Buffalo bone, wood and scrap metal are the materials of choice for Zimbabwean Percy Ngwenya. In his skillful hands, trees, animal skeletons and soft drink cans are hammered and shaped into necklaces, bangles and even statues.
“From death comes life,” the 28-year-old whispers, pointing at carvings collected on tables in his store in Johannesburg’s city center.
“(I use) different types of wood. This is a cheetah. It’s from Zimbabwe. It’s ironwood,” he proclaims proudly.
Ngwenya decorates some of his creations with multicolored semi-precious stones.
“My sister mines them in Zimbabwe,” he explains, surrounded by his goods, which form prisms of amber, turquoise, yellowed ivory and tomato red, even in the gloom created by the awning that shields them from the bright sun.
“I do (a) lot of carving stuff, handmade stuff, different types of curios from elephants (ivory), (carvings of) heads; (I make) bracelets, jewelry, hippos – (all types of) animals, giraffes, also masks,” he explains.
Wooden images of men in buttercup yellow and sky blue suits loom over Ngwenya’s head.
He tries to interest a group of passers-by in some bowls bearing intricate patterns.
“Bowls. Handmade, painted,” he says, as the potential buyers slip like snakes into the steady stream of people rushing by.
A frown clouds Ngwenya’s previously bright and friendly face. “Here, the rich ladies use my bowls to put salad in. In Zimbabwe, the people would use them to beg,” he says.
The young man’s confidence, optimism and enthusiasm are moderated by a sadness that chills his spirit.
‘I was a bad boy’
“They come to me in dreams,” Ngwenya replies, when asked where he gets ideas for new products.
“My work is to change traditional things into something different,” he adds. “I will carve a leopard or a person so that it looks very different from a real leopard or person – but people will still see it’s a leopard or a person, just a very different image.”
Ngwenya reaches towards the wooden statues, painted in bright uniforms.
“You see these carvings, of businessmen and lawyers and policemen -- people sell them all over Africa. But mine are special because I make mine very tall and thin.”
He’s adamant that “people want stuff that’s different. Like these metal radios that I have made from the cans of coca cola.”
Ngwenya says he’s been in business since he could walk. “I grew up in an old location called Magwegwe, in Bulawayo (Zimbabwe). I grew up selling cigarettes, some loose cigarettes (for) smoking.”
He can’t resist mocking himself, adding, “I gave people cancer; I was a bad boy.”
Seven years ago, the “bad boy” moved to South Africa.
“First I worked for another Zimbabwean lady. Then, I started my own business. I’m good in sales,” Ngwenya says.
Throngs of people from all over Africa have been pouring into South Africa in search of livelihoods ever since the early 1990s, when the country began democratizing.
“Everything I make in South Africa, I make in the name of my father and mother,” he says. “My mom and dad are still in Zimbabwe. But (I) just come here to work for them, so we can send some food (to) that side, so that they can survive.”
As much as he’d like to return to Zimbabwe, he says it’s impossible for him to do so at this stage.
“In Zimbabwe, who would I sell to? The economy there is ruined. No one there has money. Do you know of any tourists there?” he asks.
‘They burned my brother alive’
Ngwenya says he’ll always be grateful to South Africa for allowing him the opportunity to earn money for himself and his family but also says he feels “very uncomfortable” in the country.
“You can’t be happy to just leave your country and come this side, because you leave your parents that side and then you just come this side. That thing is very painful,” he says .
Ngwenya laughs uncomfortably when asked for his opinions about South Africans, especially in light of last year’s attacks on foreign residents and continuing simmering tension in certain areas.
“Yahhhhh…. That one, I can’t say much!” he exclaims.
But Ngwenya eventually says some South Africans “are not nice people…. Some of them, it depends where you go; it depends where you are. But we don’t care about that, you see; we are all Africans. Some (South Africans) – they understand. Some – they don’t understand,” he says.
Ngwenya says he survived the first outbreak of violence by hiding in his room in Hillbrow in central Johannesburg. But, “after a few days,” he ventured into the city’s Alexandra township “to make sure a friend was safe.” It was a risk that could easily have cost him his life.
“It was bad – very, very bad. It was very painful (when I saw) my brother there, they burned him alive. It was terrible,” he recalls, fingering some beads in his hand.
‘The secret to selling is laughter’
But Ngwenya says “good things also happen in Johannesburg.” A year ago, he and his fellow traders were selling on the streets. Now, they’re under cover in a warehouse, courtesy of the municipality, and tour companies sometimes bring visitors to the market.
“We’re happy about that, because when we used to sell on the street, rain comes and then we have to run and close (the market). But now, everything is nice. We even have credit card facilities and security. Everything’s good,” he smiles.
Sometimes, though, the rudeness of some tourists “disappoints” him. “I don’t know what it is with them. Maybe I do not understand them good enough,” Ngwenya says.
But he continues, “I can’t go and get angry about that. It’s a public market; anyone can come and talk what he wants to talk (here)…. You can’t get angry (at) them. (When they insult us) we just say, ‘Okay, fine; bye!” Simple, you know.”
One advantage to working in the market, Ngwenya maintains, is that he’s learned several foreign languages -- a skill he’s convinced will guarantee him a better future.
“I can speak Spanish, and sometimes (the Spanish tourists) laugh at me and say, ‘Oh, you can speak Spanish!’ I also say (to French tourists) ‘Oh, parlez Francais!’ Those kinds of things. I make them happy, selling to them, telling them some stories; they get interested; they laugh.”
Ngwenya’s main sales weapon is humor. “The secret to selling is to make people laugh!” he exclaims, and then he adds with a mischievous glint in his deep brown eyes, “It’s the same with women – if you can make them laugh, they are yours.”
But a yearning for a brighter past buried in a failed homeland and a happier future that always seems out of reach is never far from the young Zimbabwean’s thoughts.
“I would die like a cockroach here if it wasn’t for the support of other African exiles,” he comments.
“Us foreigners, we don’t have that attitude, that ‘this culture is this culture.’ We are forced to unite in order to survive. We foreigners are now just Africans. It’s us on one side, and the South Africans on the other,” he says.
‘It’s like playing cards…’
Ngwenya’s face beams with hope when he speaks about his future.
“I will go back to a Zimbabwe where things are good and (President Robert) Mugabe is vanished. I will own a big company to sell curios, and I will go overseas a lot, doing this African trading – showing people overseas what we make. That’s my future. I have seen it in a dream,” he insists.
But, at the moment, Ngwenya’s struggle in Johannesburg continues. He blames the global economic recession on poor sales.
“There seem to be few tourists these days. People have no money to travel. Now, every day is a gamble,” Ngwenya sighs. “Like playing cards, you know – today you win, (tomorrow) you lose. It’s just like that.”
And amidst it all, his thoughts are always with his family back in Bulawayo.
“We miss home. You always miss home, man! Home is the best! Your roots, you know,” he reflects.
“All I wish now is that I was sitting next to my parents. Not even talking to them, but just sitting together in Magwegwe,” Ngwenya whispers.
But at this stage in Ngwenya’s life, his fervent wish may as well be for a mountain of gold…. That’s how “impossible” it seems to him.