I started at the “Cash and Carry” grocery store, where I quenched my thirst with three small bags of strawberry yogurt. The store was out of water, which wasn’t surprising. Not only was the temperature climbing up to around 100F with oppressively high humidity, but there was also a crippling fuel shortage in the country, which made it difficult for some companies to deliver to the more rural areas. Yet somehow, the vans and minibuses were able to find fuel, and they sat outside of the grocery store honking their horns like a seasoned New York cabbie and yelling their destinations to all who walked by.
I crossed the road and ducked under the low-hanging branches of a tree that partially conceals one of the entrances to the market. I followed the man from the grocery store who was going to introduce me to the best seamstress in town. We navigated through the narrow alleys, over broken mud bricks, and passed stalls that sell everything from freshly-made french fries to collared dress shirts and Chinese-made flashlights. Some men sat in the middle of the dusty paths with buckets of small fish, which gave off a very powerful stench because they had been sitting in the hot sun all day. I batted away the flies as I leaned against a wall to let someone else pass through the narrow walking corridor.
I tried to pay as much attention to all the turns we made through the maze-like market because I knew I would eventually need to find my way back out. After a few minutes of walking (though it seemed like much longer due to the sensory overload), my impromptu guide stuck his head through the window of a small mud-brick building and called out a greeting to the smiling lady sitting behind a black sewing machine. Then he turned to me and beckoned me to enter.
The shop is small, only about a meter and a half by four meters. The store front, made up of one of the longer sides of the room, has a door (which is always open during business hours to let in light and air) and three large glass-less windows. A small bench and two wooden tables are pushed up against the windows so the seamstresses can use the natural light to complete their work. This is necessary because there is no electricity in the market. The long back wall of the room has shallow shelves from the floor to the ceiling. This is where scrap material, cut cloth for clients, and completed items are stacked and hung. Every once in a while, a stack would tumble onto the dirt floor. Along each short wall of the room, there is a manual sewing machine. Although the two machines are different makes, they are both foot-powered, basic Chinese-made black metal models. They both have detailed floral paintings and intricately etched steel plates which give them an old-world feel, even though their lack of chipped paint makes me think they are relatively new.
This is where Mariam Kawinga works as a seamstress.
When I arrived, there were two other women sitting on the bench chatting with Mariam as she sewed a green school uniform. She stood up to greet me and inspect the bundles of material I had.
“It’s Malawian material. The colors are beautiful, but I don’t like Malawian material.” When I asked her why, all she would say was, “Tanzanian is better.”
She rubbed the material between her fingers as she said that. I haven’t noticed a difference between their feel, but I haven’t felt them both at the same time to make a proper comparison. The main difference I have noticed between Malawian and Tanzanian material is the design style. Tanzanian material better matches the Western stereotype of what African fabric should look like, employing bold designs, broad lines, exaggerated features, and bright colors (mostly black, brown, gold, green, and blue). Malawian material uses designs and patterns that borrow from the modern way of life, like my music themed material or the heart themed one mentioned in the DWS Mapeto entry. I’ve also seen patterns made of diamond rings and high heels. I don’t see this as making one country’s material better than the other, just more suitable for specific markets.
I told Mariam that I would like a few skirts made from the material I gave her. She pointed behind one of the sewing machines to a large poster that showed a few dozen dress styles being modeled by a small child. I already had an idea of what I wanted the skirts to look like, so I was pleased when I was easily able to find two similar styles on the poster. One was advertised as a very popular style in Nigeria, but the other did not list a country of origin. Mariam nodded when I pointed out the two styles, then immediately went to work measuring my waist, hips, legs, and other measurements in between. I asked her to keep one of the skirts long, but to modify the other so it would reach my knees instead of my ankles. She laughed and shook her head, but obliged.
She went back to chatting with the other people in the shop (and the ones in the alley who were intrigued by the appearance of a mzungu in the local market) as she unfolded and folded my fabric, smoothing out the wrinkles before making another fold. Some of the folds reminded me of origami. Each fold was made with precise lengths determined by the bright yellow tape measure that hung around Mariam neck. She marked out each fold and each measurement with white chalk. When she began cutting along all of the dusty marks, she used her tape measure to create perfect circular cuts by holding one end of the tape measure in one spot and spinning the rest around that point as she cut.
Her hands moved so deftly, measuring and cutting, and only glancing at the book where she wrote down my measurements once. She wore a black scarf wrapped around her head despite the heat. I had sweat dripping down my forehead within only a few minutes of entering the shop. The windows and the door were all opened, hoping to tempt a breeze, but there was not the slightest stirring of the air to help cool the room.
Mariam has been working as a seamstress for three and a half years. Her mother was also a seamstress. She did not learn how to be a seamstress from her mother, but from a trade school so she would have better qualifications. She has only one child, a daughter, but she says her daughter does not want to become a seamstress; she wants to become a lawyer. One of the reasons why Mariam chose to work as a seamstress was because she could earn more money doing that than many other jobs, and she needs the money to pay for her daughter’s school fees. She also uses the money to support her aging parents. She saves a little each month so she can buy a house.
Mariam is bright and slightly shy. She laughed often when she chatted with her friends and customers, but every time her gaze returned to her work, her expression became one of intense concentration. While working at the sewing machine, she took off her sandals to protect them and keep them looking new. She was fascinated by my camera and insisted that I have my photograph taken with her. She laughed freely as she moved my head, shoulders, and arms into various poses for the pictures.
When she finished cutting the material for my skirts, she returned to the sewing machine to finish two shirts before her customers came to pick them up. I stayed in the shop, watching, sweating, photographing, chatting, laughing, and entertaining with my broken Chichewa, until shortly before sunset. The temperature had only dropped a few degrees, but the absence of the direct sun on my skin made the bike ride home much more tolerable.
I returned to the shop a few days later to pick up four beautifully made skirts. How many other people can say that they own a personalized skirt, let alone that they followed the production of those skirts from the raw cotton, through the spinning, weaving, printing, packaging, measuring, cutting, and sewing all the way to the finished product? That’s one of the best parts about living in a place like this where everything is made locally.
Whether you’re wandering the streets or just driving through, one of the typical Malawian elements that you are most likely to notice are the brightly colored skirts and head wraps worn by the local women. They have bold designs and vibrant colors, and they are often worn in elaborate styles. Some of the women wear the material as a chitenji, which is like a simple sarong or wrap-around skirt. These are layered, usually three or four on top of one another, but more are worn during the cooler months or if the woman will need to re-appropriate one of the chitenji as a sling to hold a baby. Seamstress shops are easily found in every town for the women who choose to cut their material into fashionable skirts, dresses, or full ensembles.
Although more than half of the material found in most of the markets is imported from Tanzania, Malawi also makes its own fabric. The main producer is David Whitehead & Sons Mapeto, or DWS Mapeto, which is located in Blantyre, the commercial center of the country. I was lucky enough to be given a personal tour of the factory, where I spoke with workers, managers, printers, and designers.
The tour of the factory followed the journey the cotton takes as it progresses through the plant. Upon entering the building, I saw a man surrounded by scales and giant bundles of raw cotton. He was picking through the cotton to separate it and remove any major impurities. In the following rooms, the cotton is pulled apart even further to remove more impurities, and then it is spun into a thick, loose yarn. In the next few rooms, the yarn is spun again and again until it becomes thin, tough thread.
It is difficult to talk or breathe in these rooms because the spinning pulls off pieces of the cotton and throws it into the air. The rooms look dusty, but it is only the cotton floating around. When breathing or talking, pieces of this cotton (which can sometimes be quite large) get into the nose and mouth, which is rather uncomfortable. The men wear masks, but I was in these rooms for such a short time that I did not wear one.
In some of these rooms, only a few of the machines were operating. That wasn’t because the machines were broken but because there wasn’t enough material that day to make it necessary to use every machine.
Once the yarn is worked into a thread of a proper thickness and placed on spindles, it is brought to the weaving department. Here, hundreds of threads are lined up alongside one another until they reach the desired width of the final piece of material, which is usually around 4 to 9 feet wide. The threads, each 50,000 meters long, are then wound around a giant spindle called a beam.
From here, the beams are placed into a machine that will coat the thread in starch to strengthen the thread in preparation for the weaving. Two different kinds of starch are used, corn starch, which is bought from China, and cassava starch, which is made in Malawi. Each starch has slightly different properties, but it doesn’t affect the weaving process.
The weaving is completed by three different types of machines; air-jet, electronic, and projectile. Some machines are Swiss while others are American. Nearly all of the machines are relatively new, but there are still two rows of machines that have survived since the factory was first opened, and they still work wonderfully. Regardless of which type of machine is used, all the thread is woven into identical swaths of white cloth.
Just like in the spinning rooms, the machines move so quickly over the thread that pieces of cotton are thrust into the air. The room looked hazy, which makes it difficult to see across the enormous room. Only some of the workers here wore face masks, but those who went without didn’t seem bothered by the cotton tickling their noses and throats. Most didn’t wear ear protection either, despite the noise, which is so loud that people standing next to each other can scream to communicate, but neither will understand the other unless they can lip-read.
While the men are diligently working in the weaving department, other groups are working equally as hard in the design and engraving departments. The design team works at a separate location, while the engraving team (who carves the designs onto the plates that are used during printing) works in a darkroom next to the printing room.
The designers create designs in three different ways: through working from foreign samples, through customer requests, and through their own ideas.
Samples are brought in from countries from around the world, but the most popular ones come from China and Ireland. Some of these samples are copied exactly, but others are simply borrowed from and altered to fit the style of the Malawian market.
Customers also bring in their own requests. Sometimes they bring in samples of their own and ask for replicas, but more often, they bring photos of people or logos from their company or organization and have those printed on the material. Most of these types of requests come from religious or political groups that use the material as a form of advertising, just like Western companies do when they print their own name on their products. Besides portraits of leaders and logos, some of the requested designs are used as educational material, describing in words and pictures about things like the history of Malawi or the importance of breast feeding.
The last type of design is created from scratch by the designers. The design used by the engravers to give us a demonstration was this type of design.
For this particular design, the designer began with a heart shape, which he said was often requested by the customers who want to show off their happiness and their love. Since floral designs are very popular, the hearts were arranged into a flower shape, which might also represent blooming love. Most designs come in a few different color schemes, but the designers decide this as well. They also divide the design’s colors into the layers of dye and the order in which those layers will be printed onto the material.
The engraving department takes over from here. Even though the end product is a piece of material, the process that the engraving team follows is very similar to how photographs are made, developed, and printed. They take the color layers and create a plate for each one, much in the same way a newspaper or magazine would for printing photographs. Bright, hot lights are used to “burn” each layer of the design onto a photographic-emulsion-coated metal plate, which similar to how a photograph is imprinted onto a piece of film with light. Because of this method, the room is kept very dark, like a photographic darkroom.
After the plates have had their designs “fixed,” or made permanent (again, like film is “fixed” during developing), they are given to the printing department. The printing department will use each plate multiple times until the moving material eventually wears down the grooves on the plate. The plates are then melted down to be recycled.
Before printing, the material goes through a few more steps before it is ready to receive the dye. First, it is submitted to a rotation of bleaches to ensure the material is evenly whitened. Then it is washed and tested for width, strength, and thickness before it is moved to the printing rooms.
The printing area is dominated by the bitter chemical smell of the dye. The sound of the printing machines is also much louder than expected, although it is much quieter than the weaving rooms. The material is fed into the printing machine where is passes under a series of the round plates. Each plate is covered in a different color ink, and because of the composition of the plates, the ink only sticks to the etched design. This allows the plates to be rolled continuously, creating seamless designs and speedily, efficiently produced prints. When you stand on the walkway next to the rolling plates, you can see in between the rollers and watch the material evolve as each additional layer of dye is applied.
The head of the department showed me his supplies of dye. He is proud of his job and even more proud of his skills. Because he has spent so many years working at the company, he says he can make any color that a customer can bring to him. I believe him, especially after having seen the amazing number of base colors he has to start with!
From here, we moved into yet another wing of the plant. Since the cotton production in Malawi can not keep up with the demand for material, the company must import some material from abroad. The cheapest comes from China. Sometimes it is actually cheaper to import than it is to make material at the factory. The one problem with Chinese material is that it is a different width than Malawian material, so it needs different machines to process it. As such, there is an entire wing of the plant dedicated to Chinese material.
Once all of the material is printed, it undergoes a few more steps to make the dye permanent. First, it is moisturized to help the material absorb the color. Next, it is passed through a curing machine, which heats the fabric to 164C, which not only fixes the dye, but it also makes the colors noticeably more vibrant. After washing the material to remove excess dye, more chemicals are applied to make the fabric stiff. Then it’s off to the packing department.
The packing department is the last stage of production at the factory. This is where they perform the final quality checks. They also cut the material into different lengths, the most popular being 1m, 2, 5m, 15m, and 30m, but other sizes do exist. Then they are bundled and packed by a line of men in an assembly line before they are shipped around the country.
I was very impressed with the efficiency of the factory. I have had some trouble finding DWS Mapeto material in some of the markets, but there are stores dotting the cities and countryside. All of these have been wonderfully stocked, and I made sure to buy from them instead of from markets that sell only Tanzanian products. I find the Malawian designs to be more stylish anyway!
Last night, the television in the restaurant was turned to a news channel that was talking about Obama. Some of the local men know that I am American, so they asked me for my opinion on the leader and his impact on the world. When it was their turn to share, one man told me that he cried when Obama was elected president.
Even though America has nowhere near the largest population in the world, the country still impacts the world in very real ways. One of those ways is through who the citizens elect as president, because the president’s foreign policies affect people the world over. As such, people all over the world, in big cities and small villages, are interested in American elections. This election, from what I’ve heard from Malawians time and again, was particularly interesting because of Obama’s connection with Africa.
The man who told me that he cried tears of joy when he heard the news of Obama’s election also told me about the celebrations he witnessed in Malawi. People danced, cried, and hugged in the streets, singing praises to Obama and the American people who freed not only themselves, but the rest of the world as well. Those were his words, not mine, though I do agree with him.
Around Malawi, I’ve only seen a few small pieces of graffiti about Bush, all of them casting him in a very negative light. In place of most of the old graffiti, you can now find beautiful murals with Obama as the honored subject. Besides the colorful walls in the market alleys, you can find Obama’s presence reaching deep into the culture.
I could continue to list sound bites from people who have told me of the joy and the hope they still feel when when they think of Obama and I could tell you about how, upon learning that I’m American, the non-English-speaking locals will throw out their arms, toss back their heads, and yell, “OBAMA!” with the biggest smile on their face. But I think the best way to show how much the local people love this leader (who isn’t even theirs!) is to show you some of the ways they continue to pay homage to him.
At the bus stations, it’s not uncommon for some of the vendors who are wandering around to shout to the bus passengers that they have Obama for sale. Other times, you’ll hear the passengers yelling first, bartering for an Obama or two. The Obama that has become a best-seller at the bus depots is not a man, not even a figurine or a poster or a sticker; it’s a type of bread. Two years ago, the bread was known by a different name, but in the last five months, I’ve never heard it referred to as a “Cocotal,” and I’ve only seen it written on signs twice.
In the small grocery stores, the cashiers often tell me that they also have chocolates, sweets, and Obamas for sale. In this context, an Obama is a piece of strawberry-flavored bubblegum. Some stores even call other sweets “Obamas,” even if they aren’t Obama-branded, because the name has such a favorable connotation and has become a great marketing keyword. The gum has become so popular that I’ve even seen t-shirts advertising the “Magic Obama Strawberry Flavored Bubblegum,” complete with the smiling face of the American president across the front.
T-shirts with his face or name are everywhere. Nearly every time I visit Monkey Bay, Mangochi, or other larger towns, I see at least one Obama shirt, but more likely, I’ll see three or more. Some shirts are obviously left-overs or donations from Obama’s 2008 campaign supporters. Others simply praise the new leader. Some depict him like they would a rapper with a rough’n’tough reputation, with a strong, powerful expression, styled and decorated with the type of font I’d expect to see on a Tupac shirt. I’ve even seen a teenager wearing an old shirt on which someone had carefully cut out the letters from a piece of new material, then hand-sewed them onto this boy’s shirt. I’m waiting for the day that I’ll find Obama’s face printed on a chitenje, or the sarong-like wraps that the Malawian women use as skirts. (This idea isn’t too crazy either; I see the Malawian president, the pope, and various group leaders printed on these skirts already.)
Other items of clothing are Obama-themed, but they are more rare. While riding in the back of a pickup truck, I saw one man wearing an old pair of cowboy boots on which someone had stitched the top with Obama’s name. As cool as those were, my favorite was the belt buckle I found in a small road-side stall. It was one of those optical illusions, so when you look at it from one angle you see a picture of Obama giving a speech in front on a plain background, but from a different angle you see him smiling in front of red and white stripes. It was, by far, the coolest piece of Obama-impact I’ve seen so far, but I will still keep my eyes open for any other pieces of Africa’s Obama that continue to permeate the local markets.
On my last trip to Monkey Bay, I was wandering around with a friend who had not yet visited the town. We visited a few shops and handed out some of the photographs that I was finally able to get printed. Josephy (the bike mechanic) and the group from the mill were very pleased to see their faces smiling back from physical photographs that they could keep (as opposed to the back of a foreigner’s camera). I know they were all surprised that I had followed through on my promise to get them prints. I’m sure they have been promised the same thing hundreds of times before.
Since my friend had never been to Malawi, I showed her the local church since religion is such a large part of the lives of the local people. I chose the church with the art that had so impressed me on my first visit to Monkey Bay, the St. Louis Catholic Church. Even though I had told her that the outside, which is made of simple brick, is a stark contrast to the detailed art on the interior walls, she was still surprised when we walked through the open front doors.
I was also filled with renewed awe at the crisp color and detail that covered the walls. It’s obvious that someone invested a lot of time and effort on the murals and relief sculptures on the columns. The lights hanging from the ceiling, each one unique, are painted with the same bright colors of the walls below.
As a foreigner with a global perspective, I am able to pick out which culture each element of the art and decorations have come from. The colorful paintings are probably the most Malawian parts of the whole building. The style, while still having definite influences from the west, is typical of what I’ve seen in murals inside stores and along the alleys of the markets. They have bold colors and bold outlines, with patterns and variations in color adding contrast and detail to the images.
Along the front of the building, near the altar, there is a selection of statues of Mary and Jesus. These statues have soft features painted in pale pastels, and they are draped in billowing robes that bring to mind the art of the Italian Renaissance. They have obviously been brought in from Europe, which is not surprising, considering it is a Catholic church.
Another statue near the altar, the only one of its kind, was carved out of wood. One might be surprised that I consider this piece of art to be less Malawian, less African, than the paintings. Long ago, there was a time when Africans made wood carvings to fulfill their hunger for art and creation, but now, the carvings only fill their need of making money by selling something, anything, to rich tourists. I do sometimes see a local using a locally carved chair, or in this case, a locally carved statue, but I believe that if tourists stopped buying these carvings, the local people would stop making them because they no longer make them for themselves. All that aside, the statue was still very beautiful and well-made. I could see that the top of the statue came off, presumably to reveal a hollow interior in which something could be kept. I did not want to open the top myself and the priests were not present, so there was no one who could open it for me.
The fusion of pieces of art from so many different cultures reminded me of the Malawian Muslim wedding I photographed a few months ago. The ceremony had followed Islamic customs, but it still had a distinctly African feel. The dancing (which sometimes interrupted the speeches given by the religious leaders) was spontaneous and impulsive, while still maintaining rhythm and order. During the lectures and readings from the Quran, the women in the audience would randomly call out cries of affirmation and praise, which I have never seen in the religious ceremonies I witnessed in Turkey.
Sitting in the pews near the front of the church were a few men who were listening to someone playing a keyboard. The keyboard was hooked up to a humorously large pile of speakers that reminded me of the exuberance you might see in a music video. There were handmade drums stacked near the keyboard, which, as I was later told, are used when the electricity goes out and they can’t use the keyboard.
I asked the man playing the keyboard if I could take his picture, and as I started pulling out all of my gear, a group of people filed into the church and sat in the pews immediately in front of the keyboardist. I popped off a handful of shots before I realized that the people were gathering for choir practice. As I quickly and haphazardly stuffed my gear back into my bags, the keyboardist motioned that I should follow him outside.
We sat on the front steps of the church (where I photographed the children playing so many months ago on my first trip to Monkey Bay) and chatted. The keyboardist’s name is Allan. Despite being around my age, he is still in high school. He has been playing the keyboard for five years and was taught by Daniel, one of the choir leaders, who came over to chat with us and help Allan when his English failed him. Allan told me that he learned to play the keyboard for the church so he could play for god. He said that he will not use his musical talent for secular activities. He is the main musician for the choir, which is 45 members strong. They practice three times every week in preparation for the main service on Sunday. Their songs, which are sung in Chichewa, Yao, Tumbuka, and Lomwe, are usually taken from a song book, but Allan and the choir directors sometimes write their own.
Despite his devotion to his religion, Allan wants to become a soldier, like Daniel, because he says he would be able to help his people. He thinks that being a soldier would be fun, especially if he could work with his best friend, Daniel. Daniel has been a soldier for a long time, so he is confident that he will be able to pull a few strings to get a job for Allan in two years when he finishes his schooling.
The conversation soon turned back to the church, specifically the art inside. The original church is located about 50 ft from where the main church currently stands. The original building was a simple one-room house that had been repurposed. The congregation grew very quickly, forcing people to stand outside and listen through the windows, so, eventually, it was decided that a bigger church was needed.
The current church was completed in 1978. Priest Savala, who came from a different congregation in the Mangochi area, took a full year prior to the opening of the new building to paint murals and add the Stations of the Cross sculptures to the walls. He also painted words of faith on some of the walls and decorated the light fixtures. It’s unknown if any retouching has been done on his work, but from my uneducated inspection, I didn’t see any noticeable signs of retouching. This surprised me because the colors are still so crisp and fresh. There isn’t even any cracking or peeling, both of which are signs of aging I would have assumed to be present on work that is so old and located in a climate that varies between moderately cool and dry to very hot and humid.
In the last few years, the membership of the St. Louis Catholic Church has continued to rise. Once again, the church, which can seat up to 400 people and has standing room for another few hundred, is forced to keep dozens of worshipers outside because there is just no room inside. There is a brother church a few kilometers away, but that one, despite being much larger, is also more than full to capacity.
Allan and Daniel looked very pleased when they began talking about the number of people who attend their church. They said that if you count the Christian denominations separately, the Muslims outnumber them, but with all the denominations added together, Christianity is the most popular religion in the area.
I have not seen any official numbers and it has not been as easy for me to gain access to a mosque, but I would love to hear the other side to this story. I would also love to see if the art in the mosques is as much of a fusion as it is in this Catholic church and if they follow the very specific Islamic rules surrounding art and decorations.
I had the chance this weekend to try to baobab juice. Or, to be more specific, it was “Malambe Super Fruit Juice.” Malambe means “baobab” in Chichewa.
I’ve heard about baobab jam, but never juice, so I was excite to give it a try. Surprisingly enough, I found it in the most mundane of places: a gas station.
The bottle claims that the drink is a “health drink, rich in vitamin C, calcium, and iron.” Healthy and cold as it was, I figured it would be a good idea regardless of how it tasted, so I got the 500ml bottle instead of the 100ml. I also knew the biggest bottle would photograph better.
Having never tasted anything made from a baobab tree, I had no expectations, except a slight inkling that it would have a “tropical” taste. I don’t know how else to describe a “tropical” taste other than to say that despite how different pineapples, papayas, guava, and other such fruits taste, they all taste somehow “tropical.” The baobab juice didn’t disappoint in that manner.
Baobab juice is very thick, like a smoothie. According to the ingredients, there is no actual juice, just baobab pulp, so it sounds like “smoothie” is a better description of the drink. There is no particular smell to the brand I had, which made for quite a surprise when I took a sip.
The flavor of the juice came in three waves. The first, when the juice was in my mouth, had a string “tropical” taste, with a little bitterness (closer to the kind of bitterness in dark chocolate than to that of lemons). Still, it was rather pleasant. While swallowing and for the first wave of aftertaste, it had that slightly fermented taste, as if the fruit used was a few days past ripe, and the bitterness was more pronounced. That was not very pleasant at all. As the aftertaste faded, it returned to the mild tropical flavor, which was the best part of the “Baobab Juice Experience.” Unfortunately, the strong past-ripe taste of the second wave of the taste was too biting for me to finish the bottle. I only made it through two-thirds of it.
From what I’ve heard from the locals, baobab juice differs greatly between brands and years, just like wine. Some are very bitter like the one I’ve tried, but some are very sweet and others are acidic like orange juice or lemonade.
Although my first bottle of baobab juice was too pungent for me, I don’t plan on swearing it off just yet. But I am hoping that the next bottle will be either of the sweet or acidic variety!
When people think of southern Africa, one of the first things that comes to mind (after lions and elephants) is wooden carvings. As such, it’s surprising that I’ve gone nearly three months in Malawi without photographing any. There is a stall at the end of the driveway where a handful of men sell curios, but I found out shortly after arriving that none of them were the artists. For that, I needed to go to the more rural villages.
Of course, “rural” in this area means anything more than 5km from a paved road.
Someone I know had about a hundred carvings made in preparation for the World Cup tourists, so he knew where I could find a quality artist nearby. With the directions he gave me in my pocket, I hopped on my new bike (after re-inflating the terrible tires) and hoped I could find “Charles.”
I left early in the morning when the sun was still low in the sky, but it was still very hot. A welcome breeze kept me relatively cool, but I could still feel the sun burning the side of my face it hit. I wore a long-sleeve shirt, despite the heat, as added sun protection (and I was glad I did–sweat is a lot easier to deal with than blistered skin!).
Halfway to where I was told I could find the carver, I needed to take a water break. My bottom was also already sore from the hard, wobbly bike seat. Pedestrians stopped to chat with me, and when I asked them about dirt roads and carvers named “Charles,” they assured me that I was close.
Another half hour later, I stopped in a village to ask about Charles. They looked at me curiously as they told me that there were four men named Charles in the area that were carvers. I asked them to point me in the direction of the closest one, so they told me to continue down the road to the next village. When I got there and asked some men sitting under a tree, they called to a teenager chatting nearby. The teen was the younger brother of a carver named Charles.
The teen told me that his brother was working with their father near Monkey Bay, where I had just ridden from, but that I could wait for him at their mother’s house. He borrowed a bicycle and showed me the way.
At his mother’s house, the boy called his father to ask if his brother could come home as soon as possible. The father said that his son had left and he didn’t know where he was or when he would be back. When the boy saw I was disappointed, he told me that his other “brothers” were also carvers. [Side Note: In Chichewa, there is no distinction between brother/sister and cousin or between aunt/uncle and mother/father, so everyone has dozens of brothers and sisters and numerous mothers and fathers. Because of the different last names, I can assume the correct translation into English would be “cousin,” not “brother.”] He said he would be happy to take me to see his cousins, which I quickly agreed to.
Down another dirt road, then a short dirt path, we found his two cousins sitting under a tree in a field near a small village. After introducing me and making sure his cousins wold let me photograph them, the teen left. The two carvers are named Gift Mbamba and Jannatu Mackda. They are from a fairly long line of carvers, although they don’t know how far back the carving career goes in their family. Gift, who is 24 years old, was taught by his father and has been carving for five years. Both of his brother are also carvers. Jannatu is 30 years old and has been carving for seven years. He was taught the trade by his older brother.
Gift said that he enjoys being a carver, but since he is a businessman at heart, he is easily frustrated by his small income, which leaves him very little money to reinvest into his business. He wishes he could afford new tools and a larger saw so he could create large pieces, which fetch a much higher price from tourists. More money would also help him buy a bicycle so he wouldn’t have to rent one when he needs to travel to buy wood.
Jannatu loves his job, but he says that besides his career being for the lower class workers, it is also much harder than most people realize. The trees near where the men live are very sparse and not good for carving. They must travel up to 30km to the mountains where the wood is more readily available. They usually cut their own trees, but sometimes they have to buy from the people who live in that area. The wood is then transported back to their village on a rented bicycle. The men have no official work space, so they carve under shady trees outside the village where their wood chips and dust won’t get in the way. Since they always work outside, they can only work during the dry season when there is no mud or bad weather. Once the wood and work space is procured, they must build their own tools. Even though their tools are hand-made, they are very effective, even if they need to be resharpened every half hour. When the carvings are finished, they then have the problem of finding buyers. They sell most of their work out of their uncle’s shop, but this area is not as heavily visited by tourists as some other regions of the country.
When I arrived, only Jannatu and Gift were sitting under the tree, but my presence attracted some of the people from the village. As usual, I asked someone to hold my lights for me, and he was very pleased that he could help. He was also the best lighting assistant I’ve had in the last few months! He interpreted my broken Chichewa and sign language very well, was very interested in how the equipment worked, and didn’t get tired at all.
Gift carved a series of small key chains while Jannatu made parts for a doll’s chair. When I asked them what their favorite things to carve are, I was unsurprised to hear that they were making them. Gift also likes to make bawo boards for the local popular game (which he said he is very good at playing). Jannatu’s other favorites are book stands and jewelry boxes.
I was impressed by the ease at which both men worked. In an hour, Gift was able to make three key chains from scratch. Jannatu made most of a doll’s chair in three hours, but he spent a lot of time sketching out the designs and holes for all the pieces.
Only their saw and one chisel were a store-bought tools; the rest were hand-made (whether by them or someone else, I’m not sure). The hand-made tools still showed craftsmanship in their build and worked beautifully, despite being made from tree branches and scrap metal. They cut, chopped, shaved, filed, and bored into the wood smoothly and precisely. Gift was so comfortable with the tools and the wood that he only gave his work short glances, leaving him plenty of time to watch me work. Even with watching his hands part of the time, his work was perfectly detailed, which only attests to his skill.
The three of us chatted as we worked (the man holding the lights wasn’t comfortable enough with his English to talk with me). They thought it was interesting that I travel so much and crazy that people would pay for me to take photos. When I asked them what they like about Malawi, Gift was quick to say that he didn’t like anything about it (which I think is a little exaggerated considering how he was always smiling and happy), but after some thought, Jannatu decided that the best thing about Malawi is the meal of nsima and fish. Both men agreed that the current government is also a good part of Malawi, especially in comparison to previous rulers, which they described as very corrupt. Other positives about the government are their ability to make and maintain roads and their subsidies of seeds and manure, which helps everyone in Malawi to afford the necessary items for farming and self-sustenance.
Gift and Jannatu originally thought that I wanted to take a photo or two, then leave. After spending a few hours with them, they realized that I really was interested in watching them work and hearing their opinions. Gift was so pleased with my enthusiasm that he gave me the small crocodile key chain that he had just made. He artfully carved my name on its stomach before handing it to me.
When it was time for me to head home, the men asked if I could pay them for letting me photograph them. I said I wouldn’t pay them for that, but I would buy something from them. Jannatu’s doll chair wasn’t finished yet, so I bought the fish key chain that Gift had made. I paid double what they were asking for it so that they each would receive some money. All of the men, including a few onlookers, shook my hand before I left. Some shook my hand as many as four times. They wheeled my bike back to the paved road for me, then watched me ride off.
On my ride home, I stopped to buy some peanuts, which not only filled my empty stomach, but helped waste time so the sun would be lower for my ride home. A giggly infant entertained me while I ate and watched the shadows grow longer. Unfortunately, the late afternoon sun was still strong enough to turn the left side of my face pink. I’ll need to bring my bottle of SPF60 with me the next time I go visit Gift and Jannatu to give them some of the photos I took.
Wandering around Malawi, the local people are always yelling and calling things at me. The most common is “Mzungu! Mzungu!” or “White person! White person!” but yesterday, the calls were different. “Mzungu akwera njinga” was the most popular. One man riding in the back of a passing truck even called, “Mzungu, you are crazy!” This second one sounds a bit mean if you didn’t understand the first call. “Mzungu akwera njinga” means “white girl on a bike!”
That’s right, I’m now the owner of a brand new bike.
In Malawi, feet are the main mode of transportation. It’s cheap and effective, but since it’s not particularly fast and the ability to carry heavy loads is limited, the next most popular mode of transportation is the bicycle. Cars often cost more than a decent house in the area, so they are very scarce. Bikes, on the other hand, make up the vast majority of the wheeled vehicles on the roads.
Bicycles are used to transport everything. Only about half of the bicycles found chugging down the roads have only one person on them. Many of them have two people, one in the seat and a second on the metal platform over the back wheel, but I’ve seen as many as five people on a single bike (one of the seat, one on the platform with a child on their back, and another person on the bar between the seat and the handle bars with a child on their back). Bikes are also used to carry 50-kilo bag of maize, 200+ kilos of bamboo shoots, bundles of hay, and live, hog-tied goats.
The only place to buy a bicycle in Monkey Bay is at the hardware store. They only had three models available, two for males and one for females. They tried very hard to sell me the female bike, not only because I’m a girl, but because the female bikes don’t sell here. Without the high bar between the seat and the handle bars that distinguishes a male bike, there is one less seat and much less room on which to balance things. Since I don’t plan on sharing the bike with four other passengers and I don’t plan on tying live goats to it, I had no problem buying a female bike. It was a few thousand kwatcha cheaper for me and it saved the men at the hardware from returning the bike, which was one of five female bikes they received by mistake.
My bike is a Chinese-made “Humber.” The locals have renamed this style a “black bike” because all Chinese-made bikes are black and almost all black bikes are Chinese. They only come in one male and one female style, so they are able to distinguish the styles by color. A “black bike” has red and gold pinstripes and comes with a bell, fenders, a tire pump, a tire lock (with a key!), and a small, portable bag of tools. It sounds pretty fancy, but all of the parts are of poor quality. Some bikes were also missing a few pieces even though they were all brand new, so I made sure mine had everything before I left.
The men at the hardware told me that the price of the bike was higher because they had assembled it, but calling it “assembled” is a stretch by any standard. The pieces were put together so they resembled a bike, but the screws were not tightened, the tires were not inflated, and the brakes were simply taped on, making them useless. I managed to convince the guys to lower the price back down to the original cost since I would have to bring it to a local mechanic for assembly anyway.
At the mechanic, I was quoted a price much higher than the men at the hardware told me it should cost. I grumbled about the inflated price, but there wasn’t much I could do about it, so I agreed to pay it. As he set to work on my bike, I asked it I could photograph him working. He agreed, but laughed and told everyone in the nearby stalls. The children playing in the area heard the shop owners yelling the news to each other, so they came to watch.
The mechanic who worked on my bike is named Josephy (since all Chichewa syllables end in a vowel, most English names have vowel sounds added to the end to make them easier to say). He is 26 years old and has been a bike mechanic for three years. Before getting this job, he worked as a grocer with his parents. He likes having a job, but wishes he could be a driver. He has already received a full driving license, but positions as a driver are scarce, especially in this area, where there are few vehicles to begin with. He told me that he would love to move to another country with more jobs if he were ever given the opportunity, but he loves living in Malawi because it is a peaceful nation (I’ve heard it compared multiple times with Switzerland).
As I snapped off photos of Josephy working, more kids gathered around him, hoping to get in one of the pictures. After twenty minutes, Josephy got annoyed with them and asked me to stop taking his picture so the kids would leave him alone. I heard him talking with one of the older kids and I understood enough to know that they just wanted their picture taken and would leave afterward. They didn’t know I could understand a little of what they were saying, so I asked the kids if they would let me photograph them. Immediately, they ran up to me and fought each other to be in front. I don’t like when they fight because the younger kids always end up hurt, so I told them that I would photograph them one at a time.
No line formed, but they all somehow knew who would be photographed in what order. They posed for one photo before melting back into the group of kids, letting another take their place.
With the kids calmed, Josephy was happy to let me resume photographing him. He worked on the spokes of the wheels, showing me how to tell which ones were bad (the ones that creak or pop out of place when pulled were all replaced with spares). When the spokes were finished and the rims straightened, he checked the tubes inside the tires only to discover one of them had a large hole. He told me I would need to buy another, but when my friend came by to check on how the bike-building was going, he took the tube back to the hardware guys who sold it and convinced them to give me a new one.
With the tires taken care of, he began to work on the handle bars and the brakes. When he got to the pedals, he completely took them apart, hit them with pliers, pipes, and a few other tools before putting them back on the bike by banging the chain guard and the bike frame a bit. There was an awful lot of banging considering the bike was brand new and still wrapped in protective cardboard when I got it.
Finally, after more than an hour and a half, Josephy declared that the bike was ready to ride. When I paid him the 700 kwatcha (200 more than the hardware men promised me it should cost), one of the children gasped and started chatting with the others about the high cost. “Eeeee! Kwambiri!” “Yikes! Too much!” I gave him a look to let him know I understood. The “mzungu” price is often much higher than the “normal” price. Josephy had promised me that he wasn’t charging a mzungu price, but when the kid reacted as he had, I knew he had lied. It bothered me, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. I can’t change the color of my skin and I can’t change the way people react to it.
I sat and chatted with Josephy, showing him and the children all the photos I had taken of them. The kids pointed and laughed and called out the names of everyone they saw, amazed by the impeccable likenesses of their friends on the camera screen.
Eventually, it was time for me to leave. I tried to pedal the two or three meters to the road, but the sand was too deep. I pushed it up onto the pavement and hopped on. The bike shuddered violently under my grip. The pieces of the frame are not as perfectly fitted as those of the Western bikes I’m used to. The seat, which is a hard plastic cover on three very pliable springs, wobbled dangerously under my bottom. After two of three pedals, I slid of the back of the bike and landed hard on the shelf over the back tire. The seat had fallen off.
Josephy and the kids were watching me battle with the rickety bike and they saw me fall. As I wheeled the bake back into their midst, they laughed harder and a few imitated me when they thought I wasn’t looking. A few turns of the wrench and I was back on the bike, swerving treacherously across one lane of the road as my bike convulsed beneath me. Luckily, no cars were anywhere near. By the time the first car passed me a few miles down the road, I had already wrestled the bicycle into submission (except when I was forced to ride through a few piles of sand that had formed on the pavement). People along the road, mostly children, yelled at me as I passed. “Mzungu akwera njinga!” They wanted to make sure all their friends saw such a funny sight!
Six kilometers later, I turned down the dirt road that led back to the lodge. I had been planning on walking the bike down this road, but the sand was compact enough in some places that I could ride easily enough. When I hit patches of deep sand, I could feel the tires sink and slide, but I managed not to fall. Halfway down the road, a group of small children ran from their houses and ran along side me and raced me until I managed to pass them down a hill.
When I pulled up to the lodge, my shirt was soaked with sweat under my camera backpack, but somehow, this “crazy mzungu” had miraculously survived her first ride on a Chinese-made African bicycle.
Here in Monkey Bay, many of the locals grow their own food and raise a few animals. Goats, sheep, and chickens wander around the streets and fill the fields. A less popular, yet still very important, livestock is cattle. I met up with a young apprentice herder at one of the local farms in Monkey Bay.
Yamikani Paulo is 13 years old. He has lived in the Monkey Bay area since he was born, and he has been herding cattle since he was 5. This farm, which used to be much larger a decade ago, has between 25 and 30 cows, nearly as many sheep, and quite a few chickens. Corn is grown in the surrounding fields. The cows are rotated between three different pastures, changing at least once every day. Yamikani usually herds only in the afternoon since he is in school from 7am until 2pm.
Yamikani and his family live on the farm along with another family. The women tend to the crops. Yamikani’s younger brother helps him with the cattle. Yamikani told me that he neither hates nor loves being a cow herder. He has no other occupational dreams because he knows he will remain a herder even when he is older and has finished school. He says he is thankful that he not only has a job, but that he found one at such a young age and has been able to hold onto it.
The cows, sheep, and chickens on the farm are either sold or eaten by the farmers. The proceeds from selling some of the animals pays for the school fees for Yamikani and his brother.
As I mentioned before, this farm used to be much larger. There were twice as many buildings and every one of them was spotlessly clean. The animals numbered in the thousands. Giant walk-in refrigerators kept the food fresh before it was trucked to stores around the country.
Between tending the animals, processing the meat (steaks, jerky, and sausage), planting and picking the crops (corn and mushrooms, among others), and managing the entire operation, this farm employed over 500 people in Monkey Bay. It was the single largest employer in the area.
Unfortunately, it fell victim to the Malawian economy. Now, almost half of the buildings sit in ruin, leaving little more than foundations covered in encroaching vegetation.
Shortly after this shoot, I was showing these images to two gentlemen I met at the lodge. It turns out that one of them was the owner of the farm. He was shocked and pleased to see photos of his farm, but he was disappointed to see just how much the buildings have decayed in his absence.
He also told me the story of how the farm came to be in such a state.
Years ago, when the farm was at its peak, he had gone to South Africa to buy some more equipment so he could increase production on the farm. At that time, the Malawian kwatcha was 1 to 1 with the South African rand. While he was gone, the Malawian economy took a terrible hit, drastically depreciating the kwatcha overnight. When he purchased the equipment the exchange rate had increased, unknown to him, to 16 to 1 with the rand. He had expected to find a nine or ten million kwatcha in his bank account when he returned. Instead, he found that he had overdrawn by nearly seventeen million kwatcha. That, of course, was a horrific loss. The farm was one of his many ventures to suffer the consequences.
Almost all of the 500+ workers lost their jobs when the farm was closed. Most of them remain unemployed even years later, but since the people here grow and raise their own food, there was not the starvation that is often associated with such a drastic increase in unemployment.
Now, the remains of the giant farm are tended by two families, with Yamikani planning on becoming the main herder in a few years.
When I was photographing the cows, I was worried that my lights would frighten them, stress them, or cause them to charge me. I was very pleased find that even though the first flash of my lights startled them, they adapted very quickly. They were more anxious about my presence than that of my lights.
Inside the barn, the cows remained very curious, but kept their distance. One calf had the nerve to come close to me, much to the dismay of the mother. The mother somehow thought that I had caused and encouraged the calf’s curiosity, and she bobbed her head menacingly, threatening to charge every time her baby came too close to me. Some of the other cows tried to intimidate me too, but most of them watched me intently from a safe distance. Some of the female cows were pregnant, so they were testy and easily upset, but luckily, none of the cows made good on their threats!
The cows are usually herded between the barns and the grazing fields early in the morning and at dusk when the temperatures are not too unbearable. The paths to the fields are not direct; they take winding trails that often add a lot of distance so they can pass watering holes and small streams. The fields have small shelters to protect the herders from the brutal sun. The cows usually spend the night in the barns to prevent them from getting lost or stolen.
The cows and sheep share the barns peacefully. The chickens run free around the grounds, but take shelter in some of the broken barns when necessary. The women sit on their woven straw mats on the old, bare foundations to shuck the corn. Piles of dry cobs are sprinkled around the cement.
Only one of the buildings still has its doors on the hinges. Those doors are heavy and hand carved. The owner told me that those doors protect the old walk-in refrigerators, which are still in working condition, if a little dirty. The electricity would need to be reconnected before they can be brought back to life.
The owner has recently come back to Monkey Bay and hopes to reopen his farm and the other businesses he left when the economy crashed and bring them all back to their previous splendor. The locals are already showing their delight at his return. It might take a few years to bring the farm back to its former glory, but it will have an overwhelmingly positive impact on this community.
I once read that if you want to know and understand a people, you should look at how they deal with births, deaths, and weddings. [Side note: If you know who said that, please let me know!] On Sunday, I had the chance to photograph my first Malawian wedding.
I hadn’t received an invitation, but the owners of the lodge at which I’m staying received one. They couldn’t make it, but they assured me that I wouldn’t be turned away for gate crashing. Actually, they told me that the wedding party would most likely be honored that a photographer wanted to document their celebration.
Nisar, the owner of the lodge I’m staying at, showed me the invitation. It listed a day and a place, but there was no specific time. On the morning of the wedding, I woke at my usual hour, showered, dressed, prepared my gear, and had breakfast. It was still fairly early, but some of the staff had already left for the wedding. Nisar was letting them borrow an oversized truck so they could drive people from nearby villages to the party. I wanted to catch a ride with them, but they had left much earlier than I expected.
Nisar gave me a ride to where the party would be held. Luckily, the truck was still there. When I arrived, two of the staff from Nisar’s lodge greeted me and told me that I should sit in the vehicle. No sooner had I climbed into the cab of the truck when they decided that it was time to begin picking up the party-goers from the other villages.
The truck roared to life, and we were off. The driver honked the horn at nearly every pedestrian we passed, waving and sometimes sticking his head out the window to call out greetings. A few minutes into the ride, he took a swig out of a brown bottle, which I easily recognized to be a bottle of beer. Throughout the ride, he finished two full bottles. I was not happy about this, but I wasn’t about to start preaching the dangers of drunk driving, especially before 9am! (Drunk driving is illegal in Malawi, but I have often heard locals laughing and trading stories to see who had had the closest near-death experience due to driving while very intoxicated.)
A few minutes down the road, we stopped so one of the drivers could talk to the police. The inspection and insurance stickers on the truck were long expired, but we were “only” transporting people to and from the wedding, so the guys wanted to let the police know in hopes of avoiding any trouble. While we waited, Kenneth, one of the drivers, tried to teach me more Chichewa. He taught me the words for body, eyes, nose, mouth, ears, shirt, jeans, and shoes. The word for shoes, sapados, which is very close to the word in some latin languages, came in handy later on in the day.
When the main driver climbed back into the truck, we continued on our way, driving for ten minutes on paved roads before turning off onto a dirt road and driving for another twenty minutes. The dirt road seemed to go on and on forever! It was terribly bumpy from having been washed out in many places by heavy rains and flash floods. There were a lot of bicycles on the road, which was dangerous because the single lane was so narrow that plants hit both sides of our truck for most of the drive. The bicyclists had to jump off and stand in the bushes while we passed.
We ended at a whitewashed mosque, stopping for a half hour to wait for the passengers. It took only a few seconds before I heard shouts of “Mzungu! Mzungu!” and the sound of bare feet running towards the truck. Once the children got within a handful of yards from me, they hid behind trees and bushes to watch me. Some of the older children boldly came up to the truck to inspect me, which quickly emboldened the younger kids as well.
Kenneth translated for me. He said that many of the children had never seen a mzungu (white person) before, so they were trying to determine my gender. That was very strange for me to hear, especially since I have a very feminine appearance and voice.
Finally, a group of people emerged from around the bend in the road. They climbed into the back of the truck carrying their best shoes and special handmade flags decorated with verses from the quran. Kenneth is a Christian, so he was quick to point out the differences he saw in the Muslims, particularly their singing. Kenneth said he didn’t like their songs because he couldn’t understand the words, which were sung in Arabic.
The people in the back of the truck sang as we headed towards the wedding. The children pressed their faces against the window that connected the back of the truck to the cab, where I was sitting. When I would turn to look at them, they would hide behind the legs of the adults.
We made a few more stops in other villages along the road back to pick up more guests. The singing got louder as more people filled the back and louder still as we approached the wedding party.
The party was taking place in a group of houses around where the bride lived. When the truck pulled up, the passengers jumped off and separated themselves along their age and gender. The men went to sit under a tree to talk with the religious leaders. The women went to help prepare the feast of meat and nsima. The children sat on the porches of the houses to wait for lunch. I joined the kids.
I sat on an empty stretch of the clay porch with my camera. Immediately, the children began creeping closer to me. Soon, I was elbow to elbow with a group of ten kids. They were still young, so they hadn’t learned much English, which meant that we communicated in pointing, smiling, and laughing. They enjoyed looking at their reflection in the glass of my lens.
Suddenly, the kids all got up and ran to the back of the house. There had been lots of singing and shouting from all around, but one of the shouts must have been a call to eat. Kenneth, who had quickly become my guide and bodyguard (he wanted to protect me and my camera, even though I had no problem with the children’s curiosity surrounding my gear), led me into the courtyard behind the house where the women and children were eating. The men ate in an adjacent enclosure.
As soon as I entered the courtyard, I was bombarded by requests for photos, which I was more than happy to fulfill. Since it was mid-day, the sun was bright and hot, so many of the people were sitting in the shade of the back porch. This was perfect lighting for some portraits. I couldn’t decide which was my favorite choice to put in this post, so I’ll give you a series of them:
I was thoroughly enjoying photographing the people at the wedding party, but Kenneth told me it was time to go. He led me to the truck and handed me a bowl of meat that the women had prepared for my lunch. I’m not sure why, but they didn’t give me any nsima. Nisar’s wife thinks it might have been because a lot of foreigners don’t eat it. At first, I couldn’t tell what kind of meat it was. It had the same texture and structure of beef, but it was light-colored like chicken. Kenneth pointed to some goats on the side of the road when he asked me if I liked the meat. Apparently, it was goat. It was delicious.
The women followed me, singing loudly and dancing their way onto the truck. When the back was full of singing partiers, we began the journey to the mosque, where we would pick up the bride and groom. About two miles into the trip, the engine died. We coasted to a stop on the side of the road. The drivers told me they had run out of gas, but they took a screwdriver and tinkered under the hood before conceding defeat. The gas gauge in the truck had been reading well below “E” since early in the morning. I had assumed the gauge was broken, but I guess we were lucky we hadn’t gotten broken down much farther from a gas station.
Luckily, someone had brought their bicycle along for the ride. Both drivers and a third man with an old container all climbed onto the bicycle and began pedaling in the direction from which we had just come. There was a gas station right across the street from where the party was being held, so it wouldn’t take them long to get back. The women and children in the back of the truck climbed out so they could sit under a tree. I opened my large reflector inside the cab of the truck to block the hot sun streaming in through the windshield.
Can you imagine what would happen during a wedding in a Western country if the car ran out of gas on the way to bring the bride and groom to the reception…or at any point during the day, for that matter! I see screaming, heart attacks, and maybe a murder or ten. But here, people just shrug and wait in the shade. There wasn’t much else they could have done anyway.
Fifteen minutes later, we were on our way again. The singing recommenced along with someone beating the roof of the truck like a drum.
When we arrived at the mosque, I sent Kenneth to ask the religious leaders if I could photograph inside the mosque. I originally thought I would be photographing the ceremony, but it turned out that had already happened. It had been short and private. I was given permission to photograph the bride, who was waiting inside the mosque. As I started walking towards the building, people in the truck yelled at me. I didn’t understand much, but I recognized a word Kenneth had taught me earlier: sapados. They were telling me that I needed to take my shoes off before entering the mosque. I already knew that, so I told them that I would remove my shoes and signed the motions to calm their worries.
Inside, I found three women, one of which was Hawa, the bride. She was sitting barefoot on a woven reed mat with her shoes on a scarf next to her. Her shoes were pure white, delicately detailed, and looked as if they had never been worn. I asked her if I could take her picture and asked the other two women if they would hold my lights. Hawa seemed very excited about being photographed; this was one of the few times I saw her smile during this otherwise serious occasion. Outside, I photographed Hawa’s new husband and one of the religious leaders. Her husband looked very solemn and didn’t make eye contact with me, preferring instead to look at the floor.
Then it was time to go back to the party. Hawa walked to the truck with one her new shoes on her right foot, but nothing on her left. She stayed like that for the rest of the afternoon. The newly married couple took their seats in the front of the truck while I sat with everyone in back. Again, singing and dancing ruled the truck until we got back to the party.
When we arrived, a table and two chairs had been set up under the trees. A group of women all dressed in the same outermost sarong led the couple to their seats. One sarong was turned into a tablecloth. Dancers, most of whom were dressed in matching outfits, lined up in front of the table. The guests, which numbered nearly a hundred and fifty, crowed around the outside. As soon as everyone took their places, the dancing began. The men stomped their feet in unison, swung their arms, and yelled raspy whoops while a small group of men dressed in long, light-blue tunics sang. Kenneth said that there were only a few words sung in Arabic and Chichewa; the rest was a series of repeated sounds, each unique to the singer, that were sung to make music just like one would do with instruments.
After the dancing, passages were read from the quran by uncles, chiefs, and other important members of the community. Kenneth whispered short translations in my ear as four religious leaders gave speeches about the meaning of marriage and the importance of love and respect in a relationship. Both the bride and the groom looked very solemn during the whole ceremony, sitting very still with their eyes downcast. Kenneth told me that their marriage was arranged by their parents and the chiefs of the villages, but that had nothing to do with their moods; this was a serious occasion and they needed to act as such.
Two men came into the circle left by the dancers and dumped water onto the ground. The first dance had kicked up billows of dust that made it almost difficult to see across the circle. The water was an attempt at controlling the dust, but between the kicking from the dancers and the hot sun, the water was soon gone and the next round of dancing fill the air with yellow dirt once more.
The dancing was followed again by more speeches. These speeches were aimed at the families and the community. They were told that they must support the couple in their union and give help when it was needed. A bowl on the couple’s table was then filled with money by a procession of guests, starting with the chiefs, the religious men, and the male family members. When everyone sat back down, one of the boisterous religious leaders looked inside, then declared to the guests that they had not given enough. The dancing started up again while more guests dropped coins into the collection bowl.
This dance was slightly different from the others. It began once again with the men arranged in many rows, stomping, whooping, and swinging their arms. Then they danced their way into two columns facing each other. The dance continued much as it had before until the men started dancing closer and closer to each other. Finally, the two columns almost met. The men all kicked up their legs at the same time, very nearly kicking the person opposite them in the face, then spun around, kicked out behind themselves to hit their opponent in the butt, then danced forward until the columns were back to where they started. They repeated this a few times, and each time was greeted by raucous laughter, shouting, and the Arabic call from the women (similar to the staccato sound associated with Native Americans).
Nisar and his wife had bought a gift for the newly married couple, but since they did not attend the wedding, I brought the gift for them. During one of the dancing sessions, Kenneth announced that I needed to present the gift to the couple. One of the village elders was writing down the names of everyone who gave money or gifts. He wrote me down as “Stefford.” Kenneth, who calls me “Stefan,” told him that I have no last name. I didn’t think I should correct either of them.
The dust from the dancing made me sneeze. Kenneth took this as a sign that I needed to leave, even though I told him I wanted to stay. As the sun dipped behind the low hills, I said my goodbyes to the group of children who had been following me (often touching my camera or stroking my long hair) and followed Kenneth back to the truck.
From what I heard, the dancing and speeches lasted well into the night.
A few days ago, I visited the mill in Chirombo Village. I arrived in the village early in the morning to meet Stanley, one of the villagers who has been showing me around. Despite the early hour, the sun was already quite hot. I put my folded reflector on my head to shade my face, much to the amusement of the local women, who carry very heavy loads on their heads.
As we walked through the village, people stuck their heads out of windows and doors and around trees and fences to watch us pass. A few children followed us. At one point, a group of about twenty children on their way to school joined us. They took turns gathering up their courage to yell “How are you madam!”
About two kilometers into the walk, I asked Stanley where the mill was. I worried he was taking me to one of the mills in Monkey Bay, which are located at least six kilometers away. He assured me that it wasn’t too much farther and that the mill was still in Chirombo Village. Still, I was surprised how far it was. Chirombo Village is not very wide, but it is very long. Stanley told me that this is the only mill in the village, which means that some women and girls must walk up to four kilometers each way (if they live on the same side of the mill as me), carrying heavy corn on the way there and just-as-heavy flour on the way back.
Once we arrived at the mill, Stanley talked to the workers in Chichewa, asking permission for me to take photos. The children who had followed us stuck around for a few minutes before reluctantly continuing on their way. The two mill workers agreed to let me photograph the mill, though their approval was somewhat halfhearted.
Again, there was much excitement regarding my equipment. When I set up my tripod inside, the mill workers and a handful of children and women came inside to watch me, unknowingly blocking the things I wanted to take pictures of. I waited for everyone to get bored of watching me doing nothing, which happened fairly quickly when a woman arrived with a large bag of corn.
When the machines started, most of the people left the mill. It took me a few seconds to realize why. As soon as the motor roared to life, a cloud of corn flour burst from every opening of the machine. The vibrations also shook the flour from the rafters, causing it to fall gently on my head and my camera. I was covered almost instantly. Throughout my stay, the children took turns brushing the flour from my hair, my back, and my jeans. I could only take a photo or two before needing to blow the dusting off my equipment.
There are two machines in the mill. Both of them grind corn into flour, but they do it in different ways. I’m not sure if the outcome of the flour is any different; it didn’t look like it. The closest machine in the above photo grinds the corn, the force of which sends the flour through a pipe and a shoot before it empties into waiting buckets. The second machine simply dumps the flour on the floor under the machine. It was the second machine that was used to grind this woman’s corn. When the machine was shut off, she spent a while scooping her flour back into the giant sack she brought with her.
Since nsima, the main dish of Malawi, is made from corn flour, the mill was very busy. Luckily, a full sack of flour can feed a family of five for almost a month, so the women only have to make the trek to the mill every few weeks. According to Stanley, it costs MK500 (around US$3.30) to grind a full sack of corn into flour and MK250 (around US$1.65) for a half sack (no discounts for bulk!). This was the only woman who used an actual sack. Everyone else brought buckets and tubs of various sizes. There was no bartering over price, so there must be some sort of set price for those containers as well.
The price of making nsima is low, even by Malawian standards. Many of the locals here grow their own corn, but the others have to buy their corn in small one-kilo bags. Future-orientated farmers can grow enough corn every year to last them until the next harvest. Some even grow enough to sell off a few bags and earn some extra money. But there are a lot of families that overcook when food is plenty, often throwing out up to half of what was prepared. Then the corn runs out and they must scrape together enough money to buy corn until the next harvest. In this area, each hectare can produce 12-15 sacks of corn. Fertilized fields can produce around 20 bags per hectare. The harvest season is usually between February and April, depending on the rains, so the locals are still eating well from the recent yeild.
There were only a few minutes during my visit when there were no customers. I took advantage of this time to photograph one of the two men working at the mill. The second one was very interested in watching me, but didn’t want to be photographed. Neither of these men own the mill. The equipment in the mill and the gasoline needed to run them cost a lot of money, so most mills are owned by the upper class Malawians. This one happens to be owned by a government minister who lives in Blantyre (about three hours away).
When the customers picked up again, I moved outside to see how the women prepare the corn for the mill. First, they pour some of the corn into large, shallow, woven baskets. They shake the baskets to remove the dust and dirt from the corn. The clean corn is dumped into buckets so the next batch of corn can be shaken clean. When the buckets are full, they are emptied into the grinding machine, then, if the machine with the shoot is used, the buckets are quickly placed to catch the four.
Since it was mid-morning, most of the customers were women between the ages of twenty and seventy. Most of the younger girls were in school. I did see two young teens at the mill. In traditional Malawian families, the females must take care of the house and prepare the food. These two tasks take priority over everything else, including school. These two girls must not have finished their chores in time to make it to class. If they finished everything quickly, they would probably go to class in the afternoon. The girl in the photograph to the right is even in her school skirt.
The longer I stayed at the mill, the more people gathered to watch me work. Some of the women asked me to photograph them. I started with an old, yet boisterous woman, who then patted me down, asking me for money. I emptied my pockets for her, pulling out cords, memory cards, and keys. When my pockets were empty, I turn them inside out. The old woman thought it was all quite entertaining, and showed the other women all the strange things I had in my pockets instead of money.
One of the women waiting in line for the mill asked me to photograph her and her baby. She stood very still and very strong, holding her child, who started crying when she took him off her back. To calm the child, she began nursing him, but motioned that I should still photograph her. When it was her turn to use the mill, she passed her child to one of the girls who had come to watch me. The girl had been making funny faces at my camera when I photographed her, but when she held the child, she became very composed. The baby stopped crying when my lights went off, and he inspected me and my camera with unblinking eyes.
Finally, Stanley, who had become anxious because of the disruptive crowd that had formed to watch me and to be photographed, decided it was time to leave. I thanked the mill workers and the women I photographed, then headed on my way, followed, as always, by a group of children.