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The marimba maker
November 27, 2009

There have been heavy rains all over Zimbabwe for a few days now. The clouds are lowering outside. We sit round the dining room table in the gathering gloom, having an interview. Myself, a tallish slim young man, called Golden, and another young man in a blue overall and profuse dreadlocks. There has been no electricity since about nine in the morning - the power wasn't to return until the next day in the afternoon. Too light to light a candle, too dark to see easily without.

I was inspired to have this interview by the sight one sunny day of this young man putting the finishing touches to a marimba he had made and tuning it. He had a marimba stick in one hand and he was playing each note in turn. I could tell that the keys were all in perfect tune. I could have told too if any of them had been out of tune. But the marimba maker - how did he know that? How did he know that the marimba he had made was in perfect tune? He can't hear.

Sitting there in the dim light, I was asking Golden questions and he was translating them to the young man, who goes by the name of Charles, in Zimbabwean Sign Language - a trilogue in the fog. Catherine, who was behind the camera when the making of "Handspeak", our 13-part television series in Sign Language, was being filmed, asked me on that occasion why I was the only one in CHIPAWO who can't speak Sign Language. That was about three years ago. I still can't.

I thought that a maker of musical instruments who is quite deaf and cannot hear how beautifully his instruments play, is both sad and joyful at the same time. Yes, it is sad that he can never hear the music he is making possible with his handicraft yet joyful that despite his deafness he is able to make it possible for others to play.

Charles Kunzvi was born 25 years ago in the Glendale commercial farming area of Zimbabwe. He has been deaf since birth. In his family his mother and his father are both hearing but of his siblings, three can hear and two others can't.

He is a graduate of Emerald Hill School for the Deaf where he studied Bible Studies, English, Agriculture, Woodwork, Maths, Geography and Science up to Form IV. CHIPAWO ran an arts education for development and employment centre at the school for many years and Charles participated fully. He took part in many performances both at the school and in various CHIPAWO activities, including the End-of-Year Concert and the annual Christmas Show.

The high point of his involvement was his visit to the World Children's Theatre Festival in Lingen, German, in the play, 'Cry Thinking', which was about the experience of being born and then growing up deaf.

He joined CHIPAWO in 2006 and started work in the musical instrument manufacturing unit. He says he didn't have much of a problem doing well in the unit as he had learnt woodwork at school. The making of marimbas and above all the tuning of marimbas he was taught by another CHIPAWO graduate from the Mbare CHIPAWO centre, Sam Chimusaro, as well as the founder of the musical instrument manufacturing project in CHIPAWO, the music-teacher and musician, Farai Gezi,

Charles says (in Sign Language) that he particularly appreciated Sam's tutelage because Sam did not think deaf people were stupid and he taught him with infinite patience. Asked how he manages to tune an instrument which he cannot hear, Charles said that it is obvious. He uses a tuner. Indicating how the needle might move either to the left or the right of the note, he graphically demonstrates how he tunes each note.

In addition to tuning the keys, Charles has learnt to weld. He cuts and welds the steel frames, whittles down the keys according to the standardised dimensions and varnishes them, and also prepares the PVC resonators. He prepares the sticks and finishes off all the other little details that need finishing to make a perfect marimba.

Asked what his ambition is, Charles says he would now like to construct a chromatic marimba, one that has two keyboards like a piano, featuring all the sharps and flats as he has heard they do in other countries. As for mbira, well, he has a rudimentary idea as the previous mbira-maker in CHIPAWO, Dingane Juma, taught him a little but he has not yet mastered all the notes.

Most of the tools required for producing the musical instruments have been bought, thanks to the capacity-building assistance of the Norwegian Embassy. However CHIPAWO has had lots of problems finding and paying for a decent workshop so as to site and use the tools and machinery effectively.

Charles says he dreams of the day when he does not have to make musical instruments with hand tools in someone's garage but can work safely and efficiently in a proper workshop, properly equipped with all the machinery required. He says if he could get something like that, he would work wonders.

Judging but what he already achieves in difficult circumstances, I am sure he would.

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