Wednesday 23 December 2015

Palombe: in memory of a remarkable man

The headman, if not up in the hills farming, is to be found sitting in the shade of his veranda, with a bible cradled in his hands. Now there is no sign of him,  just a door shut to the rain.

Palombe Blues
A wiry, mature man with a shaved head strolls down the beach towards me. He has an air of confidence indicating authority. He is barefoot and dressed in slightly ragged white trousers, and a yellow shirt with sleeves rolled up to the elbows.

“How are you, I am Palombe, the head man of the village.”

He speaks slowly, pronouncing each word clearly and deliberately, as if they are of special significance. He questions me, asking where I come from, where I have travelled, where I am going after Ruarwe. As we talk his handshake changes rhythmically over and back, from a full grip with thumbs interlocking, to a usual Western grip. He seems to be assessing, gently weighing me. For a few moments time stops, and the bustle and chatter of people melt into silence, bright colours blur and soften, the sun loses its burning heat, and everything fades, becomes muted and distant, except Palombe’s gentle hand clasping mine, and the sympathetic, warm fatherly tone of his voice.

We walk up the beach to his house; a modest, mud-brick building with a small ornamental front garden, the entrance of which is marked by an archway made of sticks interwoven by a creeper. The doorway is shaded by the overhanging grass roof. He disappears inside and returns with a chair and offers it to me. He then calls a young boy, who happens to be nearby and gives him some instructions, at which the boy runs off to return a few minutes later with another chair.

“This is my house. I know it’s not much” he says, and smiles politely, but also with relish at having an unexpected guest.

“I live here with my wife. Come, sit down you must be tired. I’ll ask my wife to make some tea.”

“Thank you, that would be nice,” I say.

“That would be nice, “ he echoes after me.

Under the shade of the grass roof the air is cool, and there is a stillness that seems to spread out into the surrounding village like a magic carpet.

“Would you like to come in and have a look around,” he says, and ushers me in, lifting his hand up to my head to stop me from banging it on the low doorway. The narrow passage is dark and claustrophobic after the brilliant sunlight. There are two small rooms with simple wooden beds, and a larger room with white washed walls that give a comparative sense of spaciousness. It has a table, but no chairs. At the back of the house, facing out to the Lake is a small yard partitioned by grass screens. Part of the area is roofed and has a fireplace for cooking.

Palombe’s wife brings a tray, with cups and a white ceramic teapot, and places them on the table. As she does this Palombe’s eyes guide my attention towards her and, with a gesture of his hand, intoning each word with the reverence of a prayer, he says:

“This is my wife. Her name is Rebecca”.

Rebecca smiles. She is Zimbabwean, with light skin and delicate features of the people from Mutare region. She makes a small curtsey and holds out her hand for me to shake. Palombe brings in the two chairs from outside and we sit down. He pours the tea and offers me sugar. When I decline, with a look of astonishment he says: “Tea without sugar,” then proceeds to pile five or six spoonfuls into his cup.

Thursday 17 December 2015

The village tailor with a smile in his eyes

Sitting on his porch getting drunk, the village tailor has a question written in his smile: What is that mzungu doing out in the pouring rain?
Bea Beans, 2009
Bea Beans is the Village tailor and proud owner of a Singer sewing machine. It was given to him while he was attending a one year course in sewing and tailoring at the Magomero Centre in Blantyre. Unfortunately he wasn’t given anything else, except a tape measure in the way of materials or support, which made it very hard for him to get started up in business. As a result of contracting polio at the age of 7, Bea is lame and has never been able to attend school. After leaving Blantyre, he returned to his home in the small village of Khomora, tucked away in the hills above Ruarwe. Unable to find any business there, he moved down to Ruarwe in 2003 and rented four rooms in the house at the heart of the village, where he now lives. 
As well as doing alterations and repairs, Bea makes clothes for women, though sometimes he gets big orders to makes suits for festivals and weddings. Most of his business comes from Ruarwe and the surrounding villages. Being unable to travel to get material, thread and buttons, he has to send someone all the way to Lilongwe, where the shops sell cheap goods imported from China.
Bea's father is head man at Khomora, and an excellent farmer, growing cassava as a cash crop. Of his three brothers and two sisters, Bea was the only one to get polio. When he showed the first signs of sickness, he was taken to hospital in Blantyre, returning home to Khomora six months later, permanently paralysed from the hips down.
Because he was unable to travel to find a wife from outside the village, as is the custom to prevent inbreeding, Bea had his eye on a certain local girl, the beautiful Stella. They became boy and girlfriend, and one day Bea summoned up the courage to ask for her hand in marriage, and she accepted, because she had fallen in love with him. He had told her that if her parents didn’t agree to the marriage, he would leave her to find another husband, but fortunately they gave their consent. All this happened years before my time at Ruarwe, but that was one wedding I’m sorry I missed. Like many African women, Stella is an excellent farmer, and during the time when Bea was struggling to get his business started, she was able to support him.
In 2003 their first child, a girl was born at home, and being premature died three months later. After a year Stella was pregnant again and gave birth to a son called Joshua, followed by a daughter called Wisegirl. As well as two children and a beautiful wife, Bea has his smiling eyes.
He says:” God has been good to me by giving me two children that can walk, and I know that in the future my children will change my life. Business is going well, but my plans are hindered by shortage of money to expand my business and build my own house, so there is somewhere for my children to live when I’m gone. I am happy here in Ruarwe, because I have many friends and people are good to me.”

"Palombe" Portrait of an African Chief

portrait of an african chief
"Palombe" oil on canvas 46 x 35.5 cm
Palombe was the first person I met, when I arrived in Ruarwe, Malawi, East Central Africa, on my first visit in January 2006. I soon learned that he was “Head Man” of the Village, and lived in a small, mud-brick, grass roofed house on the beach. I photographed and drew him on a number of occasions, and once again his portrait was the first one I made in Ruarwe.

He seemed not only to embody the Village, but the land and animals that once roamed there. From our first meeting he struck me as a man of an ancient type of nobility that  knows how to bare hardship with dignity.

Palombe was the first subject from Ruarwe that I developed into a painting, because it offered the possibility of making a portrait that represented something of what I had discovered in my travels and reading about Africa.