Picture It

Chirombo Village Pt. 2: The Boat and the Funeral

Posted in Malawi by stefaniegiglio on 16 June 2010

My original model in the bwato in Chirombo Village, Malawi.

I went to the village last night in hopes of photographing a man in his canoe, or bwato.  (I participate in some online photo competitions, and this week we had to photograph a boat or any sort.  I planned on staging the whole thing, so I knew these would not be true photojournalistic photos.  They are real people from the village and the boat is a real canoe that they use for fishing, but the location and the poses are staged by me.)

I packed up all of my gear and brought a friend along to act as my human light stand.  Along the lake shore, we saw some children playing with dogs and some women washing dishes and clothes, but no men and no canoes.  Usually, the reeded area of the shore is full of boats, but it was empty.  Out on the lake, there were only one or two people fishing, so I knew the boats must be around somewhere.

Finally, at the main entrance to the village from the shore (which I have only used once—I usually take a short cut shown to me by Stanley) I found a group of men sitting under a tree.  One was making rope for his nets while the others chatted.  Nearby were a few canoes.

A boy posing in the bwato in Chirombo Village, Malawi.

In a cross between English, Chichewa, and sign language, I greeted them and asked if anyone would be willing to pose for me in a bwato.  They mumbled quickly amongst themselves before the man making rope stood up and signaled that he would pose for me.

He got into his canoe and I motioned for him to row down the shore a bit until he was in the sun with the island in the background.  The men all watched as I set my gear up, and they were particularly impressed by my giant reflector that snaps open on its own.

Using English and sign language, I ran my model through a series of poses.  Within two or three photos, I had a big group of people standing around me.  Most of them were children who kept jumping in front of my camera.  I asked the children to stay out of my picture and promised that when I was done with my original model, I would take their picture too.

I hurried through shooting my original model (whose name I unfortunately can’t remember) and asked him if I could photograph the children in his bwato too.  He agreed.

The kids jumped into the bwato. Chirombo Village, Malawi.

I motioned to a particularly excited three-year-old girl that she could get into the canoe first, but the oldest male child there quickly grabbed her by the shoulder and said some harsh words to her before climbing into the bwato himself.

As so it went.  I photographed the older boy children, then the older girl children, followed by the younger boys and finally the younger girls.  The children under the age of three weren’t allowed in the boat at all.  The teens and adults weren’t interested in being photographed in the boat, but they enjoyed watching me and inspecting my equipment.

The older children looked very stoic and strong in their posing and wouldn’t crack a smile regardless of what crazy positions I put myself in when photographing them.  The younger kids on the other hand, especially the girls, were all giggles.  Granted, most people think I look pretty silly when I’m taking pictures (I usually perform some intricate contortion moves to get just the right angle), but these kids thought I was absolutely hilarious.  Some of them were great actors and would erase their smiles as soon as I brought the camera to my eye, but some of them just laughed and laughed until their sides hurt.

A girl laughing at my funny poses. Chirombo Village, Malawi.

Still laughing. Chirombo Village, Malawi.

One of the younger girls had a beautiful smile and couldn’t restrain her giggles.  I was so enamored by her smile that I easily took four times as many images of her than I did of most of the others.

When I finished photographing everyone who wanted to pose for me, I packed up my gear, still with a large audience watching (again, my reflector was a huge source of entertainment as I twisted it up to fit back into the small carrying case).

I returned to the village this afternoon and saw many of the same kids I photographed yesterday.  They called for me to photograph them, but I had told Stanley that I would be back in the village Monday or Tuesday to photograph the mill.  I didn’t do that yesterday, so I had to go today.

Before I left, the power went off.  One of the neighbors came over to chat with Nisar (the owner of the lodge I’m living at) while he waited for the electricity to come back on.  He told me he had heard that there was a funeral going on in the village.  I didn’t want to break my word to Stanley, so I pack my gear and set off to the village anyway.

Another girl posing in the bwato. Chirombo Village, Malawi.

Sure enough, when I passed the cemetery (which I hadn’t gotten close to before, but had seen through the trees) there was a group of men waiting.  I asked them if they knew where Stanley was, but they said no.  One of them led me to a local house and told me to wait while he went to look for Stanley.

I entered the fenced area around a small brick house and greeted the two women sitting on the porch.  They seemed happy to hear me speaking Chichewa and started asking me questions.  It wasn’t long before they realized that I had already exhausted my Chichewa vocabulary.

One of the ladies passed her tiny (maybe a week old) baby to the other woman, changed her shirt, then went to help find Stanley.  The remaining lady and I sat on the porch in silence.  Children gathered on the other side of the fence and peered at me through the gaps.

After a few minutes, I heard singing in the distance.  It was absolutely gorgeous, and I could tell it was getting closer, heading towards the cemetery I had passed on my way through.  The procession had somehow organized itself into perfect harmony, with some people humming chords, others singing melodies, and a single man calling and chanting his own part that, while very different, wove itself effortlessly into the rest of the song.

I craned my neck to see through the opening in the fence.  Luckily, the opening lined up perfectly with a break between the houses across the lane, providing me a tiny glance at the march of the mourners.  I saw no coffin and no body, but when the group reached the cemetery, I could hear the mournful wails of what I assumed to be a mother or wife sounding over the singing voices.

A young girl posing and trying not to laugh. Chirombo Village, Malawi.

One of the girls posed with her pots. Chirombo Village, Malawi.

Just then, Stanley came into the house’s enclosure with the woman who had left to go find him.  After saying our greetings, he explained that the mill was empty today because everyone was at the funeral.  He said I could come back tomorrow morning to photograph them.  He then introduced me to the women of the house, who turned out to be his sister-in-laws and his mother-in-law (who came out of the house when Stanley arrived).

On my way back, the group of kids I photographed yesterday, bolstered by some newcomers, asked me to photograph them again.  There was still some light left, so I agreed.  I snapped off some shots with natural light before I pulled out my flash.  When the flash went off for the first time, the kids who hadn’t watched me yesterday screamed and ran away or hid behind each other.  When they realized nothing bad had happened, they dissolved into giggles.

A girl posing in the bwato with the village in the background. Chirombo Village, Malawi.