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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 July 2007, 16:49 GMT 17:49 UK
Simpsons win over Kenyan carvers
The Simpson carvings alongside plastic models of the characters

By Muliro Telewa
BBC News, western Kenya

A group of carvers in western Kenya are looking forward to the first Simpsons movie hitting big screens around the world, even though they are unlikely to see it.

Marg bust from http://www.craftvillageuk.com
I don't know who they are. But I like them because I earn from them
Statue polisher Pauline Kemunto

Although most of them in the remote village of Tabaka in Kisii have never watched the animated TV show, Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie have changed their lives and the new film should see demand for their work soar they hope.

Soapstone carving is a traditional craft passed down from generation to generation, and the Abagusii tribe is renowned for their carving prowess.

So when Twentieth Century Fox designated the Tabaka soapstone carvings as official Simpsons merchandise in July 2006, their lives improved overnight.

The Tabaka Classic Carvers are licensed to produce 12 models of the show's characters, and they are keen to expand their portfolio.

Pauline Kemunto and her husband work with the Simpsons team in Tabaka; he carves the figures and she smoothes the soapstone afterwards

"I don't know who they are," she says about the dysfunctional cartoon family.

"But I like them because I earn from them."


The team carve replicas of the characters that sell for $6, a huge improvement on the $1 per piece they earned before The Simpsons came to Tabaka.

We know the physical characteristics of the Simpsons so well that we don't have to copy from anywhere
A Tabaka carver

The business employs around 80 people - the carvers, the miners who provide the soapstone and the women who wash and polish the finished statues.

The head of the team, Daniel Oigo Mogendi, said he won the tender by accident when he had gone to the capital, Nairobi, to collect payment for a soapstone chessboard.

His client asked him to carve a prototype of Homer, the big-bellied family man who is fond of a beer.

"I'd seen The Simpsons once on television, but I didn't care, I still carved it," he explains.

"The sample was very heavy and they decided to make it lighter."

Now, all the characters are as familiar to him as his family, including minor characters such as Springfield police boss, Chief Wiggum.


The whole project is the brainchild of Paul Young, who was temping on building sites and as a shop fitter in the UK when he came up with the idea in 2004.

At first the carvings were too heavy and had to be made smaller

"My sister used to live in Uganda and would send back traditional African carvings. I thought if you could get something with a more Western spin it could do well," he says.

It took more than a year for the Tabaka carvers to come up with a sculpture that would work.

"At first we tried full figures. But the hands would snap off during shipping so we'd try them with Homer's hands in his pockets, but then there was the weight issue," he says.

Eventually a bust was felt to be the best solution and the carvers now reproduce the famous features without even looking at the stone.

"We know the physical characteristics of The Simpsons so well that we don't have to copy from anywhere," says one of the carvers.

"The measurements are even engraved in our memories."

Slideshow Bob (Copyright Twentieth Century Fox)
It takes skill to replicate the characters exactly each time

Packing boxes stacked against the walls of the grass thatched hut that serves as their studio reveals the far-flung destinations of the Tabaka soapstone carvings - the US, the United Kingdom and Italy.

The famous figurines are about to go on sale in the UK at the Craft Village UK, priced at about $40.

Mr Young says 30% of this goes to Kenya, not just to the carvers but to pay for the print work, quality control and packaging.

"My favourite carving is of Sideshow Bob," he says.

"He's not my favourite character, but it shows how gifted the carvers are as it's replicated exactly with such skill each time."

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