Malawi is famous for its wood carvings. You’ll be showered with chances to buy them during your visit. Stop at a gas station and men hawking wood bowls and candlestick holders will surround your car. In tourist areas you’ll find craftsmen busy polishing their carvings (often with shoe polish!) in make-shift stalls. And wood is what you’ll find in all the fancy town shops. Although the variety of carvings is somewhat monotonous (many, many elephants) the quality of the carvings is usually very high. These charming wooden sculptures are hard to resist and just about everybody ends up taking some home as a souvenir.
I’m a tree girl so wooden curios have never really been my thing. However, I understand the economic importance of the informal wood carving industry for local craftspeople, middlemen, and their families. I certainly don’t blame artisans for deforestation in Malawi, but the demand for wood curios does contribute to the cutting of trees.
Trees are a renewable resource – but only if they are replanted. The rate at which trees are being cut down in Malawi is alarming. I asked a young man in my village if he could make me a traditional drum (I wanted to learn how to play!) but he told me there were no longer trees big enough to make drums. In recent years I have seen giant mango trees chopped down to make wood-fired bricks. Trees that have provided food are being cut to build housing for growing families or sold off to pay for school fees and other modern necessities. People are often in desperate financial situations and cutting down a tree is a way to get some cash. But sadly, I see almost no trees being replanted. With the population expected to double in 35 years, I wonder how many trees will still be standing by 2050.
This is a popular carving found in Malawi. It depicts the common scene of a man carrying firewood down from the Zomba plateau. I’ve seen guys with loads 3 times this big coming down the hill. It’s amazing how they are able to keep everything balanced!
If you feel the same way about trees as I do, but still want to buy some wood carvings while in Malawi, you will want to check out The Kungoni Center of Culture and Art in Mua. The carvings from this famous center are spectacular and trees are replanted to compensate for the ones cut down. There is also a large woodlot for harvesting firewood. Managed woodlots are a great way to reduce the cutting of young trees for charcoal production, a practice that is widespread and very destructive. Besides being an environmentally responsible place to buy carvings in Malawi, the Kungoni Center has a very interesting museum and organizes unforgettable cultural events. For those who love African history, art, and culture – the Kungoni Center should be included in your Malawi travel plans.
Non-wooden crafts in Malawi include necklaces made out of fruit seeds, brightly colored paintings, grass baskets, and recycled paper cards. Hand-painted batiks and accessories made out of local chitenge cloth are also widely available. In the up-market shops you’ll find better quality arts & crafts, but the prices will often be much higher than what you can bargain for on the street. It can be a fun experience to haggle for crafts, but it’s also nice to take your time browsing through a beautifully curated store. Do a little of both to make sure you don’t miss out on anything.
A final note…
I’m deeply concerned about deforestation in Malawi and want to do something about it. Long ago I was a Peace Corps Volunteer and I still believe in grass roots action. I’m asking villagers from my community for ideas on ways we can encourage people to plant trees. One idea is to promote trees as a financial investment. If people plant trees to celebrate a child’s birth, those trees can be harvested later to pay for school fees, a huge financial burden for many families. The project, called School Fees & Trees, is in the very beginning stages, but we are excited about its potential. Please get in touch with me if you have tree planting stories or ideas that you want to share!