Picture It

The Family of Carvers

Posted in Malawi by stefaniegiglio on 25 July 2010

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.

Jannatu holding an unfinished carving. Mtakataka Turnoff, Malawi.

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.

Gift, a Malawian carver, with one of his carvings. Mtakataka Turnoff, Malawi.

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.

A carver sharpening his home-made axe. Mtakataka Turnoff, Malawi.

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 inspecting his work. Mtakataka Turnoff, Malawi.

Jannatu using a saw as a ruler. Mtakataka Turnoff, Malawi.

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.

Gift carving a crocodile. Mtakataka Turnoff, Malawi.

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 two carvers working in a shady field. Mtakataka Turnoff, Malawi.

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.

Goft carving my name into the stomach of a crocodile carving. Mtakataka Turnoff, Malawi.

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.

Gift's key chain wood carvings. Mtakataka Turnoff, Malawi.

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.

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Mzungu Akwera Njinga! White Girl on a Bike!

Posted in Malawi by stefaniegiglio on 16 July 2010

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!”

The bike mechanic, Josephy, fixing the brakes. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

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.

Josephy tightening the wheel spokes. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

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.

Josephy surrounded by kids trying to get in the photos. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

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).

A local kid posing for the camera. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

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.

Josephy's "work box": half tools, half spare parts, but all makeshift hammers! Monkey Bay, Malawi.

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.

A deflated football at the bike repair shop. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

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.

Chirombo Village Pt. 4: The Apprentice Cow Herder

Posted in Malawi by stefaniegiglio on 06 July 2010

The apprentice cow herder, Yamikani. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

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.

Calves being herded between fields. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

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.

A curious cow sticking its head out the window of the barn to inspect the people outside. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

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.

Adult cows protecting a curious calf. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

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.

A cow looking menacing. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

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.

A cow near the waterhole at dusk. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

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.

Yamikani sitting on the foundation of one of the old buildings. Monkey Bay, Malawi.