Born Free Lions Go on Parade

By Margaretta wa Gacheru
It was a spectacle well worth seeing, if for no other reason than to find so many local artists on hand in the open air being applauded by everyone from government ministers to Kenyan captains of industry to environmentalists and school children outing at the Kenya Wildlife Services just next to Nairobi’s notable Animal Orphanage in Karen.

But there were other good reasons to be there this Wednesday morning, and the main one was to see the artists’ handiwork. For no less than 50 of them implanted their own individual creative ideas on a life-size lion ‘born’ from a mold made by local sculptor Gakunju Kaigwa.

The idea of the 50 lions [each of which has been sponsored by a member of Kenya’s corporate community] came from the UK-based charity, the Born Free Foundation which essentially got the idea from a group calling itself Wild on Art. And the main idea all round is to rouse awareness of the Kenya lion’s terrible new status—that of “endangered species.”


Patrick Mukabi,a Fine Artist with one of the lions that he painted


There are only 2,000 ‘kings of the wild’ currently remaining in Kenya, according to Alice Owen, Kenya’s regional representative of the Born Free Foundation. Kenya used to have tens of thousands of lions roaming the savannahs of Africa but for various reasons, not least of which is the poisonous pesticide Furadan, the population of this most lionized creature has been reduced to scary numbers.

What makes the Born Free Foundation project so exceptional is that somehow they managed to prove that, when the timing is right, Kenya’s corporate elites will indeed come out in droves and support Kenya art and culture!

It was even a shock for Alice Owen to see how quickly the elites responded when the project was launched this past May at the Serena Hotel in Nairobi. Initially, she had only contracted Gakunju Kaigwa and his crew, including artists Kevin Oduor and Anthony Wanjau [among others] to make 25 lions since she didn’t know if the project would fly. But amazingly enough, the prospective sponsors [each of which would pay KSh200,000 to sponsor] came running for a lion of their own. Everyone from Eveready E. A Ltd and Kenya Institute of Manufacturers to the Commercial Bank of Africa and House of Manji got in line to fork out for a lion.

“In fact, we had more than 50 wanting to sponsor a lion,” said Alice who had also put out a call to all artists around the country to apply to decorate a lion. More than 90 applicants wrote in, despite the fact that a mere KSh20,000 would be their pay. “Everyone is donating their time and labour otherwise,” noted Alice who says all the funds raised but 30 percent will go to her foundation to support the work of saving and replenishing the population of the lions. That other 30 percent will go to Wild in Art, the UK group that has organized similar charity events all over the world.

“The only lion that was not painted by a Kenyan is the Kenya Airways lion,” Alice admits, a fact that has incensed many local artists who feel that “The Pride of Africa” [which is not only to motto for Kenya Airways but the slogan for the campaign] is really the ‘Shame of Africa” since they feel Kenya Airways of all companies ought to have its lion painted by a local.

But Alice defends the national carrier by noting is has been painted by the world renowned Kenya-born, London-based painter David Shepherd. Nonetheless, no one got to see Shepherd’s lion Wednesday since it got held up by the Kenya Government at Customs. And I suspect that was all the better for the Kenyans since it was definitely their day. [On getting ‘overshadowed’ by an ex-pat celebrity!]

The organizers even invited Kaigwa to come up to the microphone in the open air and speak about his lion sculpture. Gakunju [who trained in the art of bronze casting in the US for nine years] humbly conceded and said just a few sweet words of appreciation for those who care about the lions and for the artists as well. Frankly, he got shafted by BFF since they decided at the last minute that he and his team were not working fast enough so they took the project out of their hands unceremoniously, claiming the deadline loomed large and clearly the Kuona Trust-based crew were not going to get the job done in time. In fact, the Asian-owned company called in to complete the job was even later than Gakunju might have been. What’s more, some of the professional artists called in to paint a lion specially complained that their lion was not nearly as pristine and polished as Gakunju’s lot were.

“Just leave it,” Gakunju told me, after grappling with his own feelings and shock at the unprofessional way he was handled. In fact, the UK director of Wild on Art came all the way to Nairobi to politely do the job of cutting Gakunju out of the final deal.

One of the lions painted Pink by Mary Collis of RaMoMa Art Gallery

And Kaigwa is the first to admit that his written contract was only to make 25 lions [he completed 29, Alice said]. “Our completing the other 25 was only an oral agreement,” he confessed. But still, today was a bitter sweet experience for Gakunju and his crew.

Otherwise, for a wide array of local artists, the day was a dazzling and delightful triumph. Among those involved in the painterly process were local artists such as Kevin Oduor, Cyrus Kabiru, Beth Kimwele, Dino Martins, students from the International School of Kenya and Brookside school, Mary Collis of Ramoma Museum, John Kimani Silver, Dinesh Revahkar, Nanai Croze from Kitengela Glass, Kamal Shah, El Tayeb, and many many others.

I didn’t stick around for the parade the BFF organized with Kenya Wildlife Services; nor was I on hand when the KWS crew began to offload the lions all around the city’s commercial centre. But to have exquisitely beautiful life-size lions scattered around the city centre, decked out in all sorts of designs, materials and headgear, should wake a few sleepy city people up to the issue of wildlife conservation. Whether they are the people who are most seriously in need of roused awareness is apparently not the issue. And whether the painted lions will stop the poisonous pesticide from being sprayed, is another question altogether.

In fact, Mary Collis’ hot pink lion, with its flowing fake paper moneyed mane, makes one of the most powerful statements of all the 50 lions. For the lion’s hot pink is the same radical hue that covers the bottle containing same killer pesticide. Mary’s lions is also covered in chains, symbolic of the fact that unless Furadan is banned by the Kenya Government even as it is in the States [where it comes from], then there is little likelihood our lions will last.

Most everyone will recall that the term ‘Born Free” was originally a book title, the book written by the Austrian conservationist Joy Adamson who together with her former Game Warden spouse George, retrieved a baby lion cub named Else decades ago. The sweet story became a best seller book, then a blockbuster movie starring Virginia McKenna, and finally, a TV series that was very big in the US in the Eighties. It was McKenna who launched the Born Free Foundation, and her celebrity that may have played a part in drawing out local corporate sponsors in droves.

Hopefully, they will all show up on November 6th when BFF holds a big deal Gala Night [charging something like KSH10,000, or was it KSh100,000 a plate; I forget] in which a sumptuous dinner precedes the charity auction in which all fifty lions will then be auctioned off with the funds mostly going straight back to work for one of Kenya’s biggest economic money makers, our wildlife, and more specifically, The Big Cat. So don’t expect to get a first account of the event from this site [unless someone sponsors me that night !] since I don’t have such funding to burn, but it will be a grand evening in any case, and all who can afford to invest in one of Kenya’s most lucrative natural assets, I suggest you mark your calendar and keep the date.

Margaretta Wa Gacheru can be reached on nargarettag(at)yahoo(dot)com

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Showcasing the best in Kenyan Arts;Music,writing,Poetry,fine art and art reviews as well as info on emerging art trends. “Art is not about thinking something up. It is the opposite…getting something down.”