By Helen Vesperini/ AFP
Visit Nani Croze’s glassworks outside Nairobi and you could be forgiven for thinking that like Alice, you’ve fallen down a rabbit-hole and landed in Wonderland.
Kitengela lies on a dust-blown plain outside the Kenyan capital, just beyond a small village full of ramshackle bars.
A couple of kilometers further on, Croze’s glassworks compound is a world of outsize sculptures, shiny mosaic paths and psychedelic buildings with wonky balconies that would not be out of place in Barcelona’s Parc Guell.
Plants sprout from paint cans and spill over from oil drums. There are animals everywhere, dogs, dromedaries, pigs … you name it.
Croze, 67, is a muralist, and fervent admirer of Antonio Gaudi, who has spent more than half her life in Africa. She is a matronly figure with hair pinned up haphazardly, striking blue eyes, blue-tinted rimless spectacles and tanned cheeks.
She introduces her second husband Eric Krystall, calling him “a wonderful man, much better than the last one.”
A renowned anti-apartheid campaigner and academic, Krystall says he “was” South African —until his activism got him sent to England on a “one-trip passport.”
Both are writing books, Krystall his memoirs and Croze a book “about how Kitengela happened.”
Meals are taken outside in an aviary area, part huge cages for lovebirds — bought at the roadside in a rescue operation, and part open to attract local birds such as tiny red fire finches.
An Egyptian vulture with a distinctive yellow face, addressed affectionately as Vulchi, has taken up position under the table, waiting for lunch.
Most of the garden chairs are occupied by Nani’s 10 dogs, indeed the Jack Russells insist on occupying the same chair as their mistress. Others, including a portly Ridgeback cross, have settled under dining chairs, making it impossible to pull them up to the huge concrete and glass table.
Posing for a TV interview amidst a flock of geese fighting over scraps of bread, Croze, who has spent the past 31 years in Kitengela, explains she grew up surrounded by animals. Her comments to camera are constantly interrupted by instructions to a pet or to livestock.
Everything here is recycled. A student called Kibe sporting a fedora made out of Kenyan beer cans transforms water bottles into cat proof bird feeders.
The jewel in the crown is the pool — a mosaic creation complete with a three-headed dragon whose Loch-ness monster style tail separates the baby pool from the main one. Round the corner lies what Eric says is the world’s only sauna built from bottles.
Bottles are a recurrent theme here.
“The slums should be built of bottles,” Croze says, commenting that “Kenyans drink like fish”, a declaration that draws a laugh from those in earshot.
Apart from the pool the rest of the place is quirky rather than luxurious.
The kitchen is a treasure trove of bird seed, dog leashes, spices, foodstuffs and emergency lamps.
A biogas plant transforms solid waste into cooking gas. Connected to it is a toilet block clad in silver mosaic.
The glass furnace is powered by steam injected used oil. Kitengela also has solar and wind power. When neither works there is a backup generator.
The nasturtiums in a home-made greenhouse, also built with bottles, inspire her to quote Goethe.
“Everybody wants a job here and the people who do have a job here love what they do,” she said.
Edith Nyambura showed up here 12 years ago when she was just out of school looking a job, any job. She learned how to do mosaics and has just a book published about her work.
Nani employs some 80 staff and has founded a local school. She admits that when business is slow, as was the case earlier this year, that having so many staff is a big responsibility.
The work she is proudest of is her 20 square-meter mural at Kenya’s national museum. She says she is also very proud of the buildings she has done.
Visitors to Kitengela have included Nobel laureat Wangare Maathai and members of the British and Swedish royal families.
One of Croze’s sons, Anselm runs the blown glass operations where rainbow-colored vases and glasses are made.
Born in what is now Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea into a family of artists, Nani went to boarding school in Britain, finishing school in the Swiss city of Lausanne, then back to Britain to study at Exeter University.
Determined to go into science, she worked under the Nobel prize-winning biologist and zoologist Konrad Lorenz.
She married the animal researcher Harvey Croze. The couple had three children and lived in the Serengeti in northern Tanzania for four years in the late sixties. They later came to Kenya and parted after Nani had built Kitengela.
Goethe notwithstanding, after four decades in east Africa, Croze says she misses “absolutely nothing” about Europe. A trip earlier this year to visit two of her children in Scotland reminded her, she says, that in Europe “nobody walks down the street, nobody smiles.”
Casts of human faces are displayed among other stained-glass objects at the Kitengela glassworks. (AFP Photo/Tony Karumba)