Many of them hail either from Kavango East or Kavango West where they grew up and mastered the intricate art of woodcarving.
They migrated to Windhoek in search of better economic opportunities that abound in the city.
Operating from a site south of Windhoek is a group of woodcarvers and those who sell reeds as well as unprocessed slabs of timber.
Speaking to New Era this week, the woodcarvers – who make anything out of timber ranging from chairs, tables, beds and beer crates as well as those who sell timber and reeds said they only make enough to put bread on the table.
Despite showing great skills through the work of their hands, the woodcarvers and those who sell timber and reeds say they need an economically strategic location to sell their products.
Kameya Malakia, a 24-year-old man, says he migrated to Windhoek after struggling without money to take care of himself or loved ones when he completed Grade 12 in 2009.
“My brother taught me how to do this business,” reminisced Malakia, who sells reeds and timber.
Malakia and his colleagues buy timber in Angola and get reeds and poles from Rundu.
“…Here we are just making profit for food, it has nothing to do with getting rich. There is not much profit. The money I make is just for food and to transport my products to Windhoek,” he explains.
He pays up to N$25 000 just to transport the timber he sells from Angola to Windhoek, he says.
This is in addition to the customs duty he pays in Angola as well as in Namibia, says Malakia.
The reeds Malakia sells are used to make mats and ceilings for lodges, he further explains.
Planks are made into tables, chairs and beds.
Meanwhile, Malakia’s 44-year-old cousin, Petrus Mbundu Masinga, who was once a woodcarver, says he stopped carving and consequently lost his income when he lost his sight in 2005.
A wooden splinter shot into one of his eyes while he was carving, damaging the optic nerve and prompting doctors to remove the damaged eye, Masinga narrates. “The veins in my eye were damaged and my eye was removed. The other eye was later affected,” the father of nine explains.
He was so depressed he spent five years of his life feeling sorry for himself and not working, he says. However, he says he soon realised that sitting and not doing anything would not put bread on the table for his family.
“I am one of the first people who started working from here. I worked in Okahandja from 1991 and in 1997 I moved to Windhoek,” Masinga explains.
Now, Masinga sells products carved by other people, which he orders from Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Zambia. “I used the money I got from my disability grant to buy my products,” he says, adding that he only sells his products to tourists.
Recently, he also started selling recharge vouchers and eggs to fellow woodcarvers.
Masinga and Malakia note that they are not strategically located in terms of marketing their products to tourists as well as the locals. “We don’t really get customers,” they moan.
“We want to be located at a place where customers come the most. Here we just get customers here and there,” further states Malakia.
“If the customers are a lot, I am able to send money home to my nine children,” Masinga says.
Malakia says he also has dependents, fortunately, they are not as many as Masinga’s. “I financially care for my cousin, son and nephew,” Malakia says.
Meanwhile, George Luyenu says he has been carving chairs, tables and beds at the site for the past two years. “I have been doing this since I was 12 years old,” says the 41-year-old.
Mahenga Sizwe, who is 38 years old, says they are willing to transfer their skills to interested people. “I can only urge other people who want to learn how to do this to come,” Sizwe says.
Most woodcarvers and those selling timber, poles and reeds live at their production and selling site with some of their families. They describe their living conditions on the site as “very bad”.
Malakia says although he rents in Okuryangava, most of the people live on site without water, electricity and ablution facilities. “Just imagine a blind man going to relieve himself in the bush,” Malakia says. Masinga concurs that his state of living as well as that of the other woodcarvers is terrible. “It’s very dark here. We don’t have electricity,” the blind man says.
Masinga explains further: “We pay N$25 for a 2-litre cool drink at the service station nearby and for a 25-litre container [of water] we have to pay N$10 and we at least need to use four containers in order to bath, drink and wash clothes.”
According to the City of Windhoek, the woodcarvers will be relocated to a new place. The City of Windhoek spokesperson, Joshua Amukugo explains, “The area where they are operating from is a road reserve.”
Road reserves, Amukugo adds, are not supposed to be used for any operation “as it is always risky in terms of traffic”.
“The place where they would be relocated to will be developed into a conducive place. As observed, people are also living there and making fire, which is dangerous for the filling station depot,” he says.