Mbayani, like many Malawi ghettos, is a crucible of activities. Hammers hitting nails onto wood to bring out sofa sets, beds, dining sets and, well, coffins. The rattling welding machines shape door and window frames, wheelbarrows, pots and even metal buckets.
All that while, some are shouting on top of their voices to woo customers to kaunjika shoes and clothes. Also on raised and mostly hoarse voices, touts invite travellers to minibuses.
A din of activity.
Near the Mbayani bus stop, you can get that common welding noise. The high pitched chirping noise, then the occasional clang of a hammer onto metal as the product gets into shape. It is neither a bed nor wheelbarrow. It is a work of art.
From scrap metal, the artist is bringing out interesting works of art. That Friday afternoon, on display were a life-size impression of a frog band. One frog in the set is at the piano, another with a trumpet and another with a violin. Yet another is on the microphone. A complete and weird band.
Close by, there is a chair being cut from an empty oil drum. If you ask the artist of any other artworks, he will bring you a colossal map of Africa made from car spares, abandoned hoes and shovels. The dominant items, however, are bicycle spare parts: hubs, crank arms, chain rings, rims and spokes.
Welcome to the world of Samuel Ndalema.
At 35, Ndalema is one of the few metal artists in the country. He turns scrap metal into chairs, garden birds, fish and other works that defy your imagination. The works find their way into Kwa Haraba Art Gallery in Blantyre and the Mulanje Arts and Crafts, a gallery at Chitakale in the tea-growing district.
Mulanje Arts and Crafts owner Sam Matandala, like others discovered the artist as he plied his trade by the roadside at Mbayani.
“It’s been some two or three years and I was scouting for artists for my gallery then I saw the frog band set by the roadside and I went to inquire further from the artist,” says Matandala.
Ndalema, he reckons, is a unique artist who turns scrap metal into impressive works of art. “Some of my customers are simply amazed these are works by a Malawian. They think the works are from Zimbabwe or South Africa. From useless metal, he is apt to make a killing,” says Matandala.
Another art enthusiast, who has been swept with Ndalema’s metal art is Jacaranda School founder Marie da Silva. For her, it was a map of Africa from bicycle parts and other scrap metals that left an impression.
“This is no ordinary work. It deserves support,” she observes.
But who is this dazzling artist?
Make no mistakes, for starters, he had no formal art education.
Being the last born in a family of six, Ndalema went to HHI and Mbayani primary schools. Then, he went to Mulunguzi Secondary School. In 2004 he enrolled into a general fitting course at Ekom Youth Workshop, but dropped out two years later.
Then, he started going about garages learning welding. Having attained some skills, he went to South Africa where he worked at a welding workshop.On his return to Malawi with a welding machine and some tools to do his stuff.
“The metal art idea wasn’t there initially. I was fixing minibus chairs or whatever welding work was needed for cars. Then, consequently, someone used to bring animals for me to help out welding. Then, he stopped coming but customers were still there. So, I decided to try it out and, here we are,” says the father of three.
The artist, who hails from T/A Makwangwala’s area, says people sometimes pay only half the price in spite of getting the artwork.
“It pains. But then, I find satisfaction because my work is a small contribution to recycle waste and avoid environmental degradation. In future, I want to have a bigger space to sell my works and also train some youths in this while employing others,” says Ndalema.
As you walk off the roadside workshop, the din comes back to your head. Harmers hit nails to produce coffins, sofa sets and chairs. In the distant, a maize mill is at work and just close by, you feel the scent of pork sizzling from a nearby foodstall. There is creative art from the little shacks of Mbayani.