CARVING is what Mathias Nampoka of Coast Region, Tanzania, East Africa, does and knows best. Therefore, it is from this art-form that he has to get his living. There was a time he had tried something else but that did not work out. On completing his primary education, he chose to go and learn motor vehicle mechanics, as an apprentice.


Mathias looks through some photographs of his older pieces, which have been sold.


However, the dreadful living conditions were too difficult to overcome so he opted to return home. Although this arrangement is a long way from ideal for him, the 35-year-old Sculptor is pleased he made that move then and returned to what he knows best; carving. 

People who know his father’s style say there is a similarity in their work. His grandfather, who lives on their farm 12 miles away, has never carved. This is a line that his father started and only he, Mathias, out of 12 siblings has picked it up.


Mathias pays a visit to his parents’ grave with his children.

The graves of his parents, Everist and Martina Nampoka, are just a few metres away from the actual run-down stick and mud building Mathias lives in with his family. He chooses to have them there because he feels good this way. “It’s like having them closers to me,” he says.

In line with his tradition it is important parents are remembered. Now if they were buried in some communal grave, some distant away this becomes much more difficult. There is also the factor of a section of the cemetery being taken up for a road, building or other development project.


Sculptor Mathias Nampoka of Coast Region, Tanzania, East Africa gets down to work.

Having a wife, three children and other dependants to cater for, means Mathias has often to sell his carvings for only a fraction of their value. Too often he has to spend a week working on an item, only to sell it for one day’s pay. This is quite unsatisfactory but a reality all the same.

He maintains: “Obviously, I want a better life for myself and family but unfortunately have an unfair market to sell my artworks in. If only this was paying and I got a better return for my efforts then I would be further encouraged to bring out even better works.”

“Just think how this would boost up my incentive to continue carving. However, the opposite is usually the situation, which does not provide a fitting environment to produce my best works. It becomes very difficult for an artist to relax in the way he or she should to produce quality works,” he adds.

Had this been the case Mathias, who comes from the Makonde ethnic group, would produce art that even his father never thought of. He can work on a piece of carving for a week then take it to town looking for a buyer. On most occasions he would be given a string of reasons by the buyer why he can only pay an amount, which is a lot less than the piece is worth.

However, in the end, he usually has to agree and take the price they are offering. He has nothing in his pocket and has to provide for his family somehow. He has learnt the hard way that no matter how little it is “a little is better than nothing”.

While talking Mathias tries hiding the embarrassment he feels but its all in vain. His father passed away in 2000, when things was a little better than today but not as good in comparisons to earlier times. Well, at least the two had much time sharing the same working and living space daily.

This meant they had time to converse on various issues of life. One topic of conversation Mathias remembers vividly concerns the way it was becoming more difficult for them to get a living out of carving.

According to his father, during his time it was possible for a carver to get a decent living out of his labours. However, he had hope that with the changing pattern of the world, whereby nations were having more physical contact, it might be that his children would experience a more vibrant market.

Therefore, he encouraged his son, Mathias, to learn this art form thoroughly, in preparation for the time when this better situation came. Now its eight years since his father passed away and the young sculptor still remembers these words. He continues to live in hope that one day soon things would improve.

The cassava farm, which his father left him, 12 miles away helps reduce some of that hardship just a little. However, given the unusual pattern of the long rains this year he is expecting a very small harvest.

Had he been making his art just for business he would be able to produce three pieces a week. But this is not Mathias’ style: he makes his pieces to a standard. Therefore, he is able to produce one a week instead. Yet still he would not get the kind of money for it that he should.

A one foot piece of carving, which would take one week to make, should fetch about 100,000/- (100 US dollars) but he would most probably be offered no more than 15,000/- (15 US dollars) for it. Now his fare to and from Dar es Salaam, where the market is uses up 5,000/- (five US dollars), which leaves him with 10,000/- (10 US dollars) to take home instead of 95,000/- (95 US dollars).

This is still better than retuning with the piece unsold, as has been the case on a number of occasions. Then he has no other choice but to borrow because his children have to eat to continue surviving. Yet Mathias lives in hope that one day soon things will be better. Despite all the hard times he is experiencing he still says it would be a good profession for his children to take up.

Author: Iman Mani
Date: 05.07.2008