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An Ancient Trade

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Bundles of clay pots by the roadside, bicycles overburdened with huge baskets filled with the rich red of fired earth - these have been familiar sights on the M1 road leading north into Lilongwe. They indicate a thriving specialist trade. For years, as if by pot telepathy, I had fixed the source as Mayani - a Yao enclave in the heavily Chewa area of Dedza somewhere between Nkhoma and the lakeshore; a place I had only ever heard of.



Roadside vendors ready to transport their pots

We took the Nkhoma road leading east. Our roadside enquiries confirmed that we were on the correct track. The road is good tarmac for the 16 kilometres to Nkhoma sitting at the foot of the impressive lump of rock that is the mountain of the same name. Beyond, the road is well-maintained dirt. At the very small trading centre of Soyo we were directed to the left onto a minor dirt road and soon reached Makapa Village unnanounced and uninvited. When we announced our quest to find the source of the pots we were soon made welcome.

Wherever we travelled in rural Dedza we were greeted by smiles and cheerful waves. Everyone was most courteous and helpful. In a country renowned for its friendly people, these must take a prize!

The villages in the area are neat and tidy.

The houses were all wearing a proud new coat of gleaming clay and fresh thatch ready for the impending rains. The people of the village are all Yao. The women are specialised in pottery - women’s work everywhere in Africa. The men come into the picture later.

The clay, which has special properties, comes from the banks of the nearby river. It probably shares the characteristics of the neighbouring Linthipe clays used by Dedza Pottery. Its transformation into pots is the

basis of an extensive cottage industry in a cluster of neighbouring villages each of which specialises in a particular model of pot. Some make mphika, (for cooking relish), others mtsuko for (carrying or storing water or other items.)

Adina Asauka is a reputed mtsuko maker and was proud to demonstrate her skills. Her neighbour, Hawa Shaibu, demonstrated the making of mkhate, a large, wide-mouthed pot used for holding water for bathing.



Arriving at the village.


The two women, using only their hands and the simplest of utensils, converted their lumps of clay into elegant and shapely pots, the whole process taking about fifty minutes.























Adina Asauka - the master Mtsuko maker and her neighbour, Hawa Shaibu


















These are the basic tools the two ladies used

to come up with such beautiful pieces.








The people of the village are proud of their trade. When they are short of cash the men climb onto their bicycles and take the pots to market. During periods of shortage of maize, the men cycle to neighbouring Mozambique where each pot is exchanged for its volume in grain. While in Mozambique the old custom of hospitality is still maintained. In the villages where they trade the traders are accommodated overnight and fed free of charge by the village head.



My new found friends even had time to ask how their faces got into the camera and we all shared smiles.

With the exercise over, we bought a few of the pots from ‘stock’ and thanked our new-found friends for their time and effort.



This is how the final products look.

While plastics are everywhere in modern Malawi it is heartening to find that skills survive and tradition thrives.

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