The Woodcarvers of Lake Malawi

Throughout history artists in Malawi have preferred working with the three dimensions of sculpture as opposed to painting or drawing.

Sculpture and woodcarving are embedded within the Malawi culture and family tradition.

Carving skills are passed down from father to son. Sculptures vary from carved plaques of African scenes to decadent chief chairs – made with exceptional craftsmanship.

The main focus of Malawian art is the human figure which emerged in early rock paintings and is still a popular subject among woodcarvers today.

Since the introduction of tourism, many artists in Chitimba and other waterfront towns have begun carving trinkets for passing trade.

Tourists delight in their traditional representations and the beautiful hardwood they are made from.

The woodcarvers’ skill is such that they will invite tourists to name any object and carve if for them.

Some market stools even offer woodcarving workshops where you get the chance to learn the art from its masters and carve your very own sculpture to take away.

Workshops in Chitimba last around three hours and cost the equivalent of around $20, which includes your finished piece.

Try your hand at carving a miniature animal, a plaque or a trinket such as a bottle opener or key ring.

Beautiful sunsets
Sunset at Lake Malawi

During my first night at Chitimba, I wandered down to the lake at sunset after setting up my tent and sleeping bag.

I was approached by two gentlemen who sat with me at the water’s edge as the waves lapped against the shore.

Sam and Roland had spent their whole lives in the village. Like most woodcarvers, they learnt the trade from their fathers at a tender age and began trading at the local market in their teens.

Sam set up his own stool seven years ago where he designs and sells wood carvings including  animals, bracelets and fridge magnets.

The 26-year-old has come up with inventive ways to hustle for business from the overland trucks that pitch up at the nearby campsite, overlooking lake Malawi.

He said: “I have been working here for many years.

“We are not allowed to enter the campsite so we meet with visitors by the lake and join the mountain treks to help our trading.

“There is lots of competition at the market so we try to meet people away from here to show them what we do and what we make.”

Nyika Plateau Lake Malawi
Views from Nyika Plateau Lake Malawi

Sam and fellow market traders Precious and Mike join hiking tours three times per week.

The trio do not receive a wage but use it as an opportunity to show their products in private, away from the tough competition of neighbouring stalls.

My hike of the Nyika Plateau was led by tour guide Washington who was assisted by Sam, Precious and Mike.

It was not until the very end of the seven hour trek that the trio took out a small sample of their work and invited us to browse their market stools at the foot of the mountain.

Sam said: “I climb the mountain three times per week, maybe four.

“If I were trekking alone, I could make it up and down the mountain within two hours but with a group it’s a little bit longer.

“I like meeting with people and learning new things and we also hope some people will buy from us.

“I know how to survive on $20 per month but in the quiet seasons, it can be a challenge for me.”

Nyika Plateau Lake Malawi
Nyika Plateau Lake Malawi

The woodcarvers of Lake Malawi left a great impression on me during my time at Chitimba.

Their humble tradition brings the entire community together and adds to the magic of Lake Malawi.

These hardworking craftsmen show a lot of creativity both in their skill and in their salesmanship.

Although they will go to extreme lengths to meet with tourists and showcase their carvings, they are polite and good-natured in their approach.

I hope I have portrayed the unique aura the woodcarving community brings to Lake Malawi and the beauty of their humble tradition.

Thanks for following,

Laura x

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