by Barbara Cunliffe Singleton
Finding faces in Zimbabwe’s stone sculptures.
A cassette of Zimbabwe’s top singer, Thomas Mapfumo, vibrates the dashboard and his rhythm muffles the bumps of the last five miles. Having delivered a load of stone sculptures in Harare, Tengenenge’s driver is giving me a lift to the village of sculptors, two hours north of the capital. In spite of this lucky ride, I’m mad, because Tom Blomefield won’t be there. He has driven into Harare to meet a journalist from The Sunday Mail. I hope the founder of Tengenenge wouldn’t use up all his best stories on the Mail before he returns tomorrow.
Our headlights light the faces of sculptures, gathered eight-deep on the edge of the road to be the first to see us. Rising on stumps, this population stands four feet high. The driver slows the truck, saying, “You should see the mountains. Too bad it’s so dark.”
He stops near an electric porch light. From the doorway steps a man whose face looks familiar. Full white beard and ponytail, carrying his massive weight with grandeur – this man is surely Tom Blomefield. He hasn’t driven into Harare and I can scoop The Sunday Mail.
Speaking in gentle Irish, he invites me to dinner. We walk in the starlight to a thatched rondavel – his kitchen-dining room. To my surprise, a place is already set for me. “We heard you coming on the road.” He squeezes his eyes shut in a measured wink.
Before the soup is finished, a hunched African trips in, catching his balance like a jester. Smiling, his hair corkscrewed in sprightly directions, he peers into his sack. Capering over, he sets down his sack and drags a chair to the table. From the grain sack he pulls out things to show Tom: first, a new pair of green-khaki Bermuda shorts. To me, Tom says, “He’s Barankinya Gosta. Just sold some paintings to the National Gallery, so he’s been shopping. Now he’s in his cups.” Tom blinks both smiling eyes, enjoying the spectacle.
Barankinya extends a long arm, bent at the elbow, that climaxes in a soft handshake with a slapstick smile. Returning to his grain sack, he draws out a paper of aspirin. “Oh hoh!” says Tom, acting surprised. Barankinya searches the sack. Suspense builds. He produces a box of matches. Tom marvels, “Ohh!” Last, out of the sack comes a pawn slip. Tom explodes in laughter.
“Abrigado.” The African bobs his head.
“Abrigado, Portuguese?” I lift my eyebrows at Barankinya, wondering how he knows the Portuguese for “Thank-you.”
Black eyes lit to attention, he jumps up and marches around the room. He barks himself an order, turns, barks, turns, plays a bugle with two clenched fists to his lips, offers a burlesque of marching, sits down. “I trained as a soldier in Mozambique,” says the painter. (I remember that Mugabe’s freedom fighters had bases in Mozambique during the War of Liberation in the 1970s.) So Barankinya has lived in the former Portuguese colony. What about Tom?
From a sense of adventure Tom had left his birthplace, Johannesburg, for Rhodesia in 1946. He harvested tobacco, fought a forest fire, trimmed the horns from cattle. “Learn Chichewa in three months,” the farm owner told him. Tom did that, too. The next year he worked on a different farm and learned Yao from the Muslim tribal group who worked with him. The following year, crown lands were offered to vets of World War II and he qualified through his service during the latter months. He bought Tengenenge, married “the best nursery school teacher in the area” – spoken as if he meant all of Africa – and reared four children.
In 1966, when sanctions tightened against trade with Ian Smith’s racist government, Tom decided to see how his farm workers would take to sculpting stone from the quarry on his property. He gave them tools, mixed with encouraging words, and became a master sculptor himself.
Tom serves Barankinya tea, marmalade and bread and they speak Chichewa together. As Barankinya’s about to leave, he grabs our candles, the tea cup, the tea kettle and puts them in his sack. Then like a jester, he takes them all out, sets them on the table, laughs, and explains in Portuguese, he’s only joking. He extends his long arm to shake hands farewell.
When he leaves, Tom unrolls a Barankinya canvas to show me. “He’s playful like that in his paintings, too.” The painting flares red, balanced by a little yellow. In the picture a black sable with arched antlers fits into a red magenta serpent and faces a man – speckled yellow man, prickling with white spikes that shoot out from his head and arms. Black bristles his lower body and legs. He might be a spirit.
It grows late. I wonder where visitors spend the night. Tom himself, flashlight in hand, guides me over the rocks to a ‘caravan’ (trailer) for guests. “Breakfast is whatever strikes the cook’s fancy and whenever he fancies striking the gong. Sleep well.”
In the midst of breakfast the following morning, an engine clatters outside the rondavel. “What!! Pardon me.” Tom leaps up, leaving egg, fried tomatoes, and half-eaten toast.
I look through the doorway. Five African men and portly Tom in a ponytail talk in excitement around a blue Ford tractor. (Oh, no! Last weekend I’d listened to a mechanical engineer and his son-in-law discuss a truck gear for two hours.) I go out into the splendid sunshine and join the group by the mulberry tree.
“Yesterday this thing wouldn’t work.” The mechanic-sculptor woke up early to replace the battery. Now it makes noise, vibrates and acts for all the world like a tractor. Tom looks jubilant. The skies resound his praise of the mechanic. After marveling for a few minutes, he remembers me and explains, “I spotted this tractor in Holland last October. Had it put in a container box and shipped to Zimbabwe.” The new Tengenenge-Blomefield Sculpture Foundation in Holland paid for it. “You don’t realize what this means! Our quarry’s more than a mile away. Now we can haul over the largest stones. Besides, it’s the first tangible result of the new foundation.”
Back in the rondavel, breakfast’s cold, but spirits soar. The cook-sculptor, Sanni – one arm limp from fighting in Mozambique – serves tea.
A car’s wheels crunch the gravel of the drive and two car doors slam. A body blocks out the sunlight of the doorway and into the rondavel steps a composed black man with a genial smile. He introduces himself as Pirikirayi Deketeke, News Editor of The Daily Mail. He likes to cover the arts whenever he has time. A second man enters the room, the Mail‘s slick thinking-in-pictures photographer – leaner face and with slimmer enjoyment of life. The two new arrivals and I join Tom for a walk to visit the sculptors at their work places under the trees.
Tom, his majestic weight buttoned into a linen jacket, leads the way under a wild fig tree to a row of polished stone slabs. “It’s too bad Kakama Kweli isn’t here.” A sketchy face stares from the top of each slab and tentlike stone breasts encamp below. “Kakama remembers the crown Queen Elizabeth wore in 1991 when she visited Zimbabwe. These ridges” – Tom touches the narrow top of the slab – “represent a crown. He calls this piece ‘Princess’ and the Prince is on the reverse side.” We walk to the other side. The two look identical, but the Prince lacks tents.
Kakama Kweli used to work for the Railroad, but he was crippled in an accident. At age 83, he began stone sculpture. Four years later, his work, “The Family” – much like “Princess,” but with four faces – placed first for outdoor sculpture in the National Gallery annual competition. Since then, his sales have jumped.
“It’s a minimalist work, isn’t it?” Mr. Deketeke writes something in his notebook.
“Yes. He just cuts a line here above the breasts,” – Tom slices his hand over the top of “Princess” – “cuts a line below them” – he scoops and undercuts – “and hollows in between.” Above the perched stone cones of breasts, the features look nearly two-dimensional, with hints of eye, nose, and a straight mouth-line.
Guinea fowl cluck in the distance. We walk up the dirt road under acacia trees to where a lanky man spills water over the belly of his stone bird, which lies on its back, defenseless. He sloshes water and sands the bird with black sandpaper, a final step before polishing. Water falling on dry ground, brings the smell of earth into the air. Conscious of our attention, the man, whose features barely protrude from his long face, drops his sandpaper and stands up. “This is Sanwell Chirume.” Turning away, Tom walks over to a bust as large as a half-grown elephant. “What do you call this, Sanwell?”
“‘The Stealing Man.'” The artist looks at the ground.
Tom feels the hefty stone face with the flaring nostrils. “I like it.” He thumps the hard surface. “It’s still a piece of rock. This piece will be in the Castle Groeneveld Exhibit. It’s already sold to a dealer in Holland.” Sanwell had left Tengenenge for a road construction job. One day, a year later, Tom met him by chance and urged him to come back. “Now his sculptures sell for thousands of dollars!”
“Take my camera!” the Mail photographer whoops, giving it to Mr. Deketeke. “I’m staying here at Tengenenge. Thousandsof dollars!”
Sanwell Chirume lowers his eyes. His soft mustache frames his mouth. Self-effacing, he laughs with the photographer.
Everyone at Tengenenge supports himself. Many came during the drought, 1990-1992. Hungry and jobless, they came with art they’d made at home. They wanted to sell it and produce more. “I couldn’t turn anyone away. Let’s give them a chance!” Tom thought. At the height of the crisis, 183 people lived in the community. They earned enough, at least, to feed themselves. Now twenty-seven sculptors support themselves and their families in residence.
A man hurries up the hill, bursting with news. Bettina and Rien van Daalen have come to select sculptures for their coming exhibit, Exklusives aus Afrika, near Hamburg. Tom excuses himself from us, so he can welcome them for their fourth visit to Tengenenge. The three of us drift apart to look at sculptures by ourselves.
After lunch, I look at the thatched houses – their earthen walls decorated in tones of clay – where the families of the sculptors live. To my surprise, there under a tree by Kakama Kweli’s sculptures, sits an old man working with a chisel. He raises a stiff hand in greeting and looks at me through cloudy blue eyes. Tufts of white beard his jaw and chin.
He sits on a brick and using a small ax, chips away at a creamy surface. A neighbor sculptor interprets for him. “He’s working on a rikishi, a masked Angolan dancer.” With an orange marker, he draws eye circles, horizontal slashes to locate nose and mouth. This Angolan dancer is going to look just like “Princess,” I think.
Mr. Kweli drops his chisel and stands up with difficulty. He beckons me to follow him. Walking with a wooden stick, he rocks the ball of his right foot to the ground and sinks full weight on his left. He limps quickly to his row of sculptures and wrests half a match packet from below a stone slab – a carving with two faces and four teepees on one side. The price, $1,700 (US), was scratched in ink on the packet. Mr. Kweli stands heels out, one black foot pressed down on top of the other, leaning both hands over the knob of his stick, and watches me.
He brings me a cardboard price from another sculpture, then studies me talking with the young interpreter, Natias, sculptor of “Man Wearing Walkman.” Mr. Kweli looks so desperate to sell, I wonder what an 88-year-old man would want to do with his money.
Natias asks him for me. “He buys food for his great grandchildren. He buys two wardrobes, a sideboard, mirror, sofa, sink, sewing machine. He has money in the Standard Chartered Bank. He buys three bikes – one for his wife, himself, one for his son.” I know he likes bikes. At lunch Tom said that Mr. Kweli wanted so much to make him a basket, that he once biked 60 miles to the Zambezi Valley to get reeds for weaving it.
A woman chases her little boy through a grove of logs displaying stone carvings. The child squeals as his mother catches him in her arms. She stops by me. As she inclines her head to look at him, her curving rows of brown scalp shed highlights between braids, wrapping her head. The woman’s black eyes dance up at me. “You see my husband’s work?”
On its thick wooden pole, one sculpture of Movel Manz stands out: a child’s face with her arm stretching over the top of her head. Mrs. Manz, still trying to manage her squirming son, explains, “When I was little, I wanted to go to school. My mother said I couldn’t go until I could reach over my head and touch my ear on the opposite side.”
Mr. Kweli hails me from a distance. I go back to watch his Angolan dancer take shape. The black skin of the old man’s arms shine in small scales as he works. Where he’s drawn orange circles, white eyes protrude. The nose slants down from one eye, to where he’s drawn the mouth. Now the mouth stands out, a little smaller than the eye. He uses a wide chisel – lighter than his hammer – to pound a finer chisel, his cutting edge.
He searches among his tools for something. He shows me a metal spike, a foot long with a head. Natias interprets. “We call this tool a ‘punch.’ Tom Blomefield gave it to him as a present, after Mr. Kweli won the competition in Harare last year. As you can see, he’s proud of it.”
Mr. Kweli squints up into my eyes and one eye closes against the harsh sunlight. Holding his punch, he smiles in delight – a smile that is pure maximalist!
* * * * *
After a feast of roast duck, we push all the furniture back against the wall. Fingers testing notes of the metal-pronged mbira, trip the hearts of girls to dance. Soon their nimble legs fall under the control of drummers. Dancers sing, “I have pretty eyes to blink at you. I have pretty eyes to blink at you…,” a thought repeated for exactly as long as the music lasts.
Sanni, the sculptor-cook, flips water from his oversized enamel cup onto the dirt floor to keep the dust down.
The mbira-player’s dark eyes study the serious faces of the dancers, while he presses out intricate rhythms. The music becomes sad. Craving meaning, I ask the sculptor-business assistant. Surprised, I hear his reply, “Yes, it has a message. ‘If you drink too much, you could fall down and hurt yourself. If a woman with a child on her back drinks too much beer, she could fall down and kill the child.'” In cotton dresses the dancers drone their message. On the rim of the circle, hands patter a rhythm on the log drums.
In a dance without words teen-aged girls bend forward and make their bottoms vibrate, whereupon two African men bend, vibrate and Tom Blomefield shows he can do it, too. His voice sounds above the music: “These tremors are part of the initiation to puberty rite.” He squeezes his eyes.
“Hey, Tom, when exactly was your initiation rite?” Rien van Daalen jeers. “Hey, hey.” Van Daalen himself lets loose a long wild howl. He rolls his eyes upward, closes them tight, and howls again. The Africans exchange meaningful glances.
Sanwell Chirume appears in the doorway. His demeanor, restrained as his features, is transformed by the tit-swinging sexuality of the next dance. Sanwell’s feet trip out the rhythm. He bends and folds, swings his arms. “Hot love!” interprets the business assistant.
Tom Blomefield loosens his ponytail and lets his white hair fly. Open, expansive, he accepts all and plays the glad host. “Why aren’t you dancing?…Won’t you have some more?…Have you tried this?” Cokes for the dancers. Beer for the men.
That night when I arrive in the caravan, I gasp at a face! On the wall two screws hold a strip of metal that bulges in the center. From the bottom dangle two wires. A perfect face, if I’ve ever seen one. And I have. Looking all day at faces in African stone, has liberated my imagination. What to expect of a face, where to find a face, when to see one – all has changed!
Barbara Cunliffe Singleton’s, “Tengenenge, Village of Stone Sculptures ” won the Travel and Sports Silver in the Fourth Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.