Even As Traditional Art in Malawi Begins to Prosper, Its Future Is Threatened

by Pilirani Semu-Banda
- Malawi -

Over 65 percent of Malawi's 12 million people live below the poverty line of less than $1 a day, while an additional 22 percent are categorized as “ultra-poor.” The average annual income of Malawi is only $600 USD, which helps exacerbate one of the highest rates of income inequality in Africa. Jeffrey Jambo, who lives on the southern shores of Lake Malawi in Mangochi, is a lucky man. He has never seen the inside of a classroom, but the artistry of his wood carvings is so remarkable that his work supports his entire family. He creates beautiful plaques of Malawian and African scenes, as well as ornaments and chairs and tables of such high quality and unusual designs that they have a wide appeal to both tourists and locals.

Jambo, 45, is not only able to provide for all the necessities of his wife and three children, but can also pay the school fees required by the country to educate his children from the income he earns from his wood carving. Jambo is therefore seen as one of the few people who are well-off.

Well-off in Malawi means that he makes up to $800 USD on a good day from plying his trade along the beaches of Lake Malawi. Lake Malawi, a fresh water lake, which by volume is the fifth largest lake in the world, is said to contain the most diverse fresh water fish population in the world. Its estimated 388-600 fish species attract tourists from all over. Jambo is just one of many who runs stalls in every possible tourist location.

Elaborately carved Malawian wood art is widely sought after, partly because of the unique designs, and partly because the ornaments and furniture are made from high-quality teak wood, ebony and mahogany.

“I learnt this art from my father who learnt it from his uncle. It is something that I grew up with. I can’t even remember the first carving that I created although my father says it was a very small boat,” says Jambo.

Probably Malawi’s most popular wood carving is the chief’s chair. It is made of two pieces of wood; the biggest piece forms both the carved back of the chair and its front legs. The second, smaller piece slides through the lower part of the first piece, thus becoming both the seat and the rear leg. The chair is ornately carved with scenes of traditional African dances, village activities and the wild animals that everyone associates with Africa.

The chief’s chair is one of Jambo’s specialties. “I pay a lot more attention when I am working on such a piece of art,” he says.

Another of his traditional pieces is a round three-legged table with a removable chessboard on top; the legs fold up.

Just as Jambo’s trade is growing, by exporting his curios and furniture to Kenya and South Africa through Malawian business people travelling to those countries, he and other Malawian artists fear for their future. The type of wood they use is becoming scarce: ebony and mahogany are especially becoming endangered.

“These are indigenous trees and it’s difficult to replace them. Our industry is threatened. I just hope it’s not doomed,” worries Jambo.

Like so many other businesses in Malawi, even the modest prosperity generated by traditional wood carving has only a precarious hold on a stable future.

About the Author

Pilirani Semu-Banda is a journalist contracted by the USAID as Media Specialist for Casals and Associates in Malawi. As a freelancer, Pilirani has won both local and international awards, including the Africa Education Journalism Award. She has also been voted Malawi’s best female journalist twice.

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One comment on “Even As Traditional Art in Malawi Begins to Prosper, Its Future Is Threatened
  1. Alexandra says:

    If they don’t protect the trees the industry as well as the art form will die. Are there alternatives or plans for a sustainable future?

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