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Artist turned SGR lab technician

Caleb Bisonga juggled his work as a lab technician at the Standard Gauge Railway project and his side gig selling curios at the Voi site

Caleb Bisonga looked forward to the official opening of the Standard Gauge Railway line with bated anticipation. Bisonga knew too well that it would be the culmination of his work, a vindication of sorts that the work he had been doing for the last three years had been worth it.

The railway line from Mombasa to Nairobi was officially opened by the President on Tuesday. Bisonga is the lead laboratory technician at the Central Laboratory in Voi. His work mainly involves testing all the building materials needed for the first phase of the SGR project.

That means every product that has gone into building the SGR–soil, gravel, concrete, ballasts, fresh water from Mzima Springs, sand obtained from Voi River – have gone through his hands to test for quality.

Good pay

Bisonga began working officially for the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) in August 2014 after attending a three-month training. He is among the Kenyans involved in the construction of the railway line.

In the contract between Chinese and Kenya governments on the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), for every Chinese employed to work on the site there would be 10 Kenyans taken up and with its completion, it is estimated that only 2,200 Chinese comprising railway engineers and managers worked on the project.

This allowed citizens living around the railway line, both non-skilled and semi-skilled individuals, to get jobs on the project on a good pay.“In 2014, we began the construction with 22 lab technicians, but with time they were laid off and I now only lead a team of five.

Everyday, I was required to draft reports, which I presented to my bosses who would compare results and do the final analysis that okayed the use of the materials tested,” explained Bisonga.

It could be that Bisonga’s dedication to work paved way for him to reap double from this project, having survived a retrenchment and being made the lead supervisor. Bisonga is so much more than the lead laboratory technician; he runs a curio shop at his place of work.

As phase one of SGR construction draws to a close, one wonders where Bisonga gets the time to craft his art and sell it at the site with the strict government deadlines on completion of the project.

“I was required to report to work at 7:30 am and the official closing time was 5:30 pm and so I could always extend for an hour or two to make at least two pieces of art then head home to my wife and children.

Conducting the business has been quite easy because of my bosses’ approval to sell them on the site,” Bisonga said. His bosses allowed him to use one of the less-used laboratory as his curio shop and they even make referrals for him.

Bisonga makes wood and soapstone carvings using Kisii soapstone ranging from traditional necklaces, beaded belts, treasure boxes and different animals. His pieces go for Sh200 for the small pieces and Sh2,500 for the larger ones. His clients are, however, limited due to restrictions barring local people from the site.

Proper planning

Bisonga’s pieces are sold to people who visit the site such as dignitaries, Chinese and Kenyan staff, foreign and local journalists, his bosses and bosses’ friends. On a bad day, he says he can sell three to four carvings while on a good day when there are visits, he could even make Sh10,000.

He says that proper planning has ensured that his art side hustle does not interfere with his laboratory work. The 37-year-old man was introduced to the art world by his uncle after completing high school. It is a skill that has enabled him to survive owing to the nature of his job.

“As long as I can acquire Kisii stone, I find time to craft. With three children and being the firstborn in my own family, I need many avenues of getting money and this for me is the best and most executable job while on another job,” said the father of three.

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