Artistic Freedom

The room is smaller than your closet. Three men work quietly as their hands slowly and carefully pull apart banana leaves, gently tearing each leaf longways. 

The room is stifling hot and a whiff of glue permeates the air. Old newspapers are scattered around the room and line the walls. 

The men’s knees nearly touch, but they are so engrossed in their task, they barely notice each other, much less a group of visitors admiring their work.

In this small corner of Kenya, tucked away inside a nondescript alley and hidden in the maze of walkways and paths it takes to get here, Willys Indah has found freedom. He has also found a way to make the Bible come alive in visual art.

Using a unique art form, Indah and his employees make cards and posters from banana leaves or fibers. Each piece is individually handmade and one-of-a-kind.

While the small business provides income for Indah, it gives him something money can’t buy.

“Spiritually, it helps me relate to God,” he said. “When I do this, physically, I feel like I’m touching Jesus. And at the same time, you know you are spreading the word of God through this visual medium.”

Indah learned his craft 20 years ago from his friend Thomas, a refugee from Rwanda who is also one of the men working alongside Indah now. It wasn’t until Indah started working with the team from Buckner Kenya that he realized his art could also be his income. The Buckner team helped Indah put together a business plan to sell his products.

Today, his products are available through 27 & Oak, a Buckner-run cooperative of artisans served by Buckner Family Hope Centers in Latin America and Kenya. Profits from 27 & Oak go back to the artists to help them and a portion of the revenue helps Buckner programs.

That incomes allows Indah to care for 20 people, including 14 children he has taken in, among them his foster daughter, Jen Rose.

And while Indah’s recent connection to Buckner centers around his artwork, his relationship with the organization goes back nearly 16 years, when he became the first-ever Buckner foster parent in Kenya, taking in Jen Rose and raising her as his own daughter. Today, she is studying civil engineering at the University of Nairobi and Indah uses his art income to pay all of her college expenses, including tuition.

“You know, giving a chance to a kid that’s not your own child is amazing; it’s a beautiful thing,” Indah said. “Buckner has done a great thing, not only for Jen Rose, but for so many other children.

“I love children,” he added. “Remember, it was Jesus who said, ‘Let the children come to me.’ That’s why I love children. “The greatest blessing God has given me is allowing me to take care of children and other people around me. I think as Christians, actions preach more than words. You may not be in the pulpit, but just taking care of the needy teaches people the word of God. You become the salt of the earth.” 

Now 50, Indah was stricken by polio when he was 5. He needs the aid of crutches to walk. But that doesn’t slow him down.

“Disability is not liability,” he said, a wry grin crossing his face. “Disability is in the mind. What can I do? After all, everyone is limited in one way or another. I don’t say I enjoy being disabled. I tell people I enjoy living with a disability, because you have to learn to live with no regrets.” 

To learn how you can purchase Willys Indah’s cards, go to www.27andoak.com.

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