Wonders of indigenous engineering in ‘ngalawa’ making

Wonders of indigenous engineering in ‘ngalawa’ making

THE evening of Wednesday 2nd of December this year was like no others outside the Heritage Building of the College of Humanities at the University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM).

Members of the UDSM community, invited guests and the general public gathered there to witness the official inauguration of ngalawa making documentary. Ngalawa—an extended log-boat with outriggers and lateen sail has been, for many generations, used as a source of livelihood for coastal communities.

It is a treasured tool for particularly low-income and artisanal fishers. At exactly 8pm the ribbon was cut by an official from Tanzania Film Board, Mr. Clarence Chelesi who represented the Board’s Executive Secretary, Dr Kiagho Kilonzo. By that act, the curtain was raised.

Basically, the 40-minute documentary meticulously explains the process of ngalawa making—from cutting of trees in the bush, preparing the logs to a stage of moving the boat to the shore and tasting it in the ocean—the process that is both physically and mentally tasking.

The documentary was part of the week-long marine cultural heritage celebrations that officially ended on Saturday 6th under the Bahari Yetu Urithi Wetu (Our Ocean Our Heritage) project under the Department of Archaeology and Heritage Studies.

A one-year project ending on 30th of this December 2020 has an interest to unravel the understanding of people on the importance of marine cultural heritage within the water and along the coast and how they could be engaged to protect them.

The project funded by the Rising from The Depth Network which is also funded by the UK Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) through the Arts and Humanities Research Council Network Plus scheme covers the entire coast of East Africa benefiting Tanzania, Kenya, Mozambique, Madagascar and the Comoros.

At the centre of the documentary was Mzee Alalae Mohamed Simba (60s), a renowned ngalawa maker in Bagamoyo District. Mzee Simba with over 30 years of ngalawa making experience was also present.

The ngalawa he took part to construct, supervise and recorded by researchers was also parked some few steps from where people seated watching the projected film. You could see people following up the documentary, and then looking at Alalae for a second or two, then at the real ngalawa nearby in total disbelief.

It was mesmerizing. Many knew ngalawa but not aware of the level of expertise needed in making it. The documentary shows how Mzee Simba who, like many in his generation, did not complete his primary school education, precisely marked the logs and closely supervised the cutting and shaping of the ngalawa.

He did all that by using locally available tools except for an automated chainsaw that helped in cutting of the logs. The documentary was a revelation of how Tanzanians are capable of accomplishing complex tasks and improve the wellbeing of their societies.

This has been going on for centuries. Once again it was a reminder of how indigenous knowledge should be valued, supported and developed for sustainable development in Tanzania, Africa and beyond.

“This mzee is a real engineer!” Mr. Chelesi exclaimed after he was given a chance to talk after the end of the documentary. He told the gathering how astonished he was to see how “the engineer” accurately accomplished all he did without referring to any book or document.

Johnson Mapunda, a thirdyear civil engineering student at the UDSM who was quietly watching the documentary wished to have a well laid out system to recognize and develop indigenous knowledge like that of Mzee Alalae. “I have learnt a lot this evening,” said Mapunda, adding that the man from Bagamoyo is a testimony of how Tanzania has got sharp minds and talents.

On her part, a budding anthropologist and a beads’ analyst, Neema Munisi noted that the documentary set a good precedent for future efforts geared to preserving cultural heritage in Tanzania. “We really need such projects for the interest of our country,” she said.

According to the Principle Investigator of the project in Tanzania, Dr. Elgidius Ichumbaki, there is every need to care, preserve and teach people about traditional way of doing things and know how to go further in the current changing climate of new means of fishing.

“Ngalawa is our own invention which has been connecting us with other parts of the world. It is very user friendly, it does not pollute environments and our oceans,” he noted. Accessing trees for making ngalawa is becoming harder and harder.

Interest of younger generation to dwell into making ngalawa is dwindling and Dr. Ichumbaki predicts that there will be no ngalawa making as we know them today in the next 50 years, hence the need to preserve the traditional iconic tool electronically as happened through the documentary.

The effort is not confined to marine resources such as ngalawa only but to other cultural heritage as well. The researchers also went beyond technology. They also employed traditional means of acquiring knowledge in making sure that people understand matters relating to marine cultural heritage.

In this, people in Bagamoyo and Kilwa coastal areas were invited, discussed with researchers and eventually helped in forming associations to act as platforms to produce knowledge for the present and future generations. A total of 50 boat builders have been organized in such platforms.

It was heartening to see Mzee Alalae recognized and presented with a certificate and gifts at the event during that beautiful evening for his valued contribution into the project. He was vividly happy and called upon members of academic fraternity to make sure that marine cultural heritage resources such as ngalawa are preserved for the country’s development and benefit of future generations.

As predicted, ngalawa might be out of waters in the next five decades and be confined in museums. However, one thing is for sure, the traditional ways of ngalawa making spanning several hundreds of years will live forever, thanks for the documentary.

And who knows? Some local innovators might one day play around with the traditional technology and improve it to fit the needs of coastal communities in the future.

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