DIY is inspiring and admirable, but it also seems laborious

Wednesday March 18 2020

I have spent the last two hours on YouTube catching home decor videos with clickbait titles such as “Extreme home office makeover”, and “Living room makeover on a budget”. Or “Renter-friendly kitchen DIY makeover”. I suppose we all have the licence to indulge in some popcorn art at some point of the workday, no?

Anyway, some of these videos are by Kenyans, with the makeovers being done by Kenyan stylists in their own homes. It is nice. Nice that these DIY (do-it-yourself) ethics that seem so unarguably Western are creeping into the Kenyan styling space.

DIY is what happens when you build, modify or repair things — on your own, using your own tools and materials — instead of paying an expert to do the job for you. DIY became popular in the 1970s US with simple home improvement projects guided by tomes of instruction manuals. Now it has become a lifestyle for the crafty urbanites. The folk who like to work with their hands. DIY can be something as simple as using cardstock paper to craft photo booth props to more involving projects like building your own dining room table from raw wood.

Aside from detailed how-tos, you also need the tools and materials to DIY. For example, the folk who DIY their own wooden furniture have invested in power tools like power drills, circular saws, glue guns and sanding machines. They also have a variety of blades, nails, screws, paints and brushes.

The folk DIYing on these videos make it look so sexy and appealing, empowering even, especially when you see women manipulating the power tools. Something about watching them at work makes you want to roll up your sleeves and set up your own workshop on your balcony, so you can make your own pouf from an old car tyre and upholster it in Maasai fabric.

But while it is inspiring and admirable, DIY also seems laborious. Unnecessarily laborious. Especially here in Kenya where the cost of materials and the cost of paying a fundi to do the job for you is not that steep. We as Kenyans are spoilt for choice, the Westerners are not. The finishing on some of these DIY projects is also not that polished — it is hard to miss the roughness around the edges. Some may refer to this lack of polish as ‘rugged character’ or a ‘distressed finish’, ‘builder’s personality’ … dressed up terms, if you ask me. Because at some point, we will all have to agree that the Emperor does not have new clothes, he is naked.

I am imagining how it will go if I attempted my own DIY. Say, a tufted bench for my living room. I will closely follow a detailed DIY tutorial on Pinterest with some complementary videos on YouTube. I will use wood, cushion foam, textured fabric, some power tools and nails. Oh, and varnish. It will take me countless hours on my balcony cutting the wood down to measure and drilling the parts together. The tutorials will not have suggested the sheer amount of frustration it takes to build the damn thing.

It will take me what feels like an epoch to complete. My tufted bench will turn out to be an uneven flimsy piece of chintzy-looking furniture. I will have a sentimental attachment to it because I have built it with my own two hands. Which means that while it is a remarkably useless piece of furniture, I will somehow find a nifty corner for it in my living room. I will find use for it by repurposing it to be a decorative piece to style a corner. I will fill it up with cushions so that there is no room for anyone to sit on it.

Anyway, one day, I will have more guests than my regular sitting can handle, so my useless bench will draw the attention of one of my guests looking for a place to sit.

I will shriek to my pal, “Don’t sit on that bench!” He will turn to me, confused, as if I just told him that his hair is on fire. “Why not?” I will sigh. “Because …” My pal will blink back impatiently. “Because the legs are a bit wobbly. And the cushioning is not even. And I think there are some nails poking out of the sides. Look, it’s just not safe to sit on. It can make you bleed, or injure your back. Or worse, who knows?”

My pal will be exhausted. “So what you have here, Bett, is a piece of unusable junk? A health hazard? In your own home? Why don’t you just throw it out then? Why don’t you pay a fundi to make one we can actually sit on?” That is also my question lingering about DIY — why not save yourself the trouble and pay a professional?