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The Kugoni Centre of Culture and Art has produced carved pieces that can be found in Buckingham Palace and the Vatican Museum. There are churches in Germany as well as many other western countries that have been decorated with wood carvings by local Malawian artists trained here. Father Claude Boucher, popularly known as ‘Chisale’ (a cultural title given to men of the Ngoni tribe) explains how it all began.
The magnificent Kungoni Centre of Culture and Art is located at Mua village in Dedza district, the central region of Malawi, and its grandeur is seen in the richness of the wood carvings and paintings that colour the place.
Born in 1941 in Montreal, Canada, Father Boucher came to Malawi in December 1967. His interest in Malawi was piqued when his aunt, who was a nun, was deployed to Malawi in 1949.
Boucher studied theology and anthropology at Gaba Kampala in Uganda. His love of cultural preservation stems from an encounter he had while working with the Native American Ojibwe tribe in Canada. He recounts that many members of the tribe had stopped using their traditional language and stopped practicing their customs, and so the Ojibwe culture was slowly being forgotten. His love of art has existed since he was a child. He was a self-taught painter before going to college where he perfected his craft.
After completing a post-graduate degree at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), Boucher travelled to Malawi. By moving to different districts around the country he was able to meet diverse tribes such as the Chewa, the Matengo and the Yao people. In this way he was inspired to start his journey preserving local Malawian culture.
The title of ‘Chisale’ was given to Boucher when he was living among the Ngoni people in Ntcheu District. The community gave him that name as a way of integrating him into their society. It is a name given to the the men as a sign of respect.
Since its establishment, students from the cities of Blantyre, Lilongwe and Mzuzu now come to Boucher to sharpen their skills as carvers. Here he works with artists from different tribes to help them express their culture through painting, basket making, pottery, and carving. The artists of Kungoni have gone on to decorate a number of churches and hotels across Malawi as well as abroad.
It was only later, after years of personal research on the local tribal groups that the cultural aspect of the centre was pushed. The centre was developed as a cultural museum of ethnographic collections from the Chewa, Yao and Ngoni people of Malawi.
The venue, which is also a research centre, brings together diverse faiths and cultures. It exhibits cultural artefacts, and acts as an art gallery, as well as a place where people can enjoy watching cultural dances. There is also a conference room, a boutique hotel, amphitheatre, a parish and colourful chalets.
Boucher also works with locals who come to the centre to decorate their homes. In exchange, these local people introduced him to different languages, a diverse array of traditional cooking methods, and dances that have become an integral part of his life. Today, apart from being a master wood carver, Boucher is also a costume designer, a painter, author, and pottery maker.
He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate Degree in Culture and Social Anthropology by the Malawi Campus of the United Kingdom-based Share-World University in 2014.