- Category: Story
- Written by Kondwani Kamiyala
The time machine takes you years back to a typical Malawian village. All the houses are mud and thatched. Some are round, others are rectangular.
Each of the houses is decorated with different colours of mud: gray mud from a dambo; reddish mud from an anthill and black soil from a maize field.
The walls are plastered with crude but distinct works of art. Flowers here, people dancing there, cupid hearts over there and animals across the street.
Today, that same village spots houses with burnt bricks. Other houses have sun-dried bricks. The paintings that once beautified this village deep in the savannah are long gone.
T/A Kachindamoto of Dedza looks with nostalgia at the days when villages were decorated with the paintings. They were an identity, she says.
“Every village was identified with its own style of painting. At times, what was painted represented each village. For instance, houses in one village were decorated with paintings of trees, while the next village would have animals,” she recollects.
For her, decorating houses with the paintings was another preoccupation for women. The other was beautifying their faces with mphini (incisions).
“It was a man’s game to build the house. The woman had to decorate it. Although the culture has died, it is still thriving in some areas. These days, it is mostly civil society organisations that are encouraging such paintings to spread messages,” she observes.
Searching for such paintings in the Southern Region is a feat. One can find them in Ling’awo Village in T/A Kasisi’s area in Chikhwawa. Under the Kafukufuku Project, spearheaded by artist Elson Kambalu, who was an artist in residence under the Liverpool Wellcome Trust, paintings on the walls were restored in 15 villages.
Tiyanjane Maxwell, at 19, says she will continue with the art. Her grass-thatched hut is decorated with flowers.
“Not only are these used to decorate our homes. We use the paintings to spread messages against diseases. With these, our houses look more beautiful,” she said.
Alice Siliya, Village head Ling’awo’s wife, observes that although younger women are losing the art, it can be revived: “We use simple material: soil. And it does not need education. I did not go beyond standard one due to lack of school fees, but I can still decorate my house with the paintings.”
Artist James Kazembe of the Amtchona cartoon strip says much as the art is crude, it is original. He believes it is the village answer to exterior decoration. It is restoration.
“In most areas, the paintings are done after the rains. They restore the village beauty. Sometimes, the flowers painted pass on a message. At times, they have words to go with the painting,” said Kazembe.
He recalls one house in Lilongwe, which had a painting of a man with a hoe in his hand. Below it, was an inscription: Omfumu oKamganga bwanji mukundikaniza kulima munda wokhala wanga. (Oh Chief Kamganga, why bar me from tilling my land?)
In South Africa, he says, tourists are attracted by such paintings, which represent a culture.
Chancellor College art lecturer Eva Chikabadwa, who has done researches on the crude art, agrees with Kazembe. Tourists from far lands can appreciate beautifully decorated mud houses. South Africa is one country coming to her mind of countries that have capitalised on decorating mud huts to attract tourists.
She adds: “In the past, people had more time that is why they engaged in that art. Right now, modernity is robbing us of the crude works, which showed art appreciation was on everyone’s mind.”
Apart from modernity, Chikabadwa observes that the absence of art as a subject in schools has doused the artistic fire even in the village women.
“That fire must be reignited. That is why we are devising an art syllabus for primary and secondary school. Right now, art as a subject is taught in very few secondary schools,” said Chikabadwa.
Sharing the view of how modernity has killed the art, artist Ellis Singano says the art must be preserved.
“These women use the old methods of painting using soil, methods that have been passing on from one generation to another, and also all the women doing this are all older women,” said Singano.