There is an old adage that says people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.
But the good news is you can live in a glass house and make money. Hidden in the hot Kitengela plains of Kenya is a 30-year-old factory that uses recycled glass to transform homes, hotels, offices, churches, museums and other buildings into spectacular sights.
Kitengela Glass is located on the outskirts of Kenya’s capital and borders the Nairobi National Park. The factory stands out like an oasis in the desert. It’s home to glassblowers, glasscutters, artists and sculptors who turn the recycled glass into amazing works of art.
The studio is owned and run by 68-year-old Nani Croze. A muralist turned glassblower, Croze has been in the business for over three decades. “I am still a German, although I feel completely Kenyan. I am waiting to be given an honorary citizenship,” she says. Croze came to Africa with her first husband in the late ’60s. “We studied elephants in the Serengeti. We planned to go back after four years in a VW van we had converted for our three children. But by that time, my eldest son had grown too big to fit into the van, so we decided to stay.”
Her scientist husband got a job at the University of Nairobi, where he taught animal behavior. The family lived in Limuru, in the highlands, in a rented home. When the owner died, the house was sold to people who felled the trees in the compound. “I decided to look for somewhere with no trees so I could plant my own and no one would be allowed to cut them down,” says Croze. The search for land took them to Kitengela, an environmentally protected area where her husband had previously worked.
“He went to Geneva for a conference and his colleague said: ‘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 architect friends advised that she try her hand at stained glass. “I was not going to make enough money to pay for my children’s education painting murals,” said Croze.
She went to the UK for a three-week course. She was told she would need 30 years to learn. So she learnt through experience. “The major milestone for us was that importing colored glass is very expensive, heavy and fragile—it breaks very easily. So I thought, ‘Why don’t we make our own?’ Slowly, we built a furnace with the help of a Finnish glassmaker, and I started collecting waste glass.”
Croze soon discovered that not all glass was compatible as it melts at different temperatures. “It took a long time but I am happy we invented glassmaking in East Africa!” Croze’s son, Anselm, joined her and now does his own glassblowing. She credits a Dutch Catholic priest in Uganda for teaching her some of the tricks of the trade. “I visited him because he also made stained-glass windows in the 1970s. He made his own lead and tools and imported glass from France. He showed me how to make glass in the bush.”
Kitengela Glass prides itself on being the pioneer glassmaker in East Africa. Glassmaking traces its roots to 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 colored sheets for stained-glass windows locally. We import only what we cannot make.”
From waste glass, Kitengela produces vessels—anything that can hold a liquid—bowls, flower vases, tumblers and glasses as well as sculptures, jewelry, chimes and chandeliers.
But Kitengela Glass is perhaps best known for making dalle de verre (French for glass blocks), a new technique of making stained glass. “My work with dalle de verre can be seen in various buildings in Nairobi like the Barclays Plaza, CFC Bank and the American Embassy canteen wall. Dalle de verre is popular with banks because it is secure—made of thick glass, concrete and metal reinforcing.”
Used bottles and waste window glass are taken to Kitengela Glass to be smashed and melted before they are blown into vessels, beads or flat glass or cast into dalle de verre blocks. The difference between dalle de verre and stained glass is that dalle de verre is an inch thick and set in concrete, with metal reinforcing for stability. Traditional stained glass is much thinner and can be painted and fired. It is attached piece by piece with strips of lead which are soldered at the corners, then puttied for stability.
“I made traditional stained glass long before we started melting glass. I realized the cost and difficulty of importing colored glass and therefore started to make our own.”
Croze compares glassblowing to flying an airplane. “You must do it all the time to be good at it.” She is currently working on a major project that involves making a centerpiece mural from dalle de verre for a new Catholic church in Tanzania. “The foreground in the lower section is to have images of creation like the savannah grassland, the acacia tree, some footprints to represent Africa as the cradle of mankind and above this will be a scene of the Holy Spirit hovering over the earth.”
Dalle de verre is also used for making staircases, tables and memorials. “We made a memorial in honor of Dan Eldon, a Reuters correspondent killed in Mogadishu, Somalia. The memorial has a lens, representative of his profession, in glass. It looks nice when the sun shines through. Glass needs light from the opposite side.”
Kitengela Glass also decorated the Kenyan home of the French billionaire businessman, art dealer and racehorse breeder, Alec Nathan Wildenstein, who died in 2008. Croze is presently making a memorial piece for Kenyan Nobel Laureate, Professor Wangari Maathai.
“Our handmade glass is like the early medieval glass with bubbles and striations. No-one knows about medieval glass anymore. It is like the taste of tomatoes: people have forgotten what an organically grown tomato tastes like,” she says.