Margaret Majo

Margaret Majo. Photo by Mai Palmberg

Bhasikoro, gekwe, and sika

Margaret Majo is a crafts artist, one of the first and one of the few specializing in painting bottle tops. She was born in 1956 in Murewa. After being trained in the Chinembiri Training Centre in Mbare, to learn skills and income-generating activitie, she studied design and illustration at the Harare Polytechnic. In 1991, she had her works selected for display at the Zimbabwe Heritage Exhibitions in the National Gallery. She has since held exhibitions at several galleries.

We hear in the background your sister pounding on bottle tops to make them flat. Tell me how it all started.
It started in 1989 when I was going to a club for women at Cyril Jennings Hall in Highfield to do some crochet works. So we were selected to go to Chinembiri Training Centre for women in Mbare.

This training centre was started to promote women from high- density suburbs so that they can have something to do, not only just to sit and wait for their husbands to bring salt and sugar at home. So we started doing catering, that was our first course, this catering course took a year to finish.

What kind of catering?
Basic catering, it means to learn how to cook nutritious food and how to know all the basic nutritious food, especially to help your children and kids, and husbands so that they know how to prepare nutritious food in a hygienic way. We were going there twice a week, and were taught by a German volunteer. So we each got a certificate out of that catering course. Now we can cook – we know how to cook food with nutrition that is good for our health.

Did you actually change your cooking?
Oh yes, I actually changed my cooking because you know I grew up in the rural area where most of the things we just boiled for a long time. I didn't know that you could actually eat vegetables while they are green and that this gives you vitamin C and all those basic things. We were also taught how to store food, how to prepare the food, look after your utensils, your stove, if you have a fridge, everything. So it really changed me because that time I did not have a fridge, I did not have a stove, I had a paraffin stove, no fridge. So all that gave us a lot of encouragement to our lives.

So how did you get into art and handicraft?
At that time there was also a German volunteer. This lady came only to teach the talented women who do the crochet and she had other ideas of crochet things like small - and you take a crochet – the wool and doilies – some call them doilies, the ones which are put on the chair backs and some they made dresses out of the crochet. You take the wool - the cotton, you call it a cosh, that thing you're making something out of it, you can make a hat, you can make a dress, or something to decorate your house. So she had an idea of a lot of any handicrafts. So women were taught how to do like the dolls made out of those small little material, which would be thrown away.

Myself I was very interested in doing the drawing because she gave us some paper to draw whatever we thought of and she was very interested to see my drawings. So she gave us the idea of drawing on the bottle tops. We were only two women at that place who were very interested in doing the small drawings.

So from there she could find out that these women, they are very talented, but it wasn't enough for me so I had to go and enrol at the Harare polytechnic to advance my art.

Was that your own choice?
It was my own choice now. But except I was afraid to go there because I thought they only want people who have got A-Level or O-Level passes – you know who are educated. My husband had to go there and ask do they really need someone with O-Level. And they accepted my husband, because he has got as far as A-Level, as if he was the one who was going to do the art. So he first wanted to go himself to the arts school and come home and teach me.

But he went back to say he did not even have enough time to come to school, and asked if he could make his wife to come instead. They said yes, she can come, and when he asked what level of education was needed, they said: "Oh no education at all, ninety percent talent, ten percent education, as long as she knows how to speak basic English."

How did it go?
I went there and started and it was very interesting. So the people there were so much interested with me because I was the only elder person, the others were very young, some school-leavers. From there on I had to be very interested in doing my art. I started sending my things for exhibitions at the National Art Gallery . My first exhibition was in 1994 with was art on bottle tops.

The same year there was an exhibition again at the National Gallery, I had a chance again to exhibit my work, this was about the environment, so I was the only woman in Zimbabwe who was an overall award winner, the whole Zimbabwe, for my painting, it was about saving the elephant. So from there I got so very popular with some other people wanting to know who this mother who does this.

I drew an elephant, a woman and a man – a female and a male elephant – so these two, the woman was wearing very colourful, wearing something like clothes with the patches and shoes – my elephant had shoes and the elephant was trying to protect the woman who was pregnant, so that the poachers would not affect the baby inside.

Were you already into bottle tops now?
This graphic art is what I was taught at the Harare Polytechnic, I was taught graphic art, designing graphic art, so this is why I decided to do that painting in graphics to show how I was also taught at the Harare Polytechnic School , that's why I did this graphic art.

Are there many doing this bottle top art?
I believe in Zimbabwe there are only two women who are doing these bottle tops. It is I and this other lady, Elisabeth Luna. Actually some, of course, they are trying to make them but the original artist will never be the same as the copycat. There are, so many, so many trying to imitate. But you can do different things out of bottle tops you know; it serves the environment, not throwing the bottle tops everywhere.

I wouldn't mind a person to do the bottle top but I know somewhere there the customer will know this is not Margaret Majo's. Someone else does it because this is survival and everybody else wants to survive out of art, I do not mind.

Can I ask you if you are making good money?
I want to say this is a gift from God, always when you are getting something you should appreciate it, and not hide. If I hide this secret God will never bless me again. Of course I am making good money because I can survive as you can see. I can drive a small 323 car. There was a time of course where I could make much better money because tourists were coming to Zimbabwe , so many people were buying, and also the valuation of the dollar was okay. At the moment we are not making good money. But my old customers – they come, I can survive with this. It is good money

What are the themes you are painting? I see that you have a list here.
Here is kuruka which means plaiting hair and two mothers pounding, kudura, cooking is bika, a woman washing dishes. Bhasikoro is a woman on a bicycle. There is sika, with a woman kneeling in sort of respect for the husband sitting in a chair and also different dancers, the fishing, because I used to go to the river and do fishing. A lot of things.

And then there are the animals.
Yes, Mbvu , a hippo in Shona, it is a guide light for myself. Garve is a crocodile, Kamba is a tortoise, Gekwe is a snake eating a gecko, Insiza is a giraffe and Nzou is an elephant and Hanga is a guinea fowl.

I grew up in the rural area so I know all the rural life. My designs I just adopt from my upbringing. I grew up in St Paul 's, Murewa, east of Harare along the road going to Mozambique. Where I grew up there was a missionary support mission, so we were helped by the missionaries, there was food. We were five children three girls and two boys. I was unlucky, I was not chosen for further schooling. I just came to Harare to get a job, but in the end I have been lucky.

Has your family been supportive?
My late mother was a person who was very close to me and she was encouraging me a lot, she was so happy about my talent. She was very happy when I started doing art. And now my own sister is here to help me with my work, and she understands me better than anybody else.

My husband is working with roads in the Ministry of Transport. That man, he is still great because, you know, most of the people they want their son to be married to an educated woman. Most of their family members, they are educated, because they didn't grow up in the circumstances where I grew up, they grew up in Harare, they were born here, grew up here, studied here, so they have an advantage of knowing all the western things. Me, I was a typical rural woman, but he didn't listen to them. Now they appreciate what I am doing. So they no longer talk what they used to, they appreciate and they are very supportive. And he supports me so much; he gives me a lot of encouragement.

[Interview held in Highfield, Harare on 5 November 2002]

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