Picture It

The Seamstress of Monkey Bay

Posted in Malawi by stefaniegiglio on 19 October 2010

Mariam’s sewing machine next to a wall of material. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

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.

Mariam measures a customer for a dress. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

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.

Poster of available designs. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

Mariam trimming the fabric. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

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.

Mariam uses her hand to help start the sewing machine. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

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.

Mariam uses her feet to power the sewing machine. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

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.

Consulting her notebook to check sizes and orders. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

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 sewing a school uniform. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

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.

Finding Obama in Malawi

Posted in Malawi by stefaniegiglio on 21 September 2010

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.

Snapshot of the Obama Optical Illusion Belt Buckle. Mtakataka Turnoff, Malawi.

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.

Snapshot of some Obama bread. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

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.

Snapshot of Magic Obama Strawberry Flavored Bubblegum. Mtakataka Turnoff, Malawi.

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.

Snapshot of re-branded Obama sweets. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

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.

Art and Music in the St. Louis Catholic Church

Posted in Malawi by stefaniegiglio on 02 September 2010

Inside the church, the walls are covered in beautiful art. The choir leaders wait for practice to begin. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

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.

A relief sculpture on the wall of the St Louis Catholic Church in Monkey Bay, Malawi.

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.

A carved wood statue in the St Louis Catholic Church in Monkey Bay, Malawi.

A Western statue in the St Louis Catholic Church in Monkey Bay, Malawi.

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.

A small altar in the St Louis Catholic Church in Monkey Bay, Malawi.

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.

A book sitting on a pew in the church in Monkey Bay, Malawi.

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.

Daniel, one of the choir directors at the St. Louis Catholic Church in Monkey Bay, Malawi.

Allan, the keyboardist for the choir at the St. Louis Catholic Church in Monkey Bay, Malawi.

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.

Allan and his keyboard flanked by a very large stack of speakers. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

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.

A Malawian Wedding Under a Baobab Tree

Posted in Malawi by stefaniegiglio on 29 June 2010

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.

The wedding party celebrating under the shade of the trees in Monkey Bay, Malawi.

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.

A woman dressed up for a wedding in Monkey Bay, Malawi.

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.

A young girl at the wedding party. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

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.

Men discussing the marriage. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

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.

Children sitting in the shade while they wait for lunch. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

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:

A boy waiting for lunch. Money Bay, Malawi.

A woman at the wedding party. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

A girl at the wedding feast. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

A woman at the wedding party in Monkey Bay, Malawi.

Kids eating lunch at the wedding party. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

A teenager posing for the camera. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

One of the party-goers. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

This boy's mother asked me to photograph her son. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

Kids posing for the camera. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

A mother offering her son to be photographed. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

A woman eating at the wedding feast. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

A woman nursing her baby at the wedding party. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

My lunch of meat from the wedding feast. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

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.

Women singing as they help each other climb into the truck. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

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.

Hawa, the bride, in the mosque. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

Hawa's hands. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

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.

The groom. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

Hawa's Shoes. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

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.

One of the Islamic leaders. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

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.

Partiers singing and dancing on the back of the truck. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

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.

One of the Dancers. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

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.

Men dancing at the wedding. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

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.

A religious leader giving a speech. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

A man holding a quran while giving a speech at the wedding. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

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.

Guests watching the wedding rituals. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

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.

Trip to Lilongwe

Posted in Malawi by stefaniegiglio on 02 June 2010

I visited Lilongwe this last weekend to advertise my photography business at a fair held at the Bishop Mackenzie International School.  The weekend went well, especially on the business side of things–I will be shooting and helping advertise a new branch of a popular bar in the city and I might (still working on it!) be photographing 65 students at a daycare.

The rest of the weekend included drinks at the bar mentioned above and a braii/barbecue.  Leave it to me to find any Italians or Italian speakers within 100m, as I did at both places!

The most interesting part of my trip (as in the most interesting for you all to read about) would be the bus rides from Monkey Bay to Lilongwe and back.  By car, one can get between the two in about 3 hours.  By bus, it takes over 5 hours.  There is a sign at the front of the bus that says the occupancy maximums are 65 people sitting and 25 people standing.  If you count all the children that sat of various laps, there were probably 75-80 people sitting at any given time and 35-40 people crammed into the aisles–and that doesn’t include the luggage and person-sized bags of corn, beans, and flour that were stacked anywhere they would fit.

On my way to Lilongwe, I had someone sit on my lap, someone sit on my shoulder, someone use my head as an arm rest, and a baby tried to pull my shirt down to nurse.  When I recounted this to Dida, the lady who graciously let me stay with her family that weekend, she laughed and said,”Well, that’s part of the African Experience, I guess…even if most Africans never go through that!”

The ride back was much more manageable.  I decided to sit on top of a stack of bags full of various foodstuffs, which put me too high for people to sit or lean on.  It was also cloudy.  Sometimes a lack of sun beating on you can make all the difference!

I had intended to take a picture of the Lilongwe skyline, but I’d forgotten that the city doesn’t really have one.  There are a few hills and a few multistory buildings, but nothing close together enough or prominent enough to be called a definitive “skyline” or “cityscape” in the way that most other large cities do.  Instead, I’ll leave you with a landscape that I took on my way home.  It’s nothing spectacular since I actually shot it through the window while the bus was in motion, but it will give you an idea of the beauty I got to look at for a few hours this weekend.

View from the bus on my way from Lilongwe back to Monkey Bay, Malawi.