Sunday, April 3, 2011


U.S. journalist and explorer Henry Stanley once dubbed Africa “The Dark Continent” because the country seemed to be a mystery to Europeans of the 18th century who thought it had no civilization at all. Mapmakers even left Africa a dark color when they drew their maps – it was a country regarded as a harsh, sub-Saharan desert. Later, Europeans exploited the country’s resources, but gradually Africa lost its designation as “The Dark Continent” and came into its own as a fascinating civilization of sunshine and light.

One of my closest friends, Jane Bonin, served in the Peace Corps in Malawi and Niger, Africa for a decade, returning stateside to settle in Washington, D.C. During the years following her sojourn, she has often told me about falling in love with Africa, and several years ago, she began writing vignettes about her experiences in Malawi and Niger ( which she hopes to include in a book about Africa.

Last week, I lunched with Barbara Hughes, another friend who teaches Spirituality and Art at the Sewanee Theological Seminary on The Mountain, and she told me that after spending a half year in Tanzania, Africa in 2010, she experienced the same feelings as Jane: she fell in love with Africa.

Barbara is noted for her paintings and sculpture and has captured the colors and characters of the women of Tanzania in a show featured at Shenanigan’s in Sewanee. Her art is derived from that overwhelming love she feels for Africa, and is an exhibit of vividly-colored stoneware sculptures and paintings that feature the bright clothing worn by women in the villages of rural Tanzania.

“I was invited to come to worship services and to give talks in these villages,” she said. “The warm response of the people there was overwhelming and humbling. Life is hard in these villages and people live in small mud houses, constantly struggling for clean water and for food. The food they grow is dependent on the rains.” She also reported that rampant diseases like malaria afflict families in the villages. “Village mothers often have to choose between feeding their families and sending their children to school,” she noted. “At the Sunday services, there’s always a group of mothers called The Mothers’ Union (Uwaki) who dance, drum, and sing, and the sounds of their harmonies ring in my ears still.” According to Barbara, members of the Mothers’ Union also meet to deliberate village issues.
The first painting included in this blog is of a village woman named Nongwa, a portrait that depicts the humor and joy these women feel, despite their lives of hardship. The two stoneware sculptures are of “A Woman Weaving” and of “A Girl Cleaning A Bowl.” Both are almost whimsical in depiction and embody movement even in the stillness of the sculpture.

The Women of Tanzania remind me of Alexander McCall Smith’s female characters in THE NO. 1 LADIES' DETECTIVE AGENCY featuring Precious Ramotswe of Botswana, South Africa. The Women of Tanzania display the same pride in their country and joy in living there as those of Smith’s characters in Botswana.

One of Barbara’s pieces of art is worth more than 1,000 of my words, and the colorful characters presented here are examples of the way she captures the joy in human faces and forms in all of her art.
Barbara says that twenty percent of proceeds from the sale of these paintings and stoneware sculptures will go to the Womens’ Center in Msalato, Tanzania.

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