Uses of Mpingo
Mpingo is the preferred wood of the musical instrument trade because of its high density, fine texture and exceptional durability. Also its natural oiliness seals the surface, prevents absorption of moisture and protects metal fittings from corrosion. Its fine grain means that the finish is beautifully smooth, and the wood holds its tone well in different conditions. By far the biggest demand is for clarinets, but oboes, bagpipes and wooden flutes are also made from the tree. At one time mpingo was even used for the black keys on pianos though this is no longer the case. In addition mpingo is the wood of choice for local carvers, most notably the Makonde tribe. A new use is in parquet flooring in the Far East. Most users prefer dark wood and only the blackest is acceptable for the manufacturing of musical instruments.
Mozambique allows the export of raw logs, but Tanzania only permits the export of processed timber. Unseasoned mpingo is cut into cuboid billets with the approximate dimensions of the sections of the finished instrument. These are exported as sets which make one instrument. Billets for woodwind instruments must be free from defects otherwise they will split when put on a lathe. While heart-rot and fire-damage are obvious, a fault as small as a pin-hole will lead to a log being rejected at the sawmill. Unfortunately the gnarled and twisted nature of mpingo means that it is often hard to find a sufficiently long, straight section of faultless wood to form a billet, and wastage rates at the sawmills are in excess of 90%. Even more timber in the form of the smaller branches is simply abandoned in the field.
Luckily carvers are not so dependent on defect-free wood, and will actually utilise the twists and turns of the timber in their carvings. Mpingo is traditionally used for carving by several tribes in East Africa. The Makonde, whose tribal lands straddle the Tanzania-Mozambique border, are particularly renowned for their mpingo carving, with Makonde families handing down their carving skills from father to son. Several distinctive styles of sculpture have developed to represent scenes from everyday village life and more abstract work, such as Shetani spirits and other characters of Makonde folklore. Carvers also supply the tourist trade with novelty items such as Coca Cola bottles, chess sets and ash trays, but it is the distinctly Maasai figurines and representations of the classic safari animals which are most popular. Mpingo carvings are now available in ethnic craft shops in many European and North American cities. Mpingo is Tanzania's national tree in recognition of its high cultural importance.
The durability and sheer hardness of the heartwood means that mpingo is put to specialised uses by indigenous people. For example, the wood is used to make hoes (giving rise to the name mugembe), pestles, knife handles, supports for buildings such as granaries, house construction and floors for pit latrines. The tree is also used by villagers as animal fodder, medicine, as a dye and as green manure.