Carving out a New Tradition from a Swahili Background
By Michael Dresdner
The first thing I had to clarify when I spoke to Daniel Omondi Odhuno was his name. Depending on where I saw it, he was called just Daniel Omondi, Daniel Odhuno, or his full name. His explanation was more surprising than what I anticipated.
"In Kenya, if I were to introduce myself, I would introduce myself with all three names," Omondi explained, "and each person would choose which name to call me. Here, people expect you to tell them what to call you. I often use just my first two names because I feel that is what people expect. Daniel is a given name, and Odhuno is a family name."
His middle name, though, was most interesting of all. "In my culture, the Luo culture, we are named according to the time of day we are born. That is why I am called Omondi, which means I was born in the morning."
Perhaps that bodes well for woodworkers, because in October 2006, Omondi was selected as winner of the award for Best in Show for a traditional furniture piece at the 11th Annual Providence Fine Furnishings Show in Rhode Island. The fact that he is an accomplished woodworker should come as no surprise, though. He was, after all, raised to be just that.
"I grew up in Kenya," Omondi explained. "My family owned a furniture building shop, and I started working there with my father at an early age. Consequently, after high school I started working in the family business, and did so for a little over a year before I went to a technical college to study woodworking. The reason was very direct. We applied for a government contract to build office furniture, which required an education certificate, so I went to school to get it. My father had also gone to a polytechnic, but he was busy building houses, so the plan was for me to get accredited so I could run the shop when he was absent.
"I went to polytechnic for three years and came back to the family business until 2000. That year I married an American woman that I met in Kenya, and we moved to Vermont.
"The weather in Vermont was rather a shock. I had never experienced snow or weather that cold. Driving in the snow, for example, was particularly challenging, and at first I did not think I would last even a year. When I first got here and started playing soccer on a local team, the other members helped me deal with it. I'm learning to ice skate now, and can balance.
"Once I got here I worked at a variety of jobs, including working as a bread baker, a landscaper, and carpenter. Meanwhile, I was buying tools and working in a borrowed shop making furniture when I could. I was building one piece at a time and sending the pieces to galleries for them to sell for me. I started getting a local reputation for my work, and last year I rented a shop and started building full-time.
"As it turns out, we got divorced early this year, but I now have permanent resident status. The first week after the divorce, I considered paying off what I owed on tools I was buying on credit, then returning to Africa. I'm still paying them off, but now I think I have enough customers and have become acclimated enough to this country that I will stay."
While there are plenty of furniture makers, Omondi's work is set apart by the influences of his upbringing. "I work alone and do an old style of Swahili carving called Bajun carving," he explained. "Bajun carving was introduced in the 15th century by the Indian and Arab cultures, and is now common in Kenya. Most of this type of carving was originally done on doors, but I reinterpret it on furniture. It looks similar to chip carving, but we use chisels instead of knives, and the cut angles are somewhat different. It is also more three-dimensional. Bajun is a style rather than a pattern: the word itself is a Swahili tribal name.
"Mostly I do my own designs, but I get inspiration for the carvings from old doors." His mahogany coffee table, for example, is his own carving design, incorporating a different slant on his tradition. That carving includes flowers, which is a departure from the more typical Bajun. "The hallway table is one of my favorite pieces," he admitted, "because it allows me to showcase a variety of my favorite types of carving in one piece.
"In the U.S., this is a new style, and people are just getting to know it. Most of my clients are wealthy. Some have traveled and recognized my style of work from what they have seen in Africa. I am still progressing, and I have other designs I want to build. I have not made any doors yet in the U.S., but I would like to, even though carving a traditional Swahili door would take four to six months to build and carve." In addition to the carving, his pieces are distinguished by frequently incorporating a mixture of his native Kenyan woods, like bambakofe and mvole, with local cherry, maple and walnut.
"I'm hoping once I get busier I will need employees. A number of people have come to me and asked me to teach my style of carving, and I expect to do so some day, but for now I don't really have the time to teach. Working alone means I must not only build, but also market my pieces."
That's only a half truth. It turns out that in addition to building, he teaches woodworking in an after-school program in an elementary school. In his free time, he coaches soccer in a local high school. "I played soccer in high school and college," admits Omondi, "and played on the Kenya National Youth team as a teenager. I used to be good, but I think nowadays I am a bit heavier and a bit rustier. I still play in a local soccer team."
For now, though, his main focus is introducing us to some of his native style, and building fine furniture. "When you build furniture with good joints," he insists, "it will last a lot longer than factory furniture. I build things that will last."
Based on what he told me, that is likely to continue indefinitely. "Once you are a furniture maker," Omondi explained "it is hard to get out of it, because it becomes part of your life."