Pumpkin Wheels & Pawpaw Flutes
The Games of Malawi

Malawi String Figure Project

In 1904 Dr. William Cunnington recorded one string figure (cat's cradle) from the British Central Africa Protectorate. It was published in 1906.


Between 2016 and 2019 Mr. Martin Probert (United Kingdom) and friends in Malawi increased the number to one hundred and one.


The String Figures of Malawi are published in the Bulletin of the International String Figure Association vol. 25.


A short film, which draws on the collection and the presenters' own knowledge, celebrates the conclusion (2020) of this work.


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 here.


In Malawi, please apply to Central Africana Ltd. (Blantyre).

Photographs are from Maryam Girls Teacher Training College (Mangochi District), Mtunthama Trading Centre (Kasungu District), Mua Parish (Dedza District) and Nsanama Village (Machinga District). The display concludes with The String Figures of Rwanda, which were recorded at Kamuzu Academy.


Mlles. Evelyn and Eliza Kanjira (nieces to Mr. Fyson Kanjira, the Bursar of Kamuzu Academy) demonstrate '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 (United Kingdom)


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.

Miss Alisoun Probert introduces the project here and here (.pdf).


Two further contributions to BISFA 25 are available to read online (.pdf): Mr. Richard L. Hewitt, i) How to say "String Figure" in Malawi, and ii) Finding String Figures in Malawi.

The Film

"The String Figures of Malawi" (32:00)


Children from villages around Kamuzu Academy bring c. forty of the string figures (cat's cradles) to life.


00:38 Welcome to Malawi!

02:14 Cathy's Village / Kwa Cathy

25:12 Transformations

29:25 Farewell from Malawi!


The film is dedicated to the principal author of The String Figures of Malawi, Mr. Martin Probert.


Three other films preserve lightly edited video clips of string figures that were recorded in the course of research for BISFA 25.


String at the National Schools Science Fair (Kamuzu Academy)

String at China Week (Kamuzu Academy)

String in the Southern Region of Malawi


The YouTube playlist is available here.


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