training in order to resuscitate a dying heritage. In this case, the life saving chest pump would come in the form of micro-entrepreneurship. A step up from the local skills-training colleges run by private parties, the Center also teaches business management skills so as to equip students with the conceptual know-how of running their own businesses. Thanks to funding and good management, the Swahili Cultural Center flourished in the beginning. For many high school graduates, the Cultural Center was a viable alternative to universities and technical colleges because it was affordable and relatively easy to get accepted into. Young men and women from various backgrounds enrolled; chisels and needles in hand. Those that attended the school had mainly wonderful experiences: the instructors were knowledgeable and helpful, the classrooms were comfortable, and learning tools and material were always available.

Sadly a discussion on the popular Mombasa Facebook forum, ‘Mombasa-Toa Donge Lako’, last week revealed that the Swahili Cultural Center has not achieved the benchmarks of success that it had set for itself. It is actually on the brink of being permanently shut down. Enrollment figures have been dismal to nil; no male students are currently enrolled and there are only 12 females taking the Embroidery and Tailoring course. Speculations on the cause of the Center’s downhill turn vary:
• graduates find it extremely difficult to set up and successfully run their own businesses
• stiff competition brought on by ready-made furniture and clothing imports from factories in the Far East
• loss of potential students to lucrative jobs in the Middle East.

The solutions to this problem also vary: provide bursaries, pump up enrollment through aggressive advertising, provide a fertile market in the West for goods produced by the Center under the ‘Fair Trade’ banner…Will the proposals work? No one knows. The Swahili Cultural Center faces an uphill battle to keep its doors open. However, provided there are proponents for the preservation of the Swahili culture, hope lives on.

Note:
The Swahili Cultural Center’s governing committee is in talks with the local community to find ways to rescue the Center. If you are interested in assisting the center through advice, funding or enrollment, please contact the Center Head:
Mr. Najash A. Hafidh: Email address najash.ahmed@museums.or.ke & telephone number +254 41 222 0717.

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