“Do you want paintings? Very cheap price for you!” He said. I was volunteering in Stone Town in Zanzibar in Tanzania, East Africa.
This is the gazillionth time I’ve been approached by touters trying to make a quick buck at unsuspecting tourists. Who knows the actual prices of these paintings?
“How much is cheap?” He offered a price. I couldn’t remember what it is now. Nor does it matter. “And what is it painted on?” After all, my degree was in Art History, big help that was in landing a career.
“Banana leaves!” He exclaimed. Ok. That’s pretty interesting. Trying to get out of the tout, I humoured him.
“Do you have the big 5? And a big painting of it on banana leaves?” He explained that he could search for it. With sincerity. He also explained that his grandfather painted them, who knows if that was true.
“All right, I’ll be around for 5 more weeks. I’ll find you here at Shangani Park!” Which wasn’t a lie. I was interested to see if he could get “The Big 5” referring to the 5 biggest animals in Africa: lion, elephant, hippo, leopard and the buffalo. He told me his name was Joseph.
A few weeks later I bumped into him again with him touting the same thing. He clearly doesn’t remember me but was shocked when I called him by name. Again, I told him I’d be around for a few more weeks and not to worry.
I had forgotten about Joseph for 3 weeks since. I did want a painting before I left though, of something from Zanzibar. I decided I was going to find this Joseph, but hadn’t spotted him hunting for tourists. Finally after New Years, I had wandered with a group of friends into the depths of Stone Town got lost
“Hey! My friend! How are you?!” Joseph pops out from the side street. He was as excited to see me as I was to him. Our brief encounters before were quite jovial, despite the obvious hard sells. I told him I never see him around anymore.
“I’m learning to paint now!” That got my attention. This young man, probably just hovering around late teens went from a street peddler to a painter over night. I wondered what his game was.
“I just have a few paintings now, but later I will have more! I have a teacher!” I suddenly felt I had to support this man in his endeavors. We traded numbers and discussed how I could find him later on. After all I had 2 more weeks here.
I’ve known and seen several people in my travels just give up in life in poor economic conditions and resort to the drink or whatever cop-out drugs they can find. Economically ranking in the 2012 UN census, Tanzania sits 177th out of 194 countries. There are only 17 more countries poorer than Tanzania where Somalia stands in last place.
In Zanzibar, a tropical paradise, economically devastated, where resorts for the rich Westerners, mzungu’s, are juxtaposed beside the poor shanty shacks made of coral rock and metal sheets, where locals have very little hope in achieving the wealth of a tourist, this man had pulled his life together and is going to make the best of his situation.
A few days later I had made a specific run down to see Joseph to get art and he took me to another store where he was painting. These paintings were all done with a palette knife and also negative spaced lines where the paint is scraped off. Humanoid figures depict the Masai people from Arusha closer inland to Mount Kilimanjaro. Bulbous stomachs, nose, and breasts make up the gist of the references of the body and the negative spaced depicted the jewelry they often wear.
“I know you wanted to support me and my art rafiki. I’m really giving you a good price now.”
After shopping around for art, I knew his prices weren’t bad and he had already reduced them. I could be a nasty haggler when I know I’m being ripped off. Whatever price he named I was willing to give. With my buddy, Christine, we had bought pretty much the 3 paintings that he had available to encourage him to continue on the path that he is going to pursue.
With that, he packed it into a cardboard tube, we shook hands and departed. This artist is already rich and he doesn’t even know it yet. (And I don’t mean money).