Ndonye Mwanzilo was born in 1964 into a family of ten in the village of Wumunyu, located in the Machakos district of Kenya. Due to the financial difficulties of Mwanzilo’s family, his formal academic education ended after he completed the eighth grade. The financial reality in his district makes finding a profession very difficult for young people. Mwanzilo was fortunate to come from a family of trained sculptors; and soon after leaving school, he was incorporated into his father’s profession of wood carving.
Mwanzilo began to apprentice with his father at the early age of thirteen. He successfully mastered rudimentary wood carving techniques and soon after graduated to carving in the challenging medium of ebony wood. He absorbed the style and techniques of other great carvers from his district, known for its long wood carving tradition.
The district of Machakos is renowned for its rich mahogany and ebony wood carvings, due in part to the accessibility of trees that grow slowly and develop dry and dense inner cores, making them challenging mediums for wood carvers. These trees are also sought after for their rich color and resistance to cracking and splitting. Ebony wood is especially prized for its naturally black core, which is highlighted by a light-colored exterior. The contrast is dramatic and beautiful. Ebony wood is also known to be extremely dense, and is one of the few woods in the world that sinks in water. Its uses are wide, varied, and found in limited regions throughout the world.
Mwanzilo is a dedicated sculptor working exclusively in ebony to carve his refined “Masaai Tribe” figures. His characteristic detailed work demands great patience and a great deal of time to complete. Each piece is carved with a steady and most skillful hand. He is widely acknowledged to be the finest among the many ebony wood carvers from the Machakos district. The recurrent themes of his work reflect Masaai tribal life. Mwanzilo believes art is a powerful and essential medium in which to preserve the tradition and culture of Masaai life.