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Friday, April 10, 2009

Forget Me Not Forget Me Not Forget Me Not Forget Me Not

We spent our last weekend in Zimbabwe touring the Eastern Highlands and visiting family and friends. The scenery as always was spectacular and a much needed tonic for my nostalgia. I took photos of everything I could even though the car was racing at top speed. I wanted to capture every moment including the views, so that when I returned to America I would have something to remind me of home. I photographed images I would have taken for granted in the past such as vendors selling fruits and veggies at a bus stop, curving roads, the mountains, and people going about their business; and of course I continued to scout for artistic talent on the roadside, in small towns, and in the villages.
Approximately 150km away from Harare we drove past a display of toy tractors which I had seen in other parts of the country earlier in the week. I could see that this was the latest wave of crafts in the country. Typically in Zimbabwe once a certain type of craft catches on, others copy and soon the market becomes more or less flooded with the respective craft. All the same, the crafts are well made by amazingly talented individuals.

We stopped the car, reversed a few meters backwards and I hopped out, eager to meet the artist of these colorful toys. The artist turned out to be a young boy named Forget Munhuwepano, aged 17, but looks 14. I explained who I was and asked if I could interview him about his work. He agreed but was a little shy with his answers. I really had to prod him to get information, and this is what I learned:

As mentioned above, Forget is 17 years old and he dropped out of school in seventh grade. He did nothing with his life until about a year ago when his uncle began to teach him how to make these toy cars. He uses Jacaranda wood, used tyres, recycled rubber, wire, scrap metal and oil paint to build his toys. The wheels for example are circular wood shapes covered with a strip of recycled tyre. Each toy tractor sells for anywhere from $10 to $30. The tractors have long wire handles with a steering wheel to control it when it is moving.
He said business was OK although he finds he has to bargain a lot with his buyers who think his prices are too high. We encouraged him to put himself through school. The last time we checked public high schools in Zimbabwe cost $80 a term/semester, and if he could work it out, he could sell toys during school holidays/vacation and go to school during term time. I call his tractors "toys" but they would work well as an artistic display in a home or office setting. You'll notice that Forget has named his pieces after real brands like John Deere and Massey which is probably a violation of copyright laws. Unfortunately someone like Forget has no knowledge of this. Wouldn't it be great if these big companies would order them as marketing gimmicks with a social benefit, rather than threaten to take legal action (as I have seen against wire artisans who make wire Volkswagens)?
Unfortunately time was not on our side, so while we made assumptions that he would be able to put himself through school we really didn't get a chance to ask him about his personal circumstances, and he wasn't very forthcoming with information about himself. It was nice to talk to him anyway. We didn't purchase a toy but we did leave him a donation to purchase more materials like oil paint which he said was very expensive. I've learned the hard way - in the past I would buy at least 2 or 3 samples of artists products and ended up with too much inventory. Now I let my readers decide if the product is good - thumbs up or thumbs down? Let me know!

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