Topham teaches wood turning in Africa

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John Topham spent three weeks in Africa staying in a tent and boiling water over a fire.

John Topham spent three weeks in Africa sleeping in a tent and boiling water over a fire, but said it “wasn’t hardship, it was just primitive.”

Topham just returned from his third Rotary-sponsored trip to Mozambique, where he taught villagers how to work with wood.

Mr. Topham is a craftsman and belongs to the Summerland Wood Turners Club.

While in Mozambique as part of the South African Mission, he taught two men the art of transforming scraps of hardwood into beautiful and useful items, who in turn taught two more men.

“The goal with this donation is to be able to actually produce a product that can be sold and have a revenue stream from that,” Topham said.

In a country where the hourly wage is 57 cents, this fee can make a big difference.

Topham came to this year’s mission with a special challenge in mind: A fellow woodturner had asked him to teach African women how to make woodturning lathes, which is not a traditional role for women in African culture.

“We thought we’d give it a try, and this is part of the success story,” he said.

At a recent Rotary meeting, Topham shared the story with the club using slides, which allowed him to introduce club members to Gladys Magwala, a 47-year-old woman who works at the mission.

“I asked the girls if they knew anyone who might be interested in wood turning, and Gladys was our daughter,” Topham said. “We got her on the band saw and cut out the bowl blank, then got it ready for the lathe. After some quick instructions, Gladys got to work right away, as if she’d done it before.”

The bandsaw was purchased with funds raised by the Summerland Wood Turners Club. Topham arranged for the bandsaw to be delivered to the Mission and when it arrived the bandsaw was at the Mission.

The lathe that Mugwala used to turn the wood into bowls was purchased by the Rotary club three years ago.

“It looks like it’s never been used. It’s been very well cared for,” Topham told Rotary club members.

Topham took home a bowl that Mugwala had made and signed and passed it around to everyone at the conference for admiration.

“Gladys and four other woodturners and I stayed there for three weeks and made about 40 pieces. We made all kinds of things – toys, hammers, spatulas … it was endless,” Topham said.

All of the items made are sold in a gift shop within the Mission – people traveling to and from the Mission often purchase items to take home – other sales come from the transport trucks that travel up and down the highway.

Topham hopes to return to Mozambique.

When asked why he keeps coming back, he says it’s because he wants to see these people grow.

It’s because of his attitude that he has the stamina to keep returning to this primitive way of life.

“If you have a good attitude, you can go anywhere and do anything. Every year the travel gets harder, but you have to keep your head up,” he said. “It gets harder, but you’re doing something worthwhile.”

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