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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.

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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.

Chirombo Village Pt. 3: The Mill

Posted in Malawi by stefaniegiglio on 22 June 2010

The mill in Chirombo Village, Malawi.

A few days ago, I visited the mill in Chirombo Village.  I arrived in the village early in the morning to meet Stanley, one of the villagers who has been showing me around.  Despite the early hour, the sun was already quite hot.  I put my folded reflector on my head to shade my face, much to the amusement of the local women, who carry very heavy loads on their heads.

Kids posing in front of the mill. One of them had stickers on her forehead, ears, and the back of her head. Chirombo Village, Malawi.

As we walked through the village, people stuck their heads out of windows and doors and around trees and fences to watch us pass.  A few children followed us.  At one point, a group of about twenty children on their way to school joined us.  They took turns gathering up their courage to yell “How are you madam!”

About two kilometers into the walk, I asked Stanley where the mill was.  I worried he was taking me to one of the mills in Monkey Bay, which are located at least six kilometers away.  He assured me that it wasn’t too much farther and that the mill was still in Chirombo Village.  Still, I was surprised how far it was.  Chirombo Village is not very wide, but it is very long.  Stanley told me that this is the only mill in the village, which means that some women and girls must walk up to four kilometers each way (if they live on the same side of the mill as me), carrying heavy corn on the way there and just-as-heavy flour on the way back.

Once we arrived at the mill, Stanley talked to the workers in Chichewa, asking permission for me to take photos.  The children who had followed us stuck around for a few minutes before reluctantly continuing on their way.  The two mill workers agreed to let me photograph the mill, though their approval was somewhat halfhearted.

The two machines that grind corn into flour. Chirombo Village, Malawi.

Again, there was much excitement regarding my equipment.  When I set up my tripod inside, the mill workers and a handful of children and women came inside to watch me, unknowingly blocking the things I wanted to take pictures of.  I waited for everyone to get bored of watching me doing nothing, which happened fairly quickly when a woman arrived with a large bag of corn.

When the machines started, most of the people left the mill.  It took me a few seconds to realize why.  As soon as the motor roared to life, a cloud of corn flour burst from every opening of the machine.  The vibrations also shook the flour from the rafters, causing it to fall gently on my head and my camera.  I was covered almost instantly.  Throughout my stay, the children took turns brushing the flour from my hair, my back, and my jeans.  I could only take a photo or two before needing to blow the dusting off my equipment.

The busy mill. Workers and customers attending to their duties in the mill. Chirombo Village, Malawi.

There are two machines in the mill.  Both of them grind corn into flour, but they do it in different ways.  I’m not sure if the outcome of the flour is any different; it didn’t look like it.  The closest machine in the above photo grinds the corn, the force of which sends the flour through a pipe and a shoot before it empties into waiting buckets.  The second machine simply dumps the flour on the floor under the machine.  It was the second machine that was used to grind this woman’s corn.  When the machine was shut off, she spent a while scooping her flour back into the giant sack she brought with her.

Since nsima, the main dish of Malawi, is made from corn flour, the mill was very busy.  Luckily, a full sack of flour can feed a family of five for almost a month, so the women only have to make the trek to the mill every few weeks.  According to Stanley, it costs MK500 (around US$3.30) to grind a full sack of corn into flour and MK250 (around US$1.65) for a half sack (no discounts for bulk!).  This was the only woman who used an actual sack.  Everyone else brought buckets and tubs of various sizes.  There was no bartering over price, so there must be some sort of set price for those containers as well.

A woman preparing corn for the mill. Chirombo Village, Malawi.

The price of making nsima is low, even by Malawian standards.  Many of the locals here grow their own corn, but the others have to buy their corn in small one-kilo bags.  Future-orientated farmers can grow enough corn every year to last them until the next harvest.  Some even grow enough to sell off a few bags and earn some extra money.  But there are a lot of families that overcook when food is plenty, often throwing out up to half of what was prepared.  Then the corn runs out and they must scrape together enough money to buy corn until the next harvest.  In this area, each hectare can produce 12-15 sacks of corn.  Fertilized fields can produce around 20 bags per hectare.  The harvest season is usually between February and April, depending on the rains, so the locals are still eating well from the recent yeild.

One of the mill workers in Chirombo Village, Malawi.

Tools in the mill. Chirmbo Village, Malawi.

A woman shaking dust from her corn to prepare it for the mill. Chirombo Village, Malawi.

There were only a few minutes during my visit when there were no customers.  I took advantage of this time to photograph one of the two men working at the mill.  The second one was very interested in watching me, but didn’t want to be photographed.  Neither of these men own the mill.  The equipment in the mill and the gasoline needed to run them cost a lot of money, so most mills are owned by the upper class Malawians.  This one happens to be owned by a government minister who lives in Blantyre (about three hours away).

When the customers picked up again, I moved outside to see how the women prepare the corn for the mill.  First, they pour some of the corn into large, shallow, woven baskets.  They shake the baskets to remove the dust and dirt from the corn.  The clean corn is dumped into buckets so the next batch of corn can be shaken clean.  When the buckets are full, they are emptied into the grinding machine, then, if the machine with the shoot is used, the buckets are quickly placed to catch the four.

A girl waiting for her corn flour. Chirombo Village, Malawi.

Since it was mid-morning, most of the customers were women between the ages of twenty and seventy.  Most of the younger girls were in school.  I did see two young teens at the mill.  In traditional Malawian families, the females must take care of the house and prepare the food.  These two tasks take priority over everything else, including school.  These two girls must not have finished their chores in time to make it to class.  If they finished everything quickly, they would probably go to class in the afternoon.  The girl in the photograph to the right is even in her school skirt.

The longer I stayed at the mill, the more people gathered to watch me work.  Some of the women asked me to photograph them.  I started with an old, yet boisterous woman, who then patted me down, asking me for money.  I emptied my pockets for her, pulling out cords, memory cards, and keys.  When my pockets were empty, I turn them inside out.  The old woman thought it was all quite entertaining, and showed the other women all the strange things I had in my pockets instead of money.

A woman nursing her child while waiting to use the mill in Chirombo Village, Malawi.

One of the women waiting in line for the mill asked me to photograph her and her baby.  She stood very still and very strong, holding her child, who started crying when she took him off her back.  To calm the child, she began nursing him, but motioned that I should still photograph her.  When it was her turn to use the mill, she passed her child to one of  the girls who had come to watch me.  The girl had been making funny faces at my camera when I photographed her, but when she held the child, she became very composed.  The baby stopped crying when my lights went off, and he inspected me and my camera with unblinking eyes.

Finally, Stanley, who had become anxious because of the disruptive crowd that had formed to watch me and to be photographed, decided it was time to leave.  I thanked the mill workers and the women I photographed, then headed on my way, followed, as always, by a group of children.

A girl holding a neighbor's child in Chilrombo Village, Malawi.

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.

Chirombo Village Pt. 1

Posted in Malawi by stefaniegiglio on 08 June 2010

A man fishing in Chirombo Bay, Malawi.

Two women washing clothes and pots in Chirombo Bay, Malawi.

A man in a makoro, on his way to go fishing in Chirombo Bay, Malawi.

Since I’ve been living on Chirombo Bay for over a month now, I figured it was time for me to actually visit the village nearby.  I’ve walked along the shore a few times, but I hadn’t actually entered the village.

Today, I walked along the water, stopping to photograph some women washing clothes and pots in the lake.  They laughed and talked to me in Chichewa and I responded in English.  Although neither of us understood the other, we had a good time.

Further along the shore, I photographed some men fishing.  They were just leaving to go out on the lake, so I couldn’t talk with them for very long.  As I photographed them, some boys about 100m away saw me and called to me.  I was surprised they saw me–I was standing in some reeds behind a tree–but there are so few azungu (white people) in the area that they get very excited when they see one.

Boys of Chirombo Village, Malawi.

Boys next to a baobab tree in Chirombo Village, Malawi.

I went over to the boys and asked if I could photograph them.  Their English wasn’t very good, but they responded in Chichewa with one of the few words I have learned: “Jambule,” or “Take my picture!”  I motioned for them to stand in the shade (shade is beautiful light for photos, but it’s also much nicer on my burnt shoulders).  As I did earlier in the day, I chatted with them in English while they talked back in Chichewa, even though we only understood a few words of what the other was saying.  After some photos (in the various locations the boys led me to!),  I told the boys that I wanted to see the village.  It took some sign language and pointing on my part, but they soon happily led me up the dirt road to the village.

Within a few seconds of my arrival, a crowd started to form.  The adults peeked out of buildings and the children crept to within a few meters of me.  One man approached me and began asking me about myself.  I asked if he could show me around the village, but he was the only one working at a nearby shop, so he declined.

A homemade alcohol distiller in Chirombo Village, Malawi.

I wandered over to a baobab tree I had passed when I entered the village.  I was intrigued by the writing that covered the lower portion of its trunk, which I was later told listed some of the important members of the village.  I approached a group of men under a tree a few feet away who were discussing the future of the village and those who lived there.  One of the men who spoke very good English, Stanley, gave me a tour of the village.

Homemade Alcohol in Chirombo Village, Malawi

We started at his house, where I met his mother and two children.  He then showed me where he brews his “beer.”  From what I have heard from others, it’s not so much “beer” as it is “nearly pure alcohol.”  Supposedly two shots can make hefty German men pass out.  I was also told that there are some pretty gnarly things in some brews, such as batteries.

A pigeon house in Chirombo Village, Malawi.

But according to Stanley, the ingredients are only water, sugar, and corn.  He lets the mixture sit for three days before he puts it in his distilling contraption where it is boiled.   Somehow (he had difficulty explaining this part) the alcohol leaves the pot, flows down the tube in the log, and drips into a waiting bottle by way of a strip of reed.

Pigeons in the pigeon house. Chirombo Village, Malawi.

Near the alcohol distillery, there was a strange, small hut on stilts.  When I looked inside, I found pigeons.  I asked Stanley what he used them for, but he said they are like flowers and are only there for beauty.

Next, he took me to the local school.  I talked to the headmaster, and she gave me permission to spend Thursday morning photographing the school.  I’ll be photographing the oldest students because I am hoping they will be less distracted by me and my camera than the younger children.  We’ll see!

First Photo Walk in Monkey Bay

Posted in Malawi by stefaniegiglio on 25 May 2010

The church in Monkey Bay, Malawi.

When I woke up this morning, it was cloudy—perfect light for photography.  Franc was going to town, so I went along with him to take pictures even though I don’t have any model releases printed yet.  He dropped me off at the church before he continued on to the harbor.  We agreed to meet later on.

The church is by far the tallest building in the town.  It’s made of reddish brick, but otherwise looks very similar to any Western church, complete with a bell tower.  I expected the inside to be simple brick, just like the outside, but I was pleasantly surprised when I walked in.  The walls around the altar had enormous elaborate paintings of people reaching almost to the ceiling.  The walls along the pews were colorfully decorated with words on Chewa.  The pews were very simple, but the walls were so beautiful that I hardly noticed.

Inside the church in Monkey Bay, Malawi.

Kids playing on the porch of the church in Monkey Bay, Malawi.

I was in the church all of 30 seconds when I was surrounded by a group of kids.  They watched quietly as I took two photos in the inside of the church.  Then one boy boldly stepped in front of my camera.  I took three photos of him before he was joined by another boy.  I took one photo of him as the rest of the group crept closer and closer.

I motioned to all the kids to go outside since I didn’t want them to start jumping all over the pews in the chaos that I knew would ensue once I turned my camera towards the group.  The sun had finally broken through the clouds, so I motioned the kids into the shade of the porch.  I snapped off one photo of the group before they started jumping all over the place, trying to be in front of everyone else.  I kept having to tell them to move back because they would get less than six inches away from my camera, which means I couldn’t see more than an eye or nose, let alone focus!  They danced, showed me their kung-fu moves, and pretended to be Buddha (while yelling “Buddha!  Buddha!”).

Boy Laughing in Monkey Bay, Malawi

Eventually I had to leave the kids to explore the rest of the town.  They were having a great time being photographed, but I had already popped off over 50 shots of them.  I wandered down the street until a group of teens running a booth called me over.  They were excited to see me, but nervous and embarrassed to be photographed, despite asking me to photograph them.  One boy was obviously much more embarrassed than the rest—he couldn’t stop laughing!  He laughed and laughed until he could barely breathe.  His friends laughed at him laughing, and I laughed at them laughing at him.  Our laughter drew a crowd of spectators in the road, so I showed them their photos (which initiated a new round of laughter) and moved on.

A mother and her daughter in Monkey Bay, Malawi

I went down a small alley full of shops where I bought a backpack yesterday.  I wanted to photograph the shopkeeper I bought from, but I couldn’t find him.  A lady came up to me asked me my name, my father’s name, and where I was from, then asked me to take her picture in her shop.  After taking her picture (and then the photos of four other shopkeepers), I asked if I could photograph her outside.  She agreed, but said I must photograph her with her first born.  She pulled her daughter into the frame, but the daughter did not look very pleased about it all.  I snapped off a few photos of the pair and tried to finish quickly for the daughter’s sake.

A man eating sugar cane on the porch of the mill in Monkey Bay, Malawi.

Back on the road, a man eating a stick of sugar cane called me over.  He was sitting on the front porch of the mill.  He asked me in Chewa to take his photo (one of the few things in Chewa I understand!), and I happily obliged.  Once again, a crowd, small this time, came to watch me.  I photographed a young girl, and when another came and asked to be photographed as well, an older woman jumped in front of her and asked that I pay her first.  I told her that I only pay people who will sign a model release, and since I didn’t have any model releases, I wouldn’t be paying anyone today.  I don’t know if she understood me, but she talked back in Chewa and laughed, so I don’t think there were any hard feelings either way.

Part of a family in the mill in Monkey Bay, Malawi.

I asked the girl if I could photograph her inside the mill and she agreed.  I ended up photographing at least one (might have been two) families inside the mill before Franc picked me up outside.

If was only a short photo walk, maybe just under an hour, but I got some fun photos.  I also drew a lot of attention to myself, which means people will start to get to know me.  That’s important if I want people to trust me enough to allow me to take some intimate candids in the future.  All in all, things went well!  I can’t wait to get some model releases and spend more time with these people.