An introduction to Tinga Tinga

After our adventure on the Tazara line, we stayed a couple of days in Dar es Salaam, which is the largest city in Tanzania. It is also the home of the Tinga Tinga Arts Cooperative, which was established over 20 years ago to preserve the legacy of the original Tinga Tinga painting style. A brightly colorful, pattern-like style that is unique to Tanzania, Tinga Tinga was invented by Edward Tingatinga in 1968, and was subsequently trademarked by his family. You can read more about the characteristics that make up the Tinga Tinga style here.

Although it began as a style focused purely on colorful animals, there has recently been (I estimate in the past 5 years or so) an offshoot of Tinga Tinga that has switched to portraying the human element. And not just your typical tourist painting of traditional village people walking with clay pots balanced on their heads. These newer Tinga Tinga paintings are often commentaries on very contemporary life – city streets, hospitals, markets, all bustling with activity, and usually somewhat comical or satirical. This was the style we had in mind when we headed down to the Tinga Tinga Co-op to scout out an artist we could commission to paint a scene commemorating Steve’s motorcycle taxi research in Moshi.

Just being able to go to the Co-op was an experience in and of itself, and we spent quite a while wandering around, looking over the (hundreds of) pieces of artwork hanging on the walls, trying to find a style we thought would fit what we were looking for.

The artist we finally decided upon was actually selling his work in one of the many kiosks that had sprung up immediately outside of the co-op building. I gather that the artists featured in these impromptu shops were not part of the official co-op. ‘Knock-offs,’ you could call them. I’m not sure if they just didn’t make the cut, or maybe they didn’t find the yearly fee associated with being considered ‘official’ Tinga Tinga worth it.

The artist, Mkomea, wasn’t around – we had just spotted his paintings and liked them – so we had the shopkeeper give him a call to ask if he could meet us. When he arrived, we explained what we wanted: a painting in his style, of Moshi and KCMC, with Mt. Kilimanjaro in the background, lots of Boda Boda (motorcycle taxis) in the streets, and an accident involving some motorcycles somewhere in the painting. He seemed to understand, although my swahili was broken and his general demeanor gave the impression of being slightly high. We agreed on a price, paid half up front, and left, wondering what we had gotten ourselves into, and bracing ourselves for the chance that Mkomea would disappear, and our painting with him.

But he did, in fact, finish the painting! We had some friends traveling to Dar who picked it up for us, and it exceeded all of our expectations.

The painting is about 3 x 4 feet. (Do you find yourself instinctively looking for Waldo?)
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He has never been to Moshi, but somehow knew there was a roundabout with a statue of a soldier in the middle! (I’m guessing Google images)
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The accident, and token traffic policeman.
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Kilimanjaro and KCMC.
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Preacher on the bus

(Jan 1, 2013)

We bought tickets for the 7:30 am bus to Kapiri Mposhi, but it’s the kind of bus that doesn’t leave until it’s full. So while it was sitting in the station, waiting to fill the last of its seats, a young man walked on board and started to preach. Tall, thin, wearing black satin trousers and a white sports coat, and of course, carrying a large bible with a black leather zip cover.

I was twice surprised by this. First, I wondered if he was supposed to be there, and was half expecting the bus driver to appear at any moment to ask him to please leave. But when nothing happened, I realized this must be an accepted practice, on this bus at least.

Second, I assumed, based on experiences in the US, that he was the Zambian equivalent of a street evangelist, and I prepared myself to hear the usual gospel message of repentance and salvation. But instead, he turned out to be more of a traveling preacher – he told the passengers he would just take a few minutes of their time to share a message with them for the new year. He was obviously assuming that most of his listeners were already Christian and didn’t need to hear the basics.

Walking up and down the aisle, he challenged the passengers to commit their lives to the Lord in this new year of 2013. And he kept to his word – after about 10 minutes (that’s short for a sermon in Africa), he wrapped up his message with a prayer. Apparently he had some listeners, because at the conclusion of his prayer, I heard more than a few ‘amens,’ some of which were quite loud and responsive.

After this, he walked down the aisle one last time, holding out a large white envelope, apparently for donations. I was again surprised to see that almost everyone in front of me dropped something into the envelope.

This blending of religion and public identity, I think, is far more common in the African way of life than it is in the West. People are much more comfortable operating out of a religious context, regardless of the religion. They are generally unapolagetic about their beliefs, and though they may challenge expressions of faith other than their own, they aren’t usually offended by them. In fact, I have found it is much easier, in this part of the world, to have a lively discourse about religion without causing offense, than it would be to have a similar discussion in the US.

According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 97.5% of Zambians call themselves Christian. With numbers like that, one could almost say that Christianity has grown to become a national identity – to be Zambian is to be Christian. And that’s exactly how it felt on the bus that morning. Christianity was a given, the accepted norm out of which the passengers were operating. So it didn’t come as a shock then, when we finally pulled out of the station, to hear Zambian praise and worship music piping out of the bus speakers. It accompanied our entire journey, and no one objected.

Christmas carols in Livingstone

A few days after Christmas, Steve and I joined Sheri and her family at a musical get-together being hosted by a missionary family in Livingstone. We sang Christmas hymns and enjoyed some informal performances, including a spoken word piece by a young Zambian man, and some beautiful songs written and performed by the daughter of our hosts and her husband.

To finish off the evening, we all stood in a circle and learned a Zambian Christmas carol – the kind where the lead singer sings a couple of lines, and the group responds with a short phrase. It was hilarious, since most of us were not from Zambia, and basically mumbled some gibberish when it was our turn to pipe in.

I didn’t bring my camera to the event, a choice that I really started to regret about halfway through. But Liana and Jason handed out CDs at the end on which were recorded a couple of the songs they had performed, so I will leave you with one of their songs.

Liana wrote this song after realizing she had never noticed the depth of meaning expressed in the familiar hymn, O Little Town of Bethlehem.

O Little Town of Bethlehem