Art, Games and Pastimes
African children are very resourceful and will make things to play
You regularly see a young boy walking down the road pushing a car
or van made entirely out of wire (see photo above).
These cars have wheels made out of wood or metal (for example the
lids from shoe polish tins) and are mounted on shafts that enable
the wheels to rotate. He steers the vehicle with a length of wire,
the top of which is bent to the shape of a steering wheel. Some
boys cut up cans and cover the car with metal plating giving it a
more 3d appearance.
Smaller boys roll along a bicycle or car tyre and use a stick to
keep the tyre steady. Much like the European children used to do in
the Victorian days.
Adults play a game
called Mancala, which is a board game for two or more players.
Mancala is played all over Africa and when a board is not
available, the game board is marked out in the sand.
The game consists of two rows of shallow holes, and the playing
piece are usually pebbles, although seeds, beans, cowrie shells,
pulses, or buttons are used.
I'm not sure how the game is played and apparently the rules vary
according to the region, but the object of the game is to win all
the opponent's pieces.
with bottletops and a cardboard box
Another favourite is the guitar made from a Castrol oil can. The
sound it makes is very tinny (excuse the pun). But it functions as
a proper guitar.
David Kramer and other South African guitar players have latched on
to the idea and have produced an up todate version which they have
called the Afri-Can (see photos below).
African stories and legends are punctuated by musical choruses in
which the audience participates, and social events such as
weddings, funerals and religious ceremonies, harvests and births
are each accompanied by unique songs.
Traditional musical instruments are fashioned from natural
materials on hand, and produce an array of effects.
Probably the best known is the marimba, a wooden xylophone from
Zimbabwe which creates tones similar to those in western music and
is often used for pieces with strong European influences. The keys
of the marimbas are made from the hardwood of the mwenjetree of
northern Mozambiquewhich produces optimum resonance. Sound boxes
are normally made of dried gourds.
The mbira, or thumb
piano, also comes from Zimbabwe. It consists of 22-24 narrow iron
keys mounted in rows on a wooden sound board.
The international rise of mbira began to gather steam after the
1976 publication of Paul Berliner's landmark book The Soul of Mbira
(University of Chicago Press), although it's worth pointing out
that ten years earlier, a stage show called Wait aMinim played at
the John Golden Theatre in London, featuring mbira music arranged
and directed by Andrew Tracey, son of the legendary South African
field recordist Hugh Tracey.
For centuries, mbira music's main function was not entertainment,
but rather a way to contact the spirit world in all-night bira
ceremonies. The songs and sound of mbira attracted the ancestor
spirits, who provided advice and council by way of a spirit medium.
The traditional repertoire of ceremonial mbira music consists of
hundreds of pieces, some of which are thought to be more than 700
years old. An accomplished mbira player is known as a
Percussion instruments include an array of rattles and drums.
Rattles can be made of seeds, gourds, and at the advent of European
influence, from bottle caps.
Hosho (maracas) rattles and held in the hands while magagada,
majaka, madare (bells) and Ndebele mahlwayi rattles are attached to
the legs and ankles of dancers.
The ngomaa tapered cylindrical drum made from the mutiti, or 'lucky
bean' tree comes in all sizes. Although the standard skin-covering
these days is cowhide, the optimum skins are considered to be zebra
and leguaan (a water loving lizard).
To achieve maximum resonance, drums are treated with beeswax and
dried over a flame before a performance.
Drums play a leading role in all African music. In Zambia the Lozi
tribe have three royal war drums, each over a metre wide and said
to be at least 170 years old which are played at a ceremony called
the Nalikwanda when the Lozi king, the Litunga, moves from his dry
season palace to his wet season palace. The drums are named
Kanaona, Kunanga and Mundili.
Probably the oddest percussion instrument ever used in Zimbabwe was
the mujejeje, the 'stone bells'. Many stones in granite kopjes
around the country have exfoliated in such a way that when struck,
they will resound with a lovely bell-like tone.
Historically, special occasions were held around these stones in
order to take advantage of this novel musical opportunity. The most
famous of these bells can be seen today at the Khami Ruins near
Bulawayo in Zimbabwe.
The woodwind group is represented by several types of flutes,
including pan pipes and the nyanga, or horn which is fashioned from
the horn of an animal.
Although traditional string instruments, mostly bow shaped like the
Shangaan makweyana, have been used historically, they are rarely
played these days.
AFRI-CAN "Township" Electric and "David Kramer Blik" Artist
10" Radius Indian Rosewood, Aluminum Re-Enforced Neck
25" PRS Scale Fretboard
Indian Rosewood Headstock.
Covered Chromed Machine Heads
Fully Adjustable Intonation Bridge
D Addario 9 - 42 Gauge Strings
Single Coil Noiseless Pickup
Bottle Top Volume and Tone Controls
21 Nickel Siver Frets
lute, or Kora, is one of the most beautiful of all African
instruments and typical of the Mali region. A gourd, cut in half
and covered with cow skin, is used as a resonator. The musician
rests the gourd against his hody and plucks the strings with his
thumbs and forefingers.
The "string along" is a musical bow from the Cameroons and is
simply a wooden stick across which strings have been tightly
stretched. The stretched strings are bowed, plucked, struck, or hit
with a bow, which is usually a flexible piece of wood with a piece
of string attached to both ends. Hollowed out gourds amplify the
very soft sounds made by the strings. A musician can coax a whole
range of sounds from the bow by holding it at different angles to
Xhosa Uhadi Bow
A side-blown trumpet is played by the Mdi people of Uganda. Usually
made from wood or animal horn, trumpets such as these have many
uses. They are used to convey messages and signals from village to
village, as well as being played simply for the fun of listening to
Music is everywhere in Africa and the voices of the African people
are particularly harmonious, often needing no musical
People may sing to break the monotony of the working day, or a song
may be used to give energy and power to the person to carry out the
task in hand.
Mothers sings lullabyes to their babies, and farmers may sing a
song during hoeing and sowing.
Some music, such as that of warrior groups, or beer drinking and
hunting songs, can only be performed by men.
Other music is sacred to women only, and might be played during
rites of passage into adulthood, or during childbirth.
In rural areas, herders and hunters scattered over vast distances
signal each other by blowing coded musical messages into a flute,
or by whistling.
Zulu beadwork takes many forms and is worth looking out for - from
the small square umgexo, to the more elaborate umbelenja which is a
short skirt or tasselled belt worn by women at puberty, but before
marriage. Bead anklets, amadavathi, are worn by men and women.
Objects are also covered in beadwork.
As in many other societies, beads were used for both decoration and
as symbols to define status, but the Zulu people have also
traditionally used them as a means of communicating messages, and
especially as love letters.
The colours and the arrangement of the beads give the message.
Some of the colours and their meanings are -
Red = passion or anger
Black = difficulties or night
Blue = yearning
Deep blue = elopement
White or pale blue = pure love
Brown = disgust or despondency
Green = peace or bliss
The more subtle meanings of the beads have been largely forgotten
and there were always ambiguities. For example a "letter?"
predominantly red and black could be promising a night of passion,
or it could mean that the sender was annoyed.
Some bead sculptors make social and political comment in their
work, often weaving elaborate tableaux; the most famous was the
late Sizakele Mchunu.
The best displays of Zulu beadwork can be found in the Durban Art
Gallery and the KwaZulu Cultural Museum in Ondini.
My parents admired much of the arts and crafts of the tribes people
of Africa, and bought several articles carved from wood. I still
have them today. Amongst the articles that they bought were two
elephant tables made by the Lozi tribe in Zambia. They are similar
to the one above. Though I believe they are meant to be stools.
Also from Zambia or Zimbabwe they bought some carved antelope, a
bird, and a crocodile; and also an African carved head. The
workmanship is excellent.
I also have two paintings by local artists - an African village
scene by Kabuya, and a view of Victoria Falls by Mota. The Mota I
actually bought in England from a lady who had been out there.
I have glass elephants and hippo from Ngwenya Glass Works in
Swaziland, a small Zulu tribal shield (also found in England), a
small rattle drum made from animal hide, various things made from
copper which have come from both Zambia and Swaziland, Zulu and
Swazi beadwork, and jewellery made with semi-precious stones, such
as tigers eye, malachite, rose quartz, amethyst, and agates.
When we lived in Swaziland, we also made use of the baskets and
mats and wooden bowls that they made.
When you are surrounded by these arts and crafts you take them for
granted and they are not expensive to buy. For example, the
glasswork from Ngwenya Glass Works costs about £2.50 a piece - but
one of the shops in England who have acquired them from
representatives from the country are selling each piece for nearly
£30. And the Lozi tables and large pieces of wooden African
carvings would set you back in excess of £200.
Ndebele and Basotho House
Carved Ostrich Egg
by artist Nairi
Safaryan from Armenia
are used as water or milk storage jars by a number of tribes in
Africa, in particular the Khoisan in the Kalahari Desert, who bury
the filled egg-shells to use in times of drought. Each shell can
contain 1 litre of water.
The shells are prepared by the women and it takes them about an
hour to prepare the shell for use as a water bottle. Once the shell
has been drilled at the top to a diameter of 13-20cm, the contents
are shaken out (and eaten) and the inside of the shell cleaned and
deodorised with aromatic herbs.
The shells are quite thick and do not break easily so they can be
in use for a number of years. Designs are occasionally etched
on to the shell to show ownership.
Nowadays the decorating of ostrich egg-shells has spread world
wide and you can buy these articles anywhere in southern Africa, at
street markets or in curio shops. Some are painted by local African
artists and some are painted by European artists. And the Ndebele
and the Zulu cover the shells in a myriard of coloured
Many that you can buy abroad are painted by an artist from
within that country. Artists nowadays have also taken up the
hobby of carving intricate designs on the shell and also
piercing the egg shells as in the above example by Nairi
Safaryan from Armenia.