Namibia is the second least populated country on Earth. The best basket weavers in all of Namibia live in the Kavango region, a colorful land fed by the Kavango River, full of tiger fish, black mambas, crocodiles, wetland birds and hippopotamuses. Large extended families live in rural homesteads made up of an assortment of thatched huts. Lifestyles revolve around subsistence agriculture and fishing. Basket weaving also plays a major role in the lives of the women, their families, and their community. Baskets are, of course, an expression of the women, but basket making also illustrates a refined synchronization between the women and the natural environment—palm is harvested from along the river, dyes are extracted from roots and bark, and even the beautiful finish braid is named mugongo gwambwindi, or “spine of the tilapia.” Haushiku Richildis, Elisabeth Modise and Patricia Kativa are three master weavers for the FAWENA Kavango Basket Project. Here they describe their lives as master weavers in their own words.
Hello, or as we say in the Diriku language “Morokenu.” My name is Haushiko Richildis and I am 27 years old. I have three children—a boy and two girls. Besides my children, basket weaving is the best thing in my life.
Gathering the palm for our baskets is difficult and often there is a shortage. Our village is on the Naimiban side of the Kavango River. The other side of the river is Angola. We cross the Kavango River in a dugout canoe and go into Angola to collect the palm because it is very plentiful there. After we cross the river, we walk a dozen kilometers to the palm. But, the river has lots of hippopotamuses and they can tip over our dugout canoe. Once, when I was returning from gathering palm, my canoe was being chased and pushed by a hippo and I will never foget that because it really terrified me! During the dry season, the elephants come to drink at the river and we must avoid them as well. They scare us because of their size but, unlike hippos, elephants are usually not dangerous. The elephants also eat the palm. The rainy season is the best time to gather palm, starting in January, because the flood plains fill with water and we can row the canoe all the way to the palm fields. We always go as a group to collect palm for our baskets, because, in addition to wild animals, criminals also hide in the Angola bush. They like to kill people to get body parts, such as human private parts, to sell to witchdoctors. The witchdoctors put spells on people and help people to become lucky or gain money, and body parts are needed for these spells.
My husband, Nyangana Faustinus, is a farmer. He doesn’t earn much money. By weaving and selling baskets, I earn much more than my husband does. If I can weave full-time I can make up to five baskets each month. Then I can earn $600-700 Namibian ($75-$90 USD). I think we are paid fairly for our work and the Kavango Basket Project is paying us much better than other projects where I sold my baskets before. I help feed my husband though he is not working. If I was stingy with him, he would probably leave. He often goes to collect the palm, which is a big help. My biggest worry is about becoming sick and not knowing what would happen to my children. The father of my first two children passed away so it is a struggle to support them alone, but I can pay their school fees, buy soap and cooking oil by making baskets.
I estimate that I have made 800 baskets in my lifetime and I have sold every single one—I have none sitting around the house. I like summer the best because then there are more hours of light to work on my basket weaving into the evening. We don’t have electricity so that limits the amount of time I can weave to daylight hours. I love village life. Villagers don’t have much, but we have large fields to cultivate and weaving supplies such as palm and natural dyes are plentiful in the countryside. Village life is also very inexpensive as compared to cities.
My name is Elisabeth Modise and I was born in 1983. I have a husband, two children and I am pregnant with my third child. I am considered one of the master weavers in the region because of my distinctive designs and nicely shaped baskets. I love weaving baskets because the weavers are very united. Also, weaving allows me to help support my family and sometimes buy a toy for my daughter, which is often one of my happiest moments.
Most days, I wake up very early and cook traditional foods like wild spinach (mutete), pumpkin leaves (lihidi lyamalyangwa), wild indigenous beans and peanuts (nonsivi and nongomene), and wild fruits (maguni, makwewo, matu). I also gather firewood, wash clothes, and sometimes I look after our herd of twenty-five cattle. But I devote most of my time to basket weaving, which is how I earn my living.
Let me tell you how to judge a good Kavango basket. Important indicators of quality are that, first, all palm must be shredded to an equal width. Next, the coil must also be of the same size from the beginning to the end. If it is not, the basket will be bumpy. Then, the colors must combine well, and the natural dyes must be fresh and vibrant, not faded. The shape must be pleasing and the basket must be sturdy and strong, not floppy. The basket must be clean and it is okay to wash it with detergent when finished. This will not affect the natural dyes. The design must be good, and if it is unique or original, even better. My designs are always different and I consider that the designs come from God. Finally, the start and finish must be smooth.
I do the natural dye for most of my colors. Most of the materials are things I find in the bush, but some of them I buy. For example, the bark from the ukerete tree (Birdplum) makes a deep, dark brown, mpumutji (Magic Quarry) makes a deep green, uhuva (Bloodwood) makes salmon pink. Black is obtained by putting brown dyed palm in a bucket with nonsivi leaves and charcoal. I leave it a few days and the palm becomes black as midnight.
Now I will explain how to dye the naturally white-beige palm to a dark brown shade. I go to the bush and find the Ukerete (Birdplum) tree. With a large knife, I cut the bark off but many of the trees are already denuded of the bark. One must be careful to only cut the bark, and not the wood, or the tree will probably die. I take the bark home and pound it into a powder, which is a strenuous activity. Once it is near powder, water is boiled on the fire. Then the palm fronds and the powdered ukerete is added to the boiling water. It must only be cooked for a few minutes. The dyed palm must be dried in the shade and the palm will be ready for use the next day. I also experiment with materials to find new colors. I just gathered a purple fruit, which I have dried and will experiment with it as a dye.
Weaving helps distract me from problems. If I am having bad or negative thoughts, those thoughts disappear when I put my concentration into working on a basket. The worst problem here is death and the orphans left behind because of HIV/AIDS epidemic. I would estimate that half the homesteads are taking care of orphans. It also feels good when I finish a basket; I have a sense of accomplishment, and starting a new basket gives me something to look forward to.
My name is Patricia Kativa, I am 37 years old, and I have four children. I am known as a master weaver because my baskets are some of the most finely and delicately woven one can find. I started making baskets in 1993 and I learned from family members.
First, weaving offers me the best way to earn income. The only other employment available is to work in someone’s field. But fieldwork is hard manual labor in the harsh sun and that only pays $15 Namibian ($2 USD) per day. Second, basket weaving it is also functional. I use baskets around the house for sifting pearl millet, our traditional grain that we grow and that we eat everyday. I put the pounded grain in the basket and toss the millet into the air. The breeze blows the chaff (bran) away, while the millet falls back into the basket. Baskets are also used for carrying certain fruits and beans in the bush, sometimes even dirt or manure. Recently we started making baskets in more elaborate patterns and brighter colors for the commercial craft trade.
Though I live in a thatch hut and live a simple lifestyle, I have pride in my purpose, which is basket weaving. I am often encouraged and shown respect by others for sustaining our traditional culture of weaving. Almost no modern Kavangos who live in towns know how to weave. It seems they are forgetting our local culture because they just buy things, mostly foreign made. My husband is disabled so he received a small monthly sum from the government. Often I earn more than he earns, but not always. He also encourages me to make baskets, as do many other people. But he does not make baskets because in our culture, weaving is a symbol of feminine duty.
Recently, weaving is giving me many exciting prospects and offering me opportunities to travel outside of my village. In May 2012, I was a paid teacher at the FAWENA Kavango Basket Project weaving workshop for one week. Now I am teaching a month-long workshop at the Ministry of Youth, Sport and Culture. I am also a new board member for the FAWENA Kavango Basket Project. Last month I was even invited as a guest to an exposition for women in business. I am always looking for opportunities around weaving and am hopeful that one of these days, a job that I have been preparing for will become available. I even might travel overseas to teach basket weaving soon.
But weaving still pays us too little - prices are too low. Even if I weave full time, I can only weave about five baskets per month. The maximum I can earn is $700 NAD per month (about $80 US.) So it seems that no matter how hard I work, I remain in poverty. A fifteen percent increase would be reasonable.
For more information about the Kavango Basket Project, email Terra Fuller (writer) at firstname.lastname@example.org or Haingura Getruida (translater) at email@example.com. For more information about purchasing baskets, visit Woven Promises at www.wovenpromises.com.