The Survival, Origin and Mathematics of String Figures

Malawi String Figures

Work to record the string figures (cat's cradles) of Malawi has been ongoing from 2016 to present. Hitherto one string figure had been recorded (1906) from (what is now) Malawi. This recently published volume increases the number to one-hundred-and-one.

There is further information about the International String Figure Association (Pasadena, California, USA) here and the Special Issue of the Bulletin (which is the first to be published in colour) is available to purchase and / or to read here.

It is intended to augment this account of The String Figures of Malawi by publishing supplementary material on GuineaFlower.org in due course.

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Photographed above are Mlles. Evelyn and Eliza Kanjira (nieces to Mr. Fyson Kanjira, the Bursar of Kamuzu Academy), who are making 'Flying Bird' at the National Schools Science Fair / China Week, Kamuzu Academy, in July 2017.

'This Malawian figure must surely qualify as one of the most delightful moving figures in the whole corpus of known string-figure designs.'

Mr. Martin Probert (Plymouth, UK)

Photographed below are Messrs. Innocent Chidali and Samson Phiri, who are collecting string figures from delegates to the National Schools Science Fair / China Week, Kamuzu Academy, in July 2019.

SPECIAL ISSUE: String Figures from Malawi - including some from Rwanda, South Africa, and China

The String Figures of Malawi by Martin Probert, Alisoun Probert, UK, Richard Hewitt, Samson Phiri, Malawi (pages 1-208) - String figure making is alive and well in Malawi. There is an evolving repertoire of figures named after everyday twenty-first century objects. Highly sophisticated manipulations appear in a number of figures. One hundred and fifteen informants contributed to this 2016-2018 study in which excursions were made to different parts of Malawi, 397 movies made, dozens of photographs taken, six exhibitions held, and detailed interviews recorded with eleven of the informants. Eighty-six string figures were obtained, together with an additional ten minor variants, and a further five figures which appeared under a different name and interpretation. Of the eighty-six figures, eighty have not been recorded in Africa outside Malawi. The collection contains much unique, innovative material. One of the figures might be a survival from the msondo (girls' initiation ritual). The informants, one-hundred-and-one female and fourteen male, aged 6 to 60, have been born in, or educated in, 25 of the 28 districts in Malawi. The collection has distinctive features: (i) over two-fifths of the figures are based upon a technique referred to here as the Chishango-technique; (ii) eleven figures represent letters of the alphabet; (iii) almost a third of the figures are derived from ingenious transformations of other Malawian figures.

Six Rwandan String Figures by Martin Probert, UK, Richard Hewitt, Samson Phiri, Chikondi Medson, Malawi (pages 209-217) - Six Rwandan string figures are collected in 2017 from Aissa Ruberintwari, a pupil of Kamuzu Academy, Mtunthama, Kasungu, Malawi. One of the figures, Rwanda #5, is not known from any previous African collection.

Two South African String Figures by Martin Probert, UK, Richard Hewitt, Samson Phiri, Malawi (pages 218-219) - These South African string figures were recorded on 3 July 2017 at the National Science Fair, Kamuzu Academy, Malawi.

A ‘New’ Chinese String Figure by Martin Probert, UK, Richard Hewitt, Samson Phiri, Malawi (pages 220-221) - This string figure, although well-known around the world, has not previously appeared in BISFA articles on the string figures of China.

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