Documenting the canoe


Those who have been to the lake have probably seen what is known as the bwato or canoe.

The bwato has, for years, been an important feature for people in Malawi, especially fishermen, who use it on the waters when fishing.

But it is not an easy feat to use the bwato or canoe, as it is known in English, as you have to be experienced enough to paddle.


I remember one time, when I visited Lake Malawi in Nkhata Bay, tormenting one fisherman to give me a ride in his bwato.

I wanted to try it, and see how it feels riding in a bwato which is made of a tree trunk with a dugout.

I got into the bwato but found it difficult and uncomfortable to sit in the small dugout. I ended up jumping into the water.


For me, it was difficult and uncomfortable in the canoe although, for the fisherman, it was easy. He even went on to tell me that he enjoys riding a canoe.

The bwato, or canoe, has been there and it is an important object used by people on Lake Malawi as well as other rivers in the country.

The bwato is an important object used for transportation as well.

It seems that this important element of the canoe has not eluded the eye of versatile United States of America-based visual artist Massa Lemu.

Lemu has teamed up with fellow artist Paul Chimbwanya, photographer Tavwana Chirwa and writer Emmanuel Ngwira on a dugout canoe project.

Lemu has been posting some of the artworks of the project on his Facebook page, attracting interest from people.

Lemu said the project is about so many things but most importantly it is about the dugout canoe (bwato).

“We— I am saying ‘we’ because I am not alone in the project. I am working with another artist by the name of Paul Chimbwanya, a photographer Tavwana Chirwa, and a writer Dr Emmanuel Ngwira— want to show a number of things,” Lemu said.

He also said they were working in collaboration with fishing communities, who help them in acquiring the canoes as well as making the artworks.

“We are celebrating the dugout canoe which is a traditional cultural object made from a tree trunk. We are creating temporary monuments of this object. As it is, the canoe is an object used for fishing but we, as artists, also value its artistic aspects as sculpture carved from wood,” he said.

Lemu said, by making art with it and taking pictures of the art “we have made, we are hoping to highlight these artistic aspects so that our images can draw people’s attention to the canoe”.

“For us, the dugout says more [than the obvious] . Even though the canoe is made out of one tree trunk, when the fishermen repair it they use tin, plastic, tar, blankets, rubber to seal it,” he said.

Lemu said these materials do not only transform the canoe, in terms of beauty, but they also add stories to the body of the canoe.

“We are talking of stories about the changes in time in the society in which the canoe is used. For example, most of the canoes we have seen have been repaired using yellow jerry cans [used] for [storing] vegetable oil from Mozambique,” the artist said.

He added that this speaks about the kind of trade prevalent in this region, observing that one also comes across United States Agency for International Development tin cans on some of the canoes, which reveals something about aid which is an important aspect of our economy.

Lemu said to these stories “we add our own metaphors such as when we cut it we are mimicking the destruction of livelihoods and the ecology which might be brought about if they drill oil in the lake”.

“When we tie it back, we are commenting on the practice of trying to mend things when the damage is already done. Also, the dugout canoe is not going to be here forever, whether they drill oil or not. So we are documenting it for future generations,” he said.

Lemu has gone the extra mile with his art, digging deeper to speak about different stories in society.

Other artists can surely learn from him by grasping the fact that, apart from entertaining, art also has to help bring about change.

Lemu’s artworks are challenging and use interventions, confrontations and descriptions that interrogate the social space that people around the world, live in.

The work is catchy in that you see a person whose face is covered with a mask riding a canoe while dressed in a suit.

Lemu said the figure dressed in a suit is an element that is continuing from an earlier art series he did, satirising the elite, which he called the Patois Bourgeoisies.

According to Lemu, in Marxist terms, the bourgeoisies are the middle or upper classes in a capitalist society.

“So, the man in a suit could be a politician or an official who, in this case, feels they have something important to say about the lake but who are only there to serve their own interests,” Lemu said.

He further said the man in a suit could also be an agent of neocolonialism.

“For example, in one performance we had a man in a suit in nyau mask called Simoni paddling in the lake without a boat. We titled the work ‘Second Coming’ to comment on the scramble for our resources on the continent at the moment,” he said.

And for Lemu, traditionally, the nyau mask called Simoni pokes fun at the white man, and, “so, we are using this mask to symbolise the West coming back for our resources”.

But, in all these artworks, it seems Lemu and team have targeted Lake Malawi, which has been a source of happiness to Malawians by providing, among other things, the best fish such as Chambo until lately when the issue of oil drilling came into the picture.

Lemu said what they are doing is not new in that the lake has inspired artworks— from paintings to photography to novels and films.

He said they were just following others to comment in a new way on the lake’s beauty and its fragility, particularly in the context of oil speculation.

Lemu said they started the project last year in Mangochi at Machemba Village, where, he indicated, they learned so much about fishing with the dugout there.

“This time, we were in Salima at Senga Bay where we learned new things. We are learning about different patterns of fishing which also shape the dugout differently. Also, obviously, there are some slight changes in the materials used for repair in these different parts,” he said.

For now, Lemu said, the project is not complete and that they were hoping that they would discover new things as they go further up north along the lake shore.

“Our main audience are the fishermen and women with whom we have rich conversations about the lake. Most of them have been open- minded while teaching us about fishing,” the US-based artist said.

Lemu said their hope is that the project will become meaningful to Malawians so that it can spark conversations about the issues “we are concerned about such as the histories of the dugout canoe as a valuable cultural object, the lake and the ecosystem and, most importantly, the livelihoods of fishing communities who are threatened by the specter of capitalists’ oil extraction [exercises].”

He said, through the project, they were hoping that our art, which includes sculpture, performance, photography and video, can contribute to the advancement of the creative industry in Malawi to take it beyond the usual forms of art expression— such as painting and batik— in visual arts.

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