‘When the rats ate the flour resist’ – working with craft in Mozambique

From the Western Cape Craft Newsletter comes this fascinating tale by Amanda Youngleson about working as a design consultant in Mozambique. It’s a sober account of the challenges involved, but testament to great dedication.

DESIGNING FOR DEVELOPMENT: THE CHALLENGE

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When product designing to assist development in the underdeveloped world, one works in a realm of limitations, of what is impossible, of what will not happen. It is a world of Making Do. To succeed, expect the unexpected and adapt accordingly. Amanda Youngleson was recently commissioned to train and product-develop at Mbeu, a project on Ilha de Mozambique. She shares her perspectives.

The design consultant’s brief is to bring about change for the better. Although not specified in the brief, it is to make changes, under trying conditions, for people with little education, often limited skills, whose vision is limited by what has been impossible in their daily lives. If the design consultancy has been successful the participants are left, not only with a new product range that they can make, but also with hope. They are inspired and empowered. They have seen for themselves that things CAN change for the better, and where the results of the consultancy are sustainable, they will have seen how they can change their lives.

Many interventions are inappropriate or unsustainable as they failed to understand the context of underdevelopment of the people whom they intended to help. However, understanding the context is not straightforward.

Designers have probably been trained in, and live in the First World; development happens in the context of the Third World. One expects most components of one’s known world to be present there, and one expects the people you will be working with, to think, to some extent, as you do. What a mistake!

Working outside South Africa (where First and Third Worlds, developed and underdeveloped, rub shoulders) I found the Island of Mozambique to be particularly isolated – worlds and chasms apart from the marketplace they would be targeting.

Before leaving on a design consultancy one tries to gather as much information as possible about the context that one will be working in. However, as the people on the other end find nothing unfamiliar or strange about their context, they assume that you need a lot less information than you do. They are not clear about the skills levels of the crafters you will train, the existing products, the availability of materials or equipment, or their expectations. They do not inform you about the context of their world. You are thrown in the deep end.

Adapt or Die, could be the title for Designing for Development – involving thinking on your feet and learning about their world, minute by minute, on your arrival. If you can’t adapt, you are going to be very frustrated and fail! Time is limited and besides designing, the groups need to be trained. Your design concepts and ideas may not be achievable and you may need to re-conceptualise on-the-hop.

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Nothing could prepare me for the poor skills levels of the people from the project Mbeu, 25 km outside Maputo. They were independent farmers, had had no schooling and had not developed fine motor skills. I had designed a range for them prior to my departure, but their skills levels were too poor to manage it. Fabric-painting, as they did it, involved drawing on a flour-resist paste and then painting the cloth when dry. But they were unable to draw a diagonal line without it winding along chaotically. I had to redesign the range so that it only involved drawing horizontal or vertical lines. They were unable to make measurements so we folded the cloth to make lines. Rats ate the flour-resist and sand blew through the windows. They would start painting the fabric happily with the flour-resist design half eaten away, and sand covering the table. Their scissors were so blunt that a woman with the strongest hands was reserved for the job of cutting. The concept of tablemats meant nothing to them, as they had no use for them in their own lives, and could not imagine the market they were making them for. A previous agency had started the tablemat project but it highlights an inappropriate intervention where the agency did not understand their context.

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A lack of materials can restrict the type of products one can create. In Mozambique there is no pattern making cardboard and nothing I found could be used as a substitute. I had to bring some along on my second visit (and pay overweight) and the shortage of cardboard limited my being able to create new patterns, or alter others. Another problem with materials is that there is no guarantee of continuity of supply for most fabrics; when sampling one cannot count on the fabric being available for future production. Weights or composition of fabric are seldom given, so it is difficult to identify fabrics or choose fabrics that are pure cotton. In designing the fashion range for Ilha de Mozambique I used the local traditional cloth as it was readily available and would appeal to locals and tourists.

And then there is the problem of calculating production costs. Trying to determine an hourly rate for labour, in order to cost the products, was quite impossible. On Ilha de Mozambique (the island of Mozambique), the producers would agree on a time that it would take to make a product but would be adamant that one could not extrapolate from that the number of units one could make in the day, as they had no concept of working a seven-hour day. A work-day for them meant doing some work, in between looking after the children and doing chores. A pair of pants might take an hour to make but that did not mean seven pairs could be made in a day. They believed that they could only manage to make three a day, all considering. No one had ever paid them to work so they could not give a value to an hour’s labour.

Furthermore, the co-operative in Mozambique treated everybody equally and all profits were divided amongst the group regardless of their skill and contribution. No person would have been given less, and so all the labour input had to be costed the same.

Working in Mozambique would not have been possible without a translator, but as there are no trained translators, someone who seems to speak reasonable English is employed. One quickly realises that there is an art to translating. The translator should be the mouthpiece of the designer, and resist adding his/her opinions or embellishing the translation. My translator increasingly saw himself as an extension of the designer and on occasion took liberties in translating, giving extra instruction and even admonishing the producers. My Portuguese was fortunately growing daily and I was able to check him when I sensed he was not just translating. He had a lovely sense of humour and an irrepressible energy and being confined to translating without communicating his ideas was, for him, well nigh impossible.

Working without electricity was frustrating. The iron was heated by putting burning charcoal in the inner chamber but tended to be hot when we didn’t need it, and cold when we did. The pedal sewing machines gave problems in keeping the tension constant. Rusty pins made holes in the fabric, and rusty scissors carved a jagged and frayed line. I had to bring scissors and stainless steel pins from Cape Town, which were treated like treasures. The pedal sewing machines had no zigzag stitch to finish the seams so I had to introduce French seams.

A lack of skills meant that I could not use zips or buttons on the clothing. I had to use ties. They had no pattern-making skills, or ability to grade patterns into sizes so most patterns had to be `fit one, fit all’. They had no idea of quality and would sew when the tension was obviously slack or loopy. When I encouraged them redo it, they thought I was making a mountain out of a molehill. They found the concept of laying up patterns on the straight grain hard to grasp, and recognising what pattern pieces were, was difficult for them.

Despite all the frustrations of a lack of materials, poor skills, poor equipment, no electricity, and sometimes work venues with no walls, the work in Mozambique was amazingly enjoyable. The people on Ilha de Mozambique with their warmth and community-spirit are totally lovable. Their excitement at being in the workshop and creating the range was infectious. Their horizons had opened and they were optimistic for the future. They had seen what was possible.

Amanda Youngleson

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