James Ncube is a very talented wood carver in Matobo District, perhaps one of the best. He has been carving for more than 20years and sells his wares at Ejikweni Craft Centre at Matobo National Park. His pieces are resplendent and evoke a feeling of nostalgia to one who has been to Zimbabwe or any ordinary Zimbabwean. He carves traditional African pieces such as the big five and platters decorated with same.
His hands are rugged, they have seen many ears, and so have his tools. He smiles exuberantly as we approach him. His smile slowly vanishes as we let him know that were are here for a research, and not sales.
“I haven’t made a sale in 3 months, things are really hard nowadays,” says Mr Ncube. “Long back we used to make a good living from this trade, but now there are no tourists coming our way. We have lost out on a lot of revenue. Even the few tourists who pass through here do not stop by our craft shop to buy”.
Mr. Ncube’s sentiments are shared by his colleagues at the Craft Centre. With a membership of 83 craft persons, we found less than 30 at the Centre. Centre members said others had stopped coming due to lack of sales being realized. Some of the members travel more than 24 kilometers on foot to get to the Centre. Some pay US$2-00 for transport daily yet make no profits. Furthermore, they rent the space at the Matobo National Park for $30 per head per annum. It is clear that they are making a loss.
The environment at which they are operating is also not conducive for 83 people. There are no ablution facilities at the Centre. There is also no access to water. There is no sign as one approaches the park that there is a craft centre ahead. Asked whether they knew any laws pertaining to their art work, the members of EJikweni said they only knew about the Environmental Management Act(EMA) as officials from EMA frequently visit them to talk about environmental management. They have not met any person from the Ministry responsible for the arts nor do they have knowledge about any arts promotion laws that work in their favour. They are in the dark concerning the Ministry responsible for the arts and its role in promoting arts and culture in the country.
The immediate question then becomes: how can markets be unlocked for the local artists by the government departments that relate with them?
Head of the Matopos National Park, Mrs. Musakwa said there is only very little that they could do as parks to assist the members of the craft centre to make more sales. She suggests that they could make more money if they become more innovative.
“We have the centre running this as part of our community relations efforts,” said Mrs. Musakwa. “We try to advise them to improve their crafts and be innovative so that their products become more attractive. Some of them have been carving the big five for many years and they are not offering anything new.”
As we got to other craft centres and met more craft persons in Matobo, Beitbridge, Mzingwane and Mangwe, it became apparent that Mrs. Musakwa was right. Although rural craft persons display much craftsmanship and skill and produce beautiful artifacts, they have stuck to the traditional designs and materials. This may be good as a preservation of culture; it is a shot in the foot as most purchases are increasingly being made for aesthetic value not the cultural sentiment.
Another reason from the lack of incomes has been the dependency of the sector on tourism. Tourists from abroad were for many years the main market for the goods but now that tourism collapsed and is being resuscitated, local craft persons have to focus more on the local market. This brings us to the issue of pricing.