Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Meet Mamadou

One of the things I like most about my role in the Peace Corps is the variety of work I get to do.  On any given day, I may be teaching a Business class to high school students, ripping paper with little kids to make paper briquettes, collaborating with other volunteers on gender and development issues, talking with farmers about new water pump technology, or helping an artisan market his goods—and that’s the short list!   Recently, I traveled to Saint Louis, the former French colonial capital of West Africa, to attend an Artisan Exhibition with one of my artisans.

Dakar Artisan Expo, Dec '10
Saint Louis Artisan Expo, Jun '11

Mamadou Dioum is a woodworker I met when I first arrived in Diourbel.  The two volunteers before me both worked with him, so I basically inherited this partnership.  Mamadou learned to work with wood from his father at the age of 8, as did his brothers and cousins.  Wood carving has been in their family for generations and there continue to be young apprentices hanging around their workshop.  This is a family that takes pride in what they do.  Mamadou is in his late twenties and is trying to move the business forward.  If you come to Senegal, you’ll see many similar wood artisans selling their products along the streets of Dakar, but Mamadou is trying to differentiate himself from the others.   He works on new designs for the chairs and tables he creates, spends the time to do quality control, and experiments with new shapes and types of wood to make his bowls and plates more appealing.  His traditional mortars and pestles, tam-tams, and djembes cater to the local market, but he also makes the small statues and masks popular with tourists.

Salad Bowl
Djembes and Tam-Tam
A cousin at work
Mamadou's newest design
Chairs, tables, and fruit bowls
The next generation

I think my host dad, Ibou, cringes every time I leave the compound to work with Mamadou because, by definition, woodworkers are contributing to the deforestation problems that plague this country.  At the same time, however, he understands the importance of promoting traditional arts, and this is certainly one of them.   Each piece of wood is maximized to make the most of it and the wood chips they create are gathered daily by neighborhood women who carry them away in buckets on their heads to use for cooking.

Makes interlocking legs
One piece of wood
Watching Mamabou or one of his cousins carve a criss-crossing interlocking set of table legs out of one piece of wood is truly amazing, especially with the size of the tools they use.  I am continually amazed at the precision they can get wielding large adzes and the detailed finishing they can do with chisels that are old and  falling apart.

Although his work is beautiful, Mamadou has a hard time making a profit.  Like most small business owners in Senegal, his personal finances and business finances are merged so money coming into the business is usually spent the same day on keeping the household afloat.  In fact, hoarding (or saving) money is considered to be unsocial.  According to David Maranz, who wrote African Friends and Money Matters, a book which we were required to read as part of our training, “it is a general rule that people expect that money and commodities will be used or spent as soon as they are available.  If the possessor does not have immediate need to spend or use a resource, relatives and friends certainly do.”  This is challenging for me as a Small Enterprise Development Agent and also as a community member.  I often find myself in the position of loaning Mamadou money so that he can finish a commissioned job for someone I know.  This has become increasingly frustrating for me as it’s become more commonplace.  At least in this scenario, I know I’ll get the money back when my friend pays for the piece because they can pay me directly and give Mamadou the remainder.  It's not exactly a sustainable practice, though, and I know that. All of my efforts to talk Mamadou into saving some of the money he earns from one sale to invest in the next one have been for naught.   Fortunately, I have some back up assistance with this.   My friend Alyssa, who is a volunteer in Thiès, worked on creating a Peace Corps Artisan Réseau (Network) as part of her service.  Mamadou is now a member of this group.  The artisans who work with volunteers meet regularly and pay monthly dues that go towards transportation and table fees at exhibitions.  One of the Peace Corps technical trainers conducts training seminars in their local language to assist them with managing their businesses and we have a volunteer who works with the West African Trade Hub to help those who are interested in exporting their goods.  The volunteers who work with the artisans reinforce that training at site. It’s a slow process, but we’re headed in the right direction. 
An Artisan Reseau Training Seminar (Dakar)
Alyssa leading an Artisan Reseau meeting (Thies)

In my office, reviewing photos

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