My agreement with two Tanzanian friends to help them sell their art in America has taught me all that the business course I never took in college might have. I have learned the basics like timing and advertising. I also learned that Ebay is efficient, and Etsy is not. I have learned that face-to-face business transactions are always better. And, now thanks to some connections in Chicago, I have learned about a piece of history.
My classroom in Uptown was just a block away from a little store called African Safari Imports. I checked it out with a friend, and found it to be overflowing with everything from drums to flip flops, with paintings on the walls, statues in every corner, and racks of CDs from Congo, Mali, Zanzibar, and more. Trinkets, bobbles, and knickknacks were strewn about in piles and stacks. As someone who can relate to accumulating more African items than I can manage to sell or give away, I introduced myself to the store owner. He is a man named Paulo.
Last week, I went back with some of my paintings for Paulo to see. My heart and my empty pockets were full of hope that he would be interested enough to buy some paintings right then and there. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case. Paulo offered to display my friends’ paintings in his store for a small cut of the profits, but he could not afford to buy them straight away. But, what was far more interesting was everything else he told me in the small-talk we made. I already knew that Paulo was originally from Angola. He has a Portuguese name, and he mentioned his home country the first time I visited.
However, Paulo told me some more about his life this time. He recognized the style of my friends’ paintings as Tinga-Tinga. It’s a Tanzanian style famous for its bright colors, which are made by mixing enamel paint (usually intended for bicycles) with oil (usually kerosene). Paulo pointed this out, and then remembered fondly that the bike paint and kerosene were the easiest and cheapest materials to find when he, too, painted in his African youth. He told me that he even made his own brushes from sticks when he lived in the refugee camp “during the war.”
Wait, refugee camp? During the war… What war?
Paulo went on to tell me that he spent years in a refugee camp in Namibia when South Africa and Angola were at war. Then, he and his camp were moved away to Botswana when Namibia went to war for its independence. In Gaborone, the capital, there was a contest for painters, and he won. They gave him a certificate and a small cash prize, and to his knowledge, his painting is still on display at a museum there. I promised him that if I made it to Gaborone, I would go see it.
Finally, Paulo left Botswana and came to Chicago, where he lives today. He still paints, sometimes setting an easel down in the middle of the African Safari Imports store and painting stunning scenes of sunsets over the water or of families in a forest village. He does some surreal pieces, too. I saw one that layered reds and oranges like a painted fire.
What struck me most about Paulo’s story was the fact that this man had been through so much because of a conflict that I did not even know about. Years of his life were changed enormously and put into danger, and I was never told once in all of my education that this even happened. Besides making me feel awfully ignorant and question my world history class in high school, I did learn a lot from talking to Paulo. As soon as I got home that day, I admit that I went straight to Wikipedia. Before long, I had spent over an hour reading different pages. That is how much there is to read about these conflicts! These massive, decades-long conflicts that I somehow had never even heard of before…
Anyway, Paulo’s story might at least serve to remind me that I do not know everything. There is an endless world out there, and no one can know all there is to know. But, I am glad that Paulo made his own brushes and paints as a boy in a Namibian refugee camp, and I am glad that my friends from Tanzania entrusted me with their paintings, because if these things had not happened then we wouldn’t be where we are now. I continue to learn thanks to all of these stories and the unpredictable ways that they connect.