Craftspeople forge their own way out of poverty

Necessity is the mother of invention, they say. And in the St Mary’s area of Harare, our reporter NELSON SIBANDA has been discovering how hardship has led to enterprise and creativity.

Givemore Vheremu (56) and Peter Raphael display some of their handiwork.
Givemore Vheremu (56) and Peter Raphael display some of their handiwork.

The economic suffering faced by Zimbabweans over the past two decades has forced hardworking citizens such as the residents of St Mary’s to be innovative and self-sustaining through arts and craft projects that generate income.

The enterprising residents, ranging from youths to the elderly, have risen to the challenges of a declining economy characterised by closing industries and few opportunities for work. They have created new avenues of employment through art.

Most of them used to make objects in their backyards until the infamous Operation Murambatsvina of 2005 demolished their sources of livelihood.

Murambatsvina destroyed backyard industries and drove thousands of informal traders out of business, while others were forced to relocate.

As others lost hope and went underground, the never-say-die residents of St Mary’s turned the disaster into a stepping stone to greater things, moving their business to St Mary’s Art and Craft Centre in the suburb.

They collectively pay $73 in rent to the local authority for a space to work.

Tapera Jim (46), who was mentored in blacksmithing by Noel Taenga, was among the group of craftspeople specialising in traditional weapon manufacture.

Good earnings

Jim said that, along with Charles Dura (43) and Peter Chahwanda (20), they made various types of traditional weapons and instruments such as bayonets, playing mbira, beating drums, snooker sticks, bows and arrows and shepherd sticks. The craftsmen said they made good earnings out of the trade and could afford to put three decent meals on the family table every day.

“Arts and crafts manufacture is a lucrative venture since our products enjoy permanent demand both locally and around the globe,” said Jim. “Each one of us would manufacture an average 15 items per day and easily realise over $900 in profits at the end of the month.”

Demand for the artefacts is so high that clients place huge orders and collect the items from the centre.

According to Jim, business was brisk in the run-up to the July 31 election, as party candidates vying for elected offices bought the artefacts following the advice of religious and traditional healers.

The politicians, looking for divine and spiritual intervention to win the elections, hoped the artefacts would turn out to be fortune-changing tools.

In the past, products found their way out of the country mainly for the South Africa markets. There, buyers were eager to buy objects that helped them identify with traditional culture. “As of now, there is no good reason for exports since the home market is equally lucrative,” said Dura.

Givemore Vheremu (56) and Peter Raphael (52) specialise in making shepherd and snooker sticks. They said they averaged 200 of each product each month. The sticks, made of saligna tree, sell for $6 each.

They used to make traditional bayonets but changed their trade after the introduction of the Public Order and Security Act, which criminalised the production and sale of lethal weapons. They have been in the business since 1986, originally working from their backyards.

Working capital

“With the high demand for the products, we would appreciate it if government and the local authority provided us with a larger working area and loans to acquire modern equipment,” said Vheremu.

At present they use traditional equipment such as mbezo, hatchets, chisels and saws, as well as furnaces to forge steel for blades. Materials for the industry are scarce, however, as timber sawmills, such as Willgrow of Norton, have either ceased operations or diversified into other areas of business.

Most of the timber, according to the craftsmen, is acquired at auctions as old furniture.


In a slightly different venture, Edward Maranga (63) carves stones into artefacts such as the Zimbabwe bird, fish and other animals. He uses stones such as serpentine, soap and verdite found in Kwekwe, Masvingo and Mutare among other places.

“The market for sculpture work is depressed at the moment as a result of the drop in tourist visits to the country,” complained Maranga, who started carving stone in 1965.

In the past, he said, his products and those of other sculptors found a steady market among tourists from countries such as Germany, Austria, the UK, Canada and Switzerland.

He bemoaned what he described as a rip-off by middlemen who buy his products for resale elsewhere. Regardless, he is doing well from his earnings.

Maranga urged unemployed young people to put their talents and hands to better use through art and craft.

“It is an all-season trade that can turn around the fortunes of young people,” he said.

Elsewhere across the suburb, Elisha Chikazha (28) and Aka Mulla (40) earn a living through wire and bead artefacts. These self-taught craftspeople make items such as bowls, key holders and ornaments. The smallest item fetches an average $2 and a bowl would sell at $15. The products find markets in countries such as South Africa, Netherlands, the UK, Australia and locally.

They ventured into the industry in early 1990s when the economy faltered.

“As much as we realise good returns from our business, we feel the prices for inputs are too prohibitive here compared to other countries,” said Chikazha. A packet of beads which costs $5 in Zimbabwe would cost 20 rand in South Africa. Wire costs them at least $5 a kilo.

The two still make their artefacts in the family’s backyard and were appealing for government assistance to buy premises and to be able to bring larger quanities of materials into the country.

“Given the necessary support, we could train youths in art and craft and help create employment, passing the trade from one generation to the other,” said Chikazha.

Post published in: Analysis

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