The Ordinary, Extraordinary, Ancient Craft of Pottery


I’ve always wanted to learn pottery. As a child I had no fewer than two very crappy toy potter’s wheels that did nothing but frustrate me. I don’t think my high school had a pottery class. My college certainly did not. And after that, well, I never seemed to have the time, money, or opportunity–all at the same time!–to learn pottery.

So when we found out about a lovely lodge on Lake Malawi where you can stay, swim, eat, and learn to make pottery, I knew we had to try it. It’s in Nkhotakota, where David Livingstone facilitated the agreements ending the slave trade in Malawi. And it is simply gorgeous. At certain moments, and from certain angles, you may as well have been transported 5,000 years into the past:

Screen Shot 2013-09-15 at 3.52.40 PMThat is the view from the porch of the little cottage where we stayed. I only saw this one herd of cattle, though. There was a friendly half-blind dog who kept coming around to make sure we were okay, though. All the dogs and cats at the lodge were the fattest of their kind that I’ve yet seen in Malawi. It’s because they get lots of kitchen scraps.

I thought I would be most interested in learning to use the wheel, which is a mesmerizing and lovely tool. (Cue embarrassing scene from Ghost. Wait, not really.)

Screen Shot 2013-09-15 at 11.20.12 AMScreen Shot 2013-09-15 at 11.19.56 AMWhen our instructors couldn’t explain how to do it, they just put their hands on ours and showed us the way.

Even the children had a chance to make some things, especially the older one:

Trimming a bowl made on the wheel.
Trimming a bowl made on the wheel.
Decorating a traditional pot that he made.
Decorating a traditional pot that he made.

So as I was saying, I thought I’d be most enamored of the wheel, but was surprised at how much I loved making traditional pots by hand. I loved it. I can’t wait to do it again. They’re made out of the clay of termite mounds, so, essentially, they’re made out of termite poo. And all the shaping is done by hand, with the help of things like a piece of bamboo, a shell, and a rock. Yet another thing that might as well be 5,000 years old. (As in fact it is–but older.)

Finishing my msugo, traditionally used for carrying water. On one's head.
Finishing my msugo pot, traditionally used for carrying water. On one’s head. That’s Gloria on the left. She has the best laugh and smile combo in the world, probably.

There is so much that I love about pottery: how the elements involved are undeniably simple: earth, water, fire, but how pots are decidedly of culture, not nature and must be shaped by human ingenuity. I love how ancient the craft is and how even the simplest pot always has some touch that is gratuitously, needlessly lovely. I love the transformation involved in the making and firing.

And I love that when we got tired of making pots, we could go jump in the lake. Literally.

Graeme doesn’t love taking showers–all they had at the lake–but he fits nicely in a bucket:

Screen Shot 2013-09-15 at 11.18.51 AM

And the puppy wanted to be sure we got the memo about not leaving her behind next time:

Screen Shot 2013-09-15 at 4.17.12 PM

3 thoughts on “The Ordinary, Extraordinary, Ancient Craft of Pottery

  1. I was just like Graeme! We didn’t have a shower until I was 12 so when I was tiny and we went on holiday (to St Andrews, as it happens) my mother would stand me in a plastic laundry bag and make me hold the handles. Never looked as cute as him, though! I love hearing about your adventures.

  2. My husband is a newbie potter. He started taking classes at the start of this year at a nearby community college. The wheel nearly did him in (it’s not as easy as it looked in the movie “Ghost”!), but he’s persevered and is really enjoying it. One difference between his experience and yours is in the fact that he is not shaping his pots out of termite poo. 🙂

  3. That sounds like a wonderful time with the family, Rachel. The bucket boy pic is my favorite.

    When you mentioned the rock being old, it made me think that all of us are actually just as old since we are made up of the same stuff that’s been around since creation. From dust we came and to dust we return. And that makes me think of pottery, because in a sense clay is just wet dust.

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