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Ebony woodcarvers learn to craft machine parts

Rowan Moore Gerety Oct 3, 2011

Ebony woodcarvers learn to craft machine parts

Rowan Moore Gerety Oct 3, 2011

KAI RYSSDAL: You have basically two choices when a household appliance breaks. You can try to fix it yourself, or you could bring it to a repair shop. But both those options presume a functioning supply chain that provides replacements for whatever widget breaks. Not a luxury enjoyed everywhere.

In the African country of Mozambique, you have to wait a long time for spare parts. So consumers there have found an old-school solution. Rowan Moore Gerety has the story.

ROWAN MOORE GERETY: Makonde woodcarvers are renowned for their precision. They can carve realistic rhinos and towers of interlocking bodies out of a single piece of wood. Beto Vasco Vares is part of a collective of woodcarvers here in Nampula, in the north of Mozambique. Working on mats in a shady courtyard, they use the same hand-made tools that the Makonde always have.

BETO VASCO VARES: There’s the gouge, the handsaw, the hatchet and the chisel.

Young Makonde sculptors apprentice for years, sanding and polishing the works of their teachers. They study the ornate canes and traditional busts that are still a bestseller to tourists. But the expert woodcarvers are also finding a market for more “functional” sculptures. Manuel Xavier is a customer here at the woodcarvers’ collective. He repairs gas stoves for a living but has trouble finding spare parts.

MANUEL XAVIER: Here in the north, there is a lack of equipment for gas stoves.

A month ago, Xavier got a call from an unhappy customer. She said that the knobs on her stove had broken off.

XAVIER: I told the woman who owns the stove, “That part isn’t sold here in the North.” Not in stores, or anywhere else. So I decided to have them made out of Pau Preto.

Pau Preto is what the locals call the wood in Portuguese. In English, it’s known as African blackwood, or ebony. Rob Patterson is a rural enterprise consultant here.

ROB PATTERSON: It’s highly prized for making musical instruments. The keys on your piano would be made of this. So it’s extremely hard.

And versatile. Sculptors have carve parts for espresso makers, sewing machines, and motorcycles. For film projectors, and even computers. Patterson says that storekeepers in Mozambique don’t have the capital to keep spare parts in stock. Those that do know their customers may not have other options.

PATTERSON: For example we only have one dealer for Toyota, which owns an exclusive franchise. I think the companies that control spare parts can overcharge and take advantage of their market position.

For cars, the artistshave made interior door panels, gear shifts and more. Sculptor Julio Konamuimba isn’t even sure what car part he’s working on, he knew only that it came from a Toyota.

JULIO KONAMUIMBA: The customer just brings it here, we make that part here, then he’ll take it and put it back in his car, and the car keeps on working.

He knows the cars keep on working, he says, because the owners stop by to say so. And with good reason: according to Konamuimba, making car parts is harder than making traditional sculptures.

KONAMUIMBA: With our sculptures, the work is only based on your imagination. For these car parts, you need to make sketches so that it comes out like the original.

The wood is slow to carve, and it grows slowly too. For a tree a foot in diameter, consultant Rob Patterson says,

You could be looking at three or four hundred years at least.

Sculptor Vasco Vares is concerned that they won’t always get their stock so easily. Precious wood like Pau Preto is disappearing quickly with the rise of illegal exports by large logging companies from China.

VASCO VARES: They just keep exporting wood and more wood. Soon, when we get to the end, we won’t have any more wood.

Even the best woodcarvers here can’t always get enough work making traditional sculptures. Orders for wooden parts only come from time to time. But maybe it’s just as well. Vasco Vares told me that “not just anyone” is skilled enough to carve machine parts out of blackwood.

In Nampula, Mozambique, I’m Rowan Moore Gerety for Marketplace.

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