Sande showed us around his workshop, house and skating rink. The areas all appeared to flow from one another, seamlessly linking his interests and way of life. He explains how Mukwa Furniture came to be in Maun:
‘Well, my house was actually supposed to be the warehouse originally for the business, that’s why its so close. But we still ended up living here decades later. So what I would say to people is - make sure you build a great warehouse!’ He begins with a laugh.
‘My story is that I arrived in Maun in 1979.....more than 28 years ago. I went to ‘Croc Camp’, which was the centre of everything in those days, I met a man called John Penos. He was looking for someone to help with his clients as a guide the next morning and so, after signing for a guide’s licence, there I suddenly was at 6am the next morning driving clients. I remember seeing a Lechwe for the first time that day in Khwai and calling them ‘water impala’ – everything was so new to me. But the great thing about this new guiding career was that I had found myself in was that I got to see the camps and lodges that were in the Delta. I got to understand what furniture was there – the style, as well was what was needed and what was most practical. Because I had worked as a carpenter in California, where I grew up, it was easy for me to start making pieces on the side when I wasn’t freelance guiding. I knew the woodwork trade, so much is made from wood in California because of earthquakes. It’s a very flexible material, the best. I was accustomed to using it for housing structures, but also all the furniture, from beds to chairs and headboards.
I really got the kick start for the furniture business with Randall Moore (whom I had actually met when I was in East Africa) when I heard he was looking for furniture for the new Abu Camp. Wow that was an incredible story… he was originally a circus animal trainer and had brought these elephants from Seattle back to Africa for their freedom. They ended up at Abu and for me to be so close to these incredible animals (who were so close to getting the chance to be back in the wild), I mean, it was really special.
After that I started making all the furniture for Randall Moore – and no expense was spared. It was all solid Mukwa wood pieces. Mukwa has always been my favourite wood, the variety of grain is unbelievable. Pius it is hard wood so it lasts, but not so hard like teak or Lead Wood that it breaks your machines.
Funnily enough, starting as a freelance guide in Botswana really helped me with the furniture business because I made connections and got to know the lodges and what they needed. At one point I counted 53 establishments with my furniture in them! From Nata Lodge to Chobe Game Lodge – they all had my Mukwa furniture.
Being the owner of a furniture business has helped me in many ways. I knew I needed to find a way of working from my home, because I suddenly found myself the sole carer of my baby daughter. Mukwa Furniture gave me that flexibility. The first bit of spare cash I had left over from Xaxaba Camp I then made the hockey skating rink. We called it ‘Mukwa Leaves’. I was still living in a tent in the garden then. The community chipped in after a while and helped me grow the hockey skating rink. I remember we had the annual Tequila Cup and in 2003 we had more than 54 skaters! It was so much fun. For 16 years in a row we went to Namibia to play tournaments . Even last week there was a new group of people that came to play and man, there was so much laughter that I could hear from my house coming from the rink. It was great to hear.
Starting as a freelance guide in Botswana really helped me with the furniture business because I made connections and got to know the lodges and what they needed.
In 1984 it was when I really got the furniture business going full time it was still all hand tools. I was working with Othusitwe Thahboigo and Johnney Mohutsi then and I still am now. These are great guys. You can really rely on them – they are brilliant guys, even with deadlines. I can’t even tell you how much there is to learn with production lines, what to cut when and what you are left with – it is all about the sizing. The single-minded focus and attention to detail of the guys here is unbelievable. You know some of these guys have worked together for 20 plus years, but they come to work talking and laughing like they haven’t seen each other for months! What a great atmosphere that is!
Fixing machines is probably the biggest challenge with this business. To be honest that’s one of the reasons we still do so much of our craft by hand. Also, machines are noisy- deafening actually, day in and day out. It’s enough to drive you crazy after a while! Dust is one thing but wow the noise!
In terms of the wood, nothing here gets wasted. Every piece of this precious resource gets used. I don’t believe in burning or wasting anything. For example, my house doors are all made from off-cuts. I have been lucky in my life with wood. I remember when the Caprivi power lines were being extended and a lot of Mukwa and Teak trees were being cut down… I bought them all. Once you have the wood you can just keep it until you need it.
This has been a good year for the business but really nothing beats the skating tournaments.’ He finishes with a smile as he put on his boots and we watch Sande as he skates off, hands behind his back as he manoeuvres around his current orders.
You know some of these guys have worked together for 20 plus years, but they come to work talking and laughing like they haven’t seen each other for months!