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.