Pottery lesson

One afternoon soon after arriving at site last May, I was biking back home with Sebastian when I spotted a large clay pot for sale on the side of the road. I asked him if there was a strong local art movement in town. He ignored this, instead explaining patiently that Zambians use these pots for cooling and storing water. We stopped and chatted with the woman who emerged from the nearby house, who was surprised but pleased to see a muzungu and even more surprised and pleased to learn that I’d be living just down the street for the next two years. I bought the pot — as it turned out, I had an empty corner of my living room I was dying to fill with some local art — and the potterymaker told me to come back so she could teach me how to make pots.

A few days later I obediently returned. The woman sat me down in the shade to watch how she mixed water with a specific kind of dirt, making a soft, malleable clay. She patiently took me through the process of kneading the clay like bread, shaping the foundation, building the walls without the aid of a spinning wheel, and finally etching designs and patterns into the surface. She explained how she dried the pot or bowl or vase in the sun before burning it over a fire in a makeshift kiln. She demonstrated how she used a folded chitenge to wrap the pots before strapping them to the back of her bicycle in order to transport them safely to the market.

A pot hand-crafted from clay right in my village will cost you 8 kwacha, or about $1.50

Toward the end of the lesson, I spotted the name “Nancy” shaped into the side of a finished cup in large and careful lettering. When I inquired about the personage of this Nancy, another woman on the compound extracted a photograph from a worn folder and brought it over to me. In the 4″ x 6″ snapshot were three smiling Caucasian faces, a man and woman who looked to be in their late 50’s with thinning hair and glasses and a pretty younger woman who may have been their daughter. A picture that would have been utterly unremarkable if viewed in the world I came from but which seemed extremely out of place here. The women explained to me that the potterymaker’s eldest daughter is away at secondary school, sponsored by a woman in Australia through a correspondence program organized by World Vision, an NGO working in our district. This woman, the older woman in the picture, was coming to visit the village a few weeks later and the cup was a gift for her, a token bearing her name.

Fast-forward one year later and the Australian woman has come and gone. The craftswoman is still making pots. (In fact, I’ve since learned that the Nshinda area is a bit renowned throughout Zambia as one of the only places in the country where this particular type of pottery is made.) And the grungy Peace Corps volunteer is still hanging around, about to celebrate a full year of asking dumb questions and chasing cheeky kids away from his porch. The three of us form an unlikely trio whose lineages traverse the globe — a fifth-generation Californian whose ancestors lived in China, a Bemba-speaking Zambian whose tribe originated in the Congo, and an Australian who can probably trace her heritage back to England — yet we are all linked through this chance meeting, this unanticipated progression of events.

But even if I had never seen the photograph, even if I had never bought the clay pot on the side of the road, even if I had never set foot in Zambia, the three of us would still be linked by a broader connection: we breathe the same air, we share the same world. I know this, but sometimes I forget. And it took a pottery lesson in a village in rural sub-Saharan Africa to help me remember.

Two of my host sisters during training in Chongwe

At my host family’s compound during Pre-Service Training a year ago

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2 thoughts on “Pottery lesson

  1. Traditional pottery is a dying art. There are still a few that get made on order here, but they are not nearly as finely crafted or thin-walled as the shards that one finds everywhere. I’ve also seen a few very old pots in people’s houses. Once these break, they’re replaced with plastic buckets. Practical, no doubt, but a shame nonetheless. Tell your potter to charge more than k8…that’s pitiful, no wonder it is a dying art! The one in the picture is great.

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