Basket weavers preserving their culture through art
The art of basket weaving is a renowned tradition for most tribes in the Ngamiland district and has put Botswana on the map as a pioneering basket weaving in the Southern African region. This artistry, which is highly dominated by women, became more formalized in Etsha village in the early1970’s. With a robust weaving tradition, Ngamiland Basket Weavers Trust (NBWT) was formed as a community based organization in 2002 to represent basket weavers in the district. One of the founding members and project manager, Karenya Pithatho, revealed that their Hambukushu traditional baskets were originally kitchen tools with different styles indicating their different functions, which is not the case these days as they are now mostly used as decorative objects.” Due to that change we have since found a niche in the basket weaving market which is highly profitable and we are able to feed our children.
The Okavango region is primarily agricultural which puts us at a distinct advantage. We also transfer our weaving skills to any interested individuals so that our tradition live son,” Phithatho said. However, during the 1970’s baskets were simply made with dried palm fronds and did not have any decorative patterns. “When tourists came to our villages they bought some of our baskets as souvenirs and they gave us the idea that we could also make money from our heritage. They kept coming back with photographs of wild animals and our natural environment and asked us to incorporate those images into the patterns of our baskets. That is when we learned to make patterned baskets that had a larger appeal as compared to our initial plain baskets,” she added.
Since then the dried palm fronds were tinted red, gold and black from a dye made from the roots of native plants in the Okavango Delta. “Weavers soak the fronds in water until they are pliable and start weaving them in tight rounds using a large needle. A small basket can take as little as a week while large and complicated ones may require months of work,” she said. Today the elegant patterns of the baskets are inspired by the rich variety of wildlife and vegetation in the Okavango Delta. The running ostrich, forehead of the zebra, goats, an elephant’s trunk, ribs of the giraffe and cattle are some of the common patterns found in baskets. The first patterned basket made by NBWT titled “Kgomo e phatshwana” was bought by the second President of the Botswana, Sir Ketumile Masire.
Even though basket weavers harvest their raw materials in their natural environment, Phithatho said that they are learning to harvest their materials in a sustainable manner and replace depleted palms. “We now have a nursery of Mokolwane trees and other plants that are used to dye our products,” she added. NBWT is an open membership for basket weavers in the Shakawe, Zorotsha, Gonotsoga, Gumare, Mohembo, Seronga and Etsha 1, 6, 9 and 13 villages.