My name is Wangari Kamau, owner of Umba Creations, a socially conscious children’s brand which has a love for handmade goods, with a particular interest in creating crochet dolls and toys to help impart positive messages and values into the lives of children.
The name Wangari is from the Kikuyu ethnic community. Wangari was one of the nine daughters of Gikuyu and Mumbi who are believed to be the founders of the Kikuyu tribe. The name means “one who belongs to the leopards”.
An interesting fact about leopards is that they are very solitary and spend most of their time alone. It’s funny because I seem to thrive really well when alone in the corner working. If you look carefully at me, you may just spot a rosette or two. (my leopard spots). Lol.
let's Start from the beginning.
My background is in interior and product design. After completing my studies at Evelyn College of Design, I proceeded on to the UK for further studies.
I come from a family of medics. My dad especially (who is a surgeon) couldn’t understand why I was choosing to go down the creative route. To date I feel like I’m still trying to explain to him what exactly I do. Lol.
Don't limit yourself.
Upon completing my design degree, I came back home to Kenya. Due to my lack of work experience, I was unsuccessful in finding a job. Nonetheless, my dad had given me a grace period of 6 months to get on my feet. In other words, he would support me financially during this period after which, in his own words “would cut off all funds”. This put me under a lot of pressure to find a job within this period of time. Since nothing in the design space was forthcoming, I found myself in the marketing space. Here, I worked for several corporate organizations, with my last role being that of Head of Marketing Activities for East and West Africa at the software company Oracle.
Great things never came from comfort zones.
In the long run, I worked in the corporate field for over 15 years. Noteworthy is the fact that I was always trying to create or make something in my free time. Towards the end of 2008, whilst still working, I decided to design home accessories on the side and have local artisans make them for me. The first sample was usually fine but there was always a major let down when I asked for more than 5 pieces. Due to frustration and lack of time in managing the artisans, I chose to source for ready-made home décor items from the UK. I managed to successfully source for the items and mid-2009, opened up a small physical shop. I got a shop assistant and also created an online shop as eCommerce was just starting to become popular.
Trust the timing of your life.
However, 3 years later, just when the business was starting to break even, my family relocated to South Africa because of my husband’s job. It was a painful move as I had to close shop after all the work I had put into the business. All this whilst juggling my job and raising 2 young children.
About 6 months into the relocation, I resigned from Oracle, where I had been working for 8.5 years. I went on a journey to unearth and rediscover my creative juices. The VP of Marketing at the time told me not to be in a rush to go back into the corporate world. To use the time off to exhale and discover myself. I did exactly that and found what I was looking for in crochet.
Three months after my son was born, I realized that he did not have a teddy bear or a comfort toy. I took one of the teddy bears that my older daughter had received as a gift during her first birthday and placed it in his cot. Through me, Teddy would sing and speak to my son and have all manner of conversation. 12 years on, Teddy is a huge part of our family; grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins and friends included. He provides comfort to my son in a way that I don’t understand and he has refused to let him go. Teddy is practically hanging on for dear life but the love relationship between the two is still as strong as ever.
With my crochet skills I knew that this is exactly what I wanted to do; To create other ‘Teddies’ for children. But ‘Teddies’ that would hold more meaning. Ones that would speak into the lives of other children. That’s how Rafiki Toys by Umba Creations was born. I started off in South Africa.
Once again, just when I had found myself, partnered with another like minded persons and things were really looking up, guess what struck again? My husband’s job!
We were relocating back home to Kenya. I was devastated and angry. Why now? 3.5 years later I look back and I am super grateful that things happened the way they did. The relocation caused me to start afresh and realize that transition is actually a door to the next level. And besides that, nothing beats being back home.
Transition is a door to the next level.
Wangari Kamau, Umba Creations.
Things end but memories last forever.
As far back as I can remember, I have been using my hands. I loved plaiting grass into con-rows. Similarly, making toys from mud and clay and decorating them with flowers and all sorts of bits and bobs. One of my earliest ‘works of art’ was when I was in standard 3. It was a collage of a flower made from red seeds (which we used to call lucky beans) and green grams on the back of a Weetabix box. This memory is still so vivid.
Fast forward to high school, during the Christmas season and there I was. Making a couple of hundred shillings by painting Christmas decorations on shop windows in my home town.
I also have memories of sitting in the corner quietly for hours working on mosaics with pieces cut up from old magazines.
When I was in design school, I loved model making – cutting and gluing little bits to create structures. Many times my classmates would offer to pay me to work on their projects.
To begin with, I am drawn to quite a few things. Some of them include: simplicity, asymmetrical hand drawnings, earth tones with splashes of colour, old with a modern feel and all things that ooze rustic. Wanting to create and try new things keeps me going.
However, there are many times when I feel like throwing in the towel. Nevertheless, seeing other people who are out working their passion and making it keeps me going. I also draw a lot of inspiration from reading stories on people’s entrepreneurship journey.
Last but not least, my children are also a big part of my inspiration. I need to teach them things like patience and resilience. Likewise, to keep trying and giving their best even when things don’t work out. I can’t pass on these lessons to them if I’m not practicing them myself.
The awesomeness that is Umba Creations.
Umba Creations offers 2 main dolls; The Rafiki Mwenzi girl doll and the Rafiki Wema boy doll. Towards the end of 2019, we introduced the Rafiki Superhero dolls. They have been extremely well received as they remind children that each of them is unique. In addition, that their super powers lie in the things that they do and say.
We recently launched the Rafiki Values Tribe Playing Cards which spun off from the dolls.
Our story is that within each doll, lives a tribe of values which have been passed on from one generation to another. We wanted to bring these values to life by passing on their message through creative yet fun play. Hence the cards.
Besides that, we’re excited about developing products that will help carry on with the values conversation. Our hope is that as children play and interact with our toys, we can make a difference in their lives. Currently, we are working on relaunching our Marvelously Made range of dolls. Started in November 2019, they aim to teach children that each person is created uniquely and that physical appearances do not define who we are. Body and Soul, each of us is marvelously made.
It's always the small pieces that make the big picture.
Furthermore, we are thrilled to soon be launching our first puzzle, an idea which we started working on in early 2020. The puzzle has children riding in a mini bus matatu with super hero graffiti artwork done on it. The idea is that as children are travelling through life and getting on and off at different stops on the journey of life and mingling with others, they are picking up values of love, kindness, patience etc.
One of the things that I absolutely love is inspiring others with ideas and passing on creative skills.
In South Africa, I was involved in training groups of older women (Gogos) in Soweto. I love the time that we spent together as we would sing and dance to Zulu songs as we crocheted away.
Here in Kenya, I have also trained quite a few women on how to crochet and make dolls. I am currently working with 2 of them to produce the Rafiki dolls.
Furthermore, I have also been involved in running fun creative workshops with various girls. Some are from disadvantaged backgrounds while others are healing from the trauma of sexual abuse. Here, we make all sorts of crafts which they can use.
When schools are in session, once a week on Friday, I am involved in a mentoring program at a local public school. Here I speak and encourage children to dream big despite where they come from.
I recently joined a mentorship program called LIFT. It aims to inspire young women to be strong, smart and bold. In addition, to also impart them with life skills to help them live healthy and fulfilling lives.
our culture is the foundation on which we build our identity.
My upbringing is the foundation of what I do. Growing up my mum always told my siblings and I when doing something we needed to give it our utmost best. She would say things like, “Whatever you are cleaning, clean it so well that no one needs to redo it. And when you are there giving your best, an opportunity will open up.”
I have carried this manta to my work, giving my best with each item made. Sometimes I can be a bit OCD. Lol.
When I started making the dolls, I received some remarks that were quite discouraging. I remember my first participation in a pop-up market in 2015. It was a Christmas market in South Africa. Some customers came by my table, picked up dolls, started laughing and asked if I was selling voodoo dolls and practicing some sort of witchcraft.
In Kenya, when I started sharing my work on various social media groups, some of the comments were quite mean, but they positive ones always outnumbered the negative ones.
Invest in the younger generation.
There is so much creativity going on in Africa, a lot of it is untapped. We definitely need to be passing on these skills to the younger generation because if we don’t, a lot of it will be lost.
Wangari Kamau is very active on her Instagram @umbacreations & Facebook Umba Creations. You can follow her to see her latest work and keep up to date with new releases & offers. She also has an Etsy shop for international deliveries. For any other inquiries, you can contact her via email at [email protected] or business line +254722518077
Disclaimer: All photos provided for the purposes of graphics & illustrations for this article are from Wangari Kamau of Umba Creations.