Sweating it out for a pittance

MUTARE - Zimbabwe's stone sculptors, once the envy of many, are grinding in poverty.

From Chinese wishing to buy their pieces for a pittance to locals with no appreciation for art, sculptors are paying the price of Zimbabwe’s slump as a favoured destination for Western tourists.

Phineas Chidzeya, a veteran sculptor who once enjoyed the good times, has to take extra jobs such as washing haulage trucks to augment the peanuts he makes from his chosen trade.

“I am lucky to make $100 a month,” he tells the Daily News on Sunday from his post along Beira Road in Mutare, a few kilometres from the Forbes Border Post where he competes with 14 equally struggling colleagues. Prices have gone down to as low as $2 for some pieces.

He says the eldest of his five children could not even sit for ‘O’ level examinations last year because he could not raise exam fees.

Today, Chidzeya can barely afford the dollar it takes for him to go home in Chishakwe, 30km out of Mutare.
So he has come up with a plan and goes home at most thrice a week.

Chidzeya’s new best friends are the people who work night shifts as guards at nearby businesses.

“I chat them up until well into the night and they allow me to sleep in the guardroom,” he says.

Chidzeya still has glimmers of hope. A recent order feeds the hope.

He is busy on a piece on the South African rugby team, an order from a fan working in the Marange diamond fields.

“I cannot stop. One day things will work out,” he says.

His colleagues such as David Mabike are less optimistic.

Mabike says the fact that they are still doing odd jobs to make a living tells the story.

“We wash haulage trucks, change tyres, adjust loads and even sell firewood to make ends meet,” he said.

Mabike noted that many of his fellow artists have quit and are now selling second-hand clothes at flea markets in town while others have skipped the border to neighbouring South Africa to work on farms in spite of all the talent and experience they have.

While Western tourists with a fine taste for art have dried, a new form of buyers, the Chinese, is setting in — albeit offering “ridiculously” low prices.

Artwell Mutindori, one of the sculptors, recalls one particular incident.

“Everyone here felt really insulted,” he says.

 A busload of Chinese nationals stopped by and insisted on a dollar for two deals on pieces which take at least eight hours to produce.

“Make plenty small animals and charge dollar, dollar!” Mutindori says mimicking the Chinese buyers, adding that some were even negotiating using the local Shona language.

“I will bring many friends. shamwari dzakawanda,” he quotes one of the Chinese as saying. Insulting as it was, Mutindori had to take the bargain.

“I need every cent,” he explains, adding that locals do not even glance at the pieces. Mozambicans passing through make better customers than locals, he says.

“Mozambicans appreciate art and are the reason we are here. If we were waiting for Zimbabweans we would have all gone home,” he said.

Another sculptor, Isaac Tego, says he is now going beyond producing purely ascetic carvings to appeal to locals.

“I am now producing ash-trays, bird baths and candle stands which people can find use for in everyday life,” he said. - Bernard Chiketo

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