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Hand-carved ebony, Mozambique’s alternative to mass-produced plastic

Posted on May 9, 2016

 Original Article on Medium

On one of my first visits to the June 16th Woodcarvers’ Collective in Nampula, Mozambique, a craftsman named Paulo was busy carving a wooden replica of an interior door panel for a Honda Civic (above).

At first, I had trouble figuring out exactly what was going on. Paulo sat on a small cushion on the ground with a piece of pod mahogany held between his toes, tapping away at it with a mallet and a crude gouge. The original part, made of black injection-molded plastic, lay beside him, and he paused to study it periodically.

“What are you making?” I asked.

“It’s for a Honda,” he said. “Part of the door.”

Dreadlocks in a bun, wearing a necklace made of leopard bones, Paulo explained that he’d already made one door panel before, and that the owner had been very happy with it. And so I imagined a high-rolling businessman driving around Nampula in a late-model Honda Civic, with all the interior plastic parts swapped out for handmade hardwood replicas, an even more luxurious version of the faux-wood panelling we see on Lexuses and Audis in the US.

But that was not it at all. The original plastic part, affixed above the passenger door handle, had cracked and ceased to work. Since the car had been imported secondhand from South Africa, the nearest Honda dealership was thousands of miles away. Paulo was fashioning a replacement: In a country without spare car parts, pod mahogany, a slow-growing, reddish hardwood was the best and cheapest substitute.

One of Paulo’s tools beside an unfinished sculpture

Paulo uses tools that have been around since the iron age: a wooden mallet, an adze, a hatchet; handsaws, chisels, gouges, and files of various sizes. All of it could fit in a small shoulder bag, but it might as well have been a machine shop. Looking up from his work as we spoke, Paulo glanced at my bicycle, leaning against a tree nearby, and offered to make me a new gear shift. With enough time, he said proudly, “I could make you a whole new frame.”

The Makonde, who come from a small region along Mozambique’s border with Tanzania, are renowned around the country for their intricate woodworking. They make wooden busts of women with elaborate beaded jewelry, miniature elephants, rhinos, and giraffes, and ornamental canes, tables, and folding chairs full of interlocking faces and bodies.

Paulo works with a group of fifteen or twenty other Makonde carvers who share space in a shady courtyard behind Nampula’s Museum of Ethnology. Each craftsman has his customary workspace. Paulo sits beneath a small wooden hutch, while others lean against tree trunks five or ten yards apart. Many are related by blood, and have served as one another’s apprentices and mentors. Peasants from the countryside around Nampula show up once or twice a week with small logs of ebony and ironwood, sometimes hundreds of years old, which they bring to the city by bicycle. Each carver purchases his own raw materials. Together, they stock a small open-air gift shop with the Makonde’s signature crafts.

Julio works on a typical Makonde figurine

In recent years, though, the carvers who have settled in the city have found a niche making spare parts for the country’s growing supply of manufactured goods: knobs for stoves and radios, parts for ice cream and espresso machines, brake calipers for Indian bicycles and Chinese motorcycles, gears for sewing machines and peanut grinders.

Mozambique’s imports from China grew more than twenty fold between 1995 and 2008, and the open-air markets in Nampula now look like markets across much of the developing world. There are kitchen appliances, fans, radios, flashlights, bicycles, motorcycles, padlocks, refrigerators, children’s toys, and furniture, nearly all of it made in China.

As in the US, China offers something that no one can get enough of, and which few other countries can match: cheap stuff, or, depending on your point of view, simply less expensive stuff, affordable stuff.

Precious little of this imported inventory comes along with spare parts, but over time, almost all of it will be repaired. It is very difficult to declare something “beyond repair” in Mozambique. With the right help, you can tinker with a cell phone endlessly, use rope and rubber to extend the life of a worn bicycle seat, or stack two three-legged plastic chairs on top of one another to create a functional chair anew.

This dynamic is even more pronounced with expensive goods, often imported secondhand from South Africa or Europe: cars, restaurant equipment, computers. Anything and everything will be done to prolong a machine’s life, and the Makonde have proven expert at filling gaps in the modern supply chain.

Paulo traces the outlines of a cut on a stove knob in progress

One of Paulo’s regular customers is a salesman who sells and maintains two-burner propane stoves in middle class homes around Nampula. The plastic knobs controlling the flame wear out within a year or two of use, but for $3, Paulo can make an ebony replacement that is essentially permanent.

Beto, the June 16th Collective’s Secretary, told me that “the stores that sell these parts in Nampula, they sell parts that don’t last. People know that if they get a part made in ebony wood, they won’t ever have to come back and replace it.”

When I asked another of Paulo’s colleagues, Julio, about spare parts, he rummaged around in a box of tools to produce a small geared ring made of white plastic, about the size of a quarter. It was the wheel that controlled the DVD drive on a desktop computer, with the gears worn down on one side so that the drive no longer ejected properly. Julio said it took him a day and a half of work to turn a form on a manual lathe and replicate the tiny gears by hand, leaning against a tree trunk in the museum courtyard. He couldn’t remember how much he’d charged for it, but he said man hadn’t been back to complain.

“The person who brought me this,” Julio said, “he told me, ‘I went in the store, and I found this part, but I didn’t have the money to buy a real one.’ So he brought it here for me to make the part for an affordable price.” The distortions of supply and demand implicit in Julio’s explanation are almost incomprehensible—that twelve hours of highly-specialized labor with one of the world’s scarcest and most desirable woods could somehow be cheaper than a small plastic disc, turned out in the tens of thousands each day by a nameless factory in China. And yet, there it was: custom-carved ebony, Mozambique’s cheap alternative to mass-produced plastic.