July 14, 2005
One of the things that I have enjoyed the most this year has been getting to know some of the artists and artisans here in Malawi. These creative people carve wooden animals and figurines, paint in acrylics and oil, make batiks and create works of art out of indigenous materials. They are amazing.
One of the first artists I met was Patrick. Patrick is a teacher at Domasi Secondary School and he carves napkin rings, chess sets and door stops in his spare time to raise money so that his children can go to good schools. I had him make me a cutting board so I wouldn’t ruin the counters in our home here, and I like it so much that it is coming home with us.
Gilbert is a painter. He paints African scenes of village life on the front of greeting cards that I buy and ship home. He also does oils that you see hanging in homes and restaurants. He is really gifted, so you seldom see him. He stays home and paints, while his brother markets his goods. It is quite common to see families of artists.
Happiness is probably my favorite artisan. He sells elephant dung paper journals and photo albums that he decorates with animals made out of banana bark. Happiness is aptly named. I have never seen him without a broad grin on his face. When I drive down Queen Victoria Avenue past the spot where the artists hawk their wares, Happiness will jump out in the street and wave furiously at me. It makes me smile every time. He truly is a joy!
His father, Mr. Menke, is another real artist. When you go downtown, you will see people all over the place selling batiks. When you ask them who made the batiks, they will say, “I did.” But it is really Mr. Menke who makes these works of art. When the Carvers were here, he came to our house and gave us a demonstration on how to make batiks. It was fascinating. We did not realize how many steps were involved in making the waxy, dyed pictures. You can see where Happiness gets his outlook on life. His father is always jovial as well.
Amos is a fixture at the Synod. He is always making the rounds and selling people his carved wooden Noah’s Arks, Nativity Scenes and animals. He is a real business man. His marketing skills are finely honed. They have to be, he supports 17 people. His own children and then lots of nieces and nephews are under his care. Some of the older ones often help him set up his wares for display. I can almost never get away from Amos without buying at least one item.
These men (and they are almost all men) are the most persistent sales people you can imagine. When we were up in Zomba in the fall, I admired one man’s ebony nativity set. A month later he showed up on my doorstep asking me to buy it! I have no idea how he found out who I was or where I lived.
Other artists follow groups of tourists around. If they know a group is going to the Lake, they will pack up their goods and follow them. One of their best sales lines is, “If you do not buy something, I will be stranded here, I have no transport money home.” When I hear this, I reply, “We did not ask you to come here, and a good business man would never come unprepared.”
In Blantyre, where a big group of artisans sell their creations, it is often unnerving to walk down the street. “Please Madame, I have had no customers today, and I need to buy food.” Actually, that is probably true most times you hear it, but I caution people not to be tricked into buying something that they do not want or need because of a persuasive sales pitch.
One must be selective. I talked to the owner of an art gallery last week, and he said, “There is a lot of junk around. It is hard to find quality goods anymore.” It is true that you have to look for fill in the wood products and carefully inspect each piece before you buy it.
You must also haggle over the price for a while. Many Americans have problems with this. We are used to being told the price and paying it. If you do that here in Malawi, you will pay too much. Actually, some people really enjoy this process. The youth that came over from Pittsburgh Presbytery caught on quickly, and by the end of their stay were bartering away their t-shirts and sneakers for beads and carved wooden coasters.
I have developed a reputation here as a tough bargainer. If I do not get the price that I want and think is fair, I walk away. The artists know this, and many of them now know me by name and greet me as I walk down the street.
“Mrs. Merry, look at these hippos”
“Sorry, James, I am buying carrots today, not carved key chains. I will come shopping again next week and I will look at them.”
I will miss my contact with these resourceful, talented Malawians. I will miss their engaging smiles and their motto, “Looking is free.”