Malawi: Carved Chairs

Malawians are among the best wood carvers in Africa. Visitors to this small central African country are inevitably captivated by sculpted heads, small dishes and carved village scenes.Malawians are among the best wood carvers in Africa. Visitors to this small central African country are inevitably captivated by sculpted heads, small dishes and carved village scenes. These make great gifts and are easily transported home, but if someone asks you to bring back a carved chair, you may balk at the prospect of excess baggage charges or squeezing it aboard an aircraft. No such fears for the cognoscenti. They know about such things.

They have heard all about Malawi's Chiefs' Chairs.
The precise origin of these chairs is uncertain. Portable chairs are found in various parts of Africa: anyone who has been to Ghana will have come across the chiefs' stools. Until recently, it was not uncommon to see a West African village chief being followed by a man carrying his small stool, probably on his head.

The possession of furniture is still a mark of status in much of poorer Africa. Beds are luxury items and the ground is more often the resting place for the night, with a small head stool as a "pillow". Such items, like the Ghanaian stools, are compact, easily fashioned from wood and eminently portable.

So it is with the decoratively-carved Malawian chiefs' chairs. It is thought they were introduced to the country when the Chewa or Maravi people moved into "the land of the lake" in the 16th century. Then, and for a long time to come, the chairs seem to have been used almost exclusively by chiefs.

The chairs were traditionally made from strong mpingo wood, but other woods are also used today. Each chair consists of just two pieces, which slot into one another. The smaller section is shaped like a paddle with a very short, curved handle. The blade forms the seat, the handle the back "leg". The other piece of wood is much larger and forms the back of the chair (with sides gently curving inwards) and the broad front "leg". The chair is assembled by slotting the seat through a hole in the back piece so that the "paddle handle" rests on the ground, forming an asymmetrical "X". The resulting chair tilts slightly backwards, most commonly prompting two questions from visitors: "is it comfortable?" and even, "can you really sit on it?"

The answer to both these questions is most assuredly "yes". While they often look too diminutive or fragile to support an adult, all but the smallest of chairs will provide a comfortable seat. Of course, there's something of a knack to using the chief's chair to full advantage. The best and most ergonomically correct position is to sit with the feet tucked back under the thighs. As long as the sitter's rear quarters don't greatly overlap the wooden seat, the chair will be as comfortable as anything from IKEA - and even more easily assembled.

The chairs vary in size and in the degree of decorative carving on the backs. As their attraction to visitors became apparent, much larger and more elaborately carved chairs began to be made. Measured by the length of the back section, the sizes now vary from about a metre to monster 1.6m examples, or larger. Visitors can also buy model chairs not intended for use.

Usually only the inner side of the back section is carved (although the carving is sometimes worked through from front to back to create a latticed effect). The outstandingly beautiful designs may depict animals, people, village scenes or plants. Today, most chairs are given a slightly polished surface that enhances the characteristic light and dark colours of the wood.

Chiefs' chairs are readily available from the craft markets and street traders of Blantyre and Lilongwe, but the widest selection comes from a string of small villages along a short section of the M3 road just north of Zomba. Prices are remarkably low - about a fifth of what's charged in an African craft shop in the UK - with a medium-sized chair costing on average £10-20. Having made your purchase there should be no problem in getting it home. The two pieces, disassembled, are almost flat and fit snugly together as a simple parcel which can even be transported as cabin baggage - although perhaps not if it's a metre-plus model.

Author: John Douglas