The Old Woodcarver

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Every Wednesday, the Old Woodcarver walks to the street corner adjacent to the twice-weekly market in Namaacha and sits down in the shade of a tree. He unrolls a tattered tarp and opens his bag.

He pulls out a handful of wooden spoons and lays them in a pile. Reaching into his bag for more, this time he pulls out a group more ornately decorated. In the next handful the utensils are a smaller size. He repeats this ritual until his tarp is half filled by the three large mounds of spoons, each one uniquely different than the rest.

Then he turns back to his bag, his torso disappearing for a moment as he scrapes the bottom. He emerges with a stack of bowls and sets them, one by one, among the piles of spoons. Beautiful carved hills of black and white and soft cream.

He sits back for a moment, observes his work. He leans forward carefully, gingerly lifting a spoon and turning it over to show his best craftsmanship, slowly rotates a bowl to emphasize its design.

He rests against the trunk of the tree and waits.

His name is Januário and he’s been doing this for over 30 years. The son of tailor, he decided that he did not want to follow in his father’s footsteps and instead taught himself to carve.

As a young man, Januário says he spent countless hours in the bush collecting the specific wood he needed and practicing. Once he was satisfied, he began painting some of his pieces black and decorating them with relief carvings.

Then he started selling them. Well, some of them.

Januário is very specific about which pieces he will part with. Despite having an interested buyer, some bowls, he says, he will not sell because of the small cracks that have begun to form at their mouths. Some spoons cannot go because their curves are not even. In true artist’s fashion, he will explain that he could not accept money for pieces that do not reach his standards. Could not send work that he does not feel good about out into the world.

After a buyer shows interest in a piece, he will pick it up and turn it over in his hands. Examine it slowly until giving it his approval. Then he reaches into a shirt pocket and pulls out a worn piece of sandpaper. He smoothes its curves and edges, explaining the meaning of each piece until the wood turns to silk. He explains the Bantu lineages of his carvings and the thousand-year journey they have taken to arrive on his ragged tarp beneath this shade tree in Namaacha.

I love meeting makers and kindred spirits.

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