Topham teaches wood turning in Africa

For three weeks John Topham slept in a tent and heated water over a fire in Africa.

John Topham

John Topham

For three weeks John Topham slept in a tent and heated water over a fire in Africa, but he said, “It wasn’t a hardship, it was just primitive.”

Topham has just returned from his third Rotary-sponsored trip to Mozambique. The purpose of his trips there has been to teach the villagers how to turn wood.

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

During the time he has spent in Mozambique, at the South African Ministries Mission, he has taught two men the art of turning scraps of hardwood into beautiful, useful items. They in turn have taught two more men.

“The intention is that with this gift, they can actually produce a product that is saleable and they can make a commission on it,” said Topham.

In a country where the wage is 57 cents an hour, this commission can make a substantial difference.

Topham travelled to the mission this year with a special challenge in mind. A fellow wood turner asked him if he could teach an African lady to turn wood. This would not be a traditional role for a woman in the African culture.

“We thought we would try it and this is part of the success story,” he said.

At a recent Rotary meeting, Topham presented this story to the club, by way of a slide presentation.  In this way he was able to introduce the club members to Gladys Mugwara, a 47-year-old woman who works at the mission.

“I asked the girls if they knew anyone who would be interested in wood turning, and Gladys was our girl,” Topham said. “We started her on the band saw and she cut out the bowl blank and then she was ready for turning. With some simple instructions, Gladys got right on to it. It was like she had done it before.”

The band saw was purchased with funds raised by the Summerland Wood Turners Club. Topham had arranged to have the saw delivered to the mission and it was there when he arrived.

The lathe Mugwara used to turn the cut out wood, into a bowl was the lathe the Rotary club had bought three years ago.

“That thing is looking like it has never been used, it has been so well looked after,” Topham told the Rotary club members.

Topham brought back with him the bowl Mugwara had made and signed and he passed it around for everyone at the meeting to admire.

“We made about 40 pieces in the three weeks we were there, with Gladys and the four other wood turners. We made all kinds of things. We built toys, hammers, spatulas…it was endless,” said Topham.

All of the items made are sold at a gift shop at the mission. People travelling to and from the Mission will often buy a piece to take home with them. Other sales come from highway traffic, with transport trucks coming and going.

Topham hopes to return to Mozambique yet again.

As to what keeps him going back, he says he wants to see these people progress.

How he has the stamina to keep returning to this primitive way of life, is because of his attitude.


“With a good attitude you’ll get anywhere and be able to do anything. Every year it gets tougher to travel, but you just have to turn your brain off,” he said. “It’s tougher, but you’re doing something worthwhile.”