Etsha is a small, dusty town in northern Botswana, a two-day drive from the capital Gaborone, on the western banks of the Okavango Delta. Here the villagers live in huts made of reeds and mud, hauling water from the village tap, and eking a living from an unpredictable environment. What the tilled earth does not relinquish in drought years is gathered in the surrounding woodlands, delta islands and floodplains.
Most of the women rely on basket-making, which they can do all year round while minding their children. A top quality, medium-sized basket will bring in about P200, which goes a long way towards feeding and clothing the family.
Weaving was for utilitarian purposes only; the baskets were tightly woven but simply decorated, used to store and carry food. By the 1960s weaving was fast becoming a dying art, as plastic and metal containers found their way to the trading stores of Etsha and surrounding villages.
Only in the 1970s did basket-weaving make a come-back, this time as a commercial venture fostered by a resettlement officer in Etsha who saw weaving as good income generator for Hambukushu refugees. Botswanacraft Marketing Company, whose aim is to provide a market for local handicrafts, became involved in 1973, buying baskets for export to America and Europe and to sell in Botswanacraft retail outlets. The basket industry took off and by the mid-'80s about half of the women in Etsha and Gumare, villages that produce most of Botswana's baskets, were weaving for a living.
In 1986 around 40 basket weavers united in Gumare to form a cooperative called Ngwao Boswa, which means "Let's keep our cultural traditions going." Botswanacraft provided handicraft advisors who helped the women improve their skills and taught them more environmentally benign methods of harvesting the raw materials used for weaving. Today, over 2,500 women in the area rely on basket-weaving, described by many as their best source of income.
In June 1999 eleven of the best weavers in Botswana formed a group working directly with Botswanacraft; this group has since grown to include over twenty weavers. Our objective is to realise a reasonable return for the artist's who invest so much time in these pieces of art.
These weavers have all exhibited at the Botswana National Basket Exhibition and weave to an incredibly high standard.
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Mahurero was born in Angola in 1967, and is the mother of three children. She came to Botswana from Angola when she was a year old. Mahurero's forebears were Hambukushu refugees who crossed over to Botswana from Angola, fleeing war. They trickled down to Etsha where they settled, teaching better basket-weaving skills to the local residents. For centuries her people have made baskets out of shoots of mokola palm (Hyphaene petersiana), indigenous to the area.
Mahurero learnt to weave from her mother, who was a very good weaver. She is now teaching her teenage, pregnant daughter to weave. "She is a foolish girl for eating the food of adults (getting pregnant) when she is still a child". Hopefully the school will allow Shumbi to return once the baby is born. Mahurero will not teach her son to weave because in their religion and culture it is not good for boys to weave.
Traditionally the weavers made baskets only when in need of cash for a specific purpose. Mahurero used to weave for one week and then rest for a week. Now she is a member of the Etsha Weavers Group, and weaves full-time. Mahurero pictures the design in her mind before she begins weaving, so knows what the basket will look like from the beginning. She likes darker colours more as they do not fade so fast. She combines different traditional designs to come up with intricate new patterns, and is one of the best weavers in the country, despite bad eyes which operations do not seem to cure. She has won numerous prizes for her bowl shaped baskets.
In Mahurero, Botswanacraft and the entire industry have a star. Her baskets have been featured - and have won cash prizes - at the annual national Basket and Craft Exhibition coordinated by Botswanacraft, at which only a selection of Botswana's best baskets are displayed.
The company first brought Mahurero to Gaborone for the 1993 exhibit, where she won prizes and gave basket-weaving demonstrations. This was her first encounter with trains, elevators and bright city lights. At the 1995 exhibit, her basket depicting swallows in flight won second prize.
For this exhibit Mahurero was again brought to Gaborone, where she shared her weaving skills with scores of schoolchildren. This time she was able to laugh at her previous naivete.
Although she has no idea how much money she makes a year, for Mahurero never attended school, she is proud to say, "I make a lot of money from baskets. I don't know what I'd do for money without basket-weaving."
Her other options in Etsha are the meagre earnings from the government's drought relief scheme, whereby villagers take turns to build schools, clinics and roads. The standard wage for a six-hour day is P4.50. Or she could collect grass to sell as thatch for roofs, which would also bring in a pittance.
And then there's traditional beer-brewing, making kgadi out of the fruit of the Grewia bicolor tree, which, according to a 1994 study, provides fairly low economic returns.
While basket-making is relatively good money for Mahurero, it requires plenty of hard work. Mokola palm, and motlhakola (Euclea divinorum) and motsentsila (Berchemia discolor) trees from whose bark and roots come natural dyes for the baskets, are increasingly scarce. According to Mahurero, to get her supplies she must travel a half-day, either on foot or by donkey.
She must find only the choicest shoots from a young mokola palm, each of which offers two harvests a year. Each palm offers only about three shoots, a collection of which are cut into strips and boiled in cooking pots with natural dyes. The dried strips are later woven around coils made from palm fibre, grass or vine.
It's a slow, painstaking process, requiring patience and precision. About a month is dedicated to each basket. Although raw materials have been seriously depleted around Gumare and Etsha, the women are now more aware of selective, sustainable harvesting practices.
And they use them. Mahurero says that whereas her peers used to chop down the entire mokola palm to get the shoots, now they use a knife to slice out only the shoots they need, leaving the plant alive. In some areas good harvesting practices are further encouraged by the local headmen.
Those involved in the industry hope that lessons learned in optimal use of the basket-making resources will be passed down from generation to generation, just as the weaving skills have been. As a little girl, Mahurero was taught how to weave by her mother.
Similarly, she teaches her three children - none of whom receive any support from their father - to make baskets. She wants more for them, however, than what her mother was able to give her. "All my children are in school," she says proudly. "I want them to become teachers or office workers, not just basket-makers."
In other words, Mahurero wants them to be a part of the world of traffic lights, computers and televisions, which she glimpses only during her visits to Gaborone during the national exhibit.
Kapanyi was born in 1968 in Botswana. She is a married woman who has two daughters and a son. She is the only child of Maponda.
Her parents used to be given food by the government when they first arrived as refugees. They were given maize meal, cooking oil and donkeys. She learnt weaving from her mother who wove patterned baskets during the 1970's. She is also a farmer. Now she is a full-time weaver with the Etsha Weavers Group.
Her favourite traditional design is the flower. She prefers to weave open baskets because they are faster to complete. Her favourite colour combinations are orange and black. She weaves in order to earn money for her living and take care of her children and to pay school fees.
She collects raw materials with other weavers at the river. It takes a day to collect the raw materials. She buys the dying materials at Shakawe. She is proud of what she does and likes i
Diidhi was born in Shakawe, Botswana in 1968. She is a single mother, with three sons and a daughter.
Diidhi was originally a farmer, growing maize, millet, peanuts and pumpkin. Water is very precious in Botswana, so plants have to rely entirely on rainfall. The area surrounding Etsha is drought prone, making farming a laborious source of food and an unreliable means of subsistence. Ploughing was bearable though tiresome when cattle could be used to plough. As a result of an epidemic lung disease in 1996, all the cattle in that area were killed; thus ploughing is now done by hand using hoes.
Diidhi has decided that weaving full-time is more rewarding than farming, and is now a member of the Etsha Weavers Group.
Diidhi's favourite designs are variations on the traditional sethunya (flower) and peolwane (swallow) designs.
Mayowa was born in Angola in 1958, and came as a refugee to Botswana when she was ten years old. She is married and has two sons and three daughters.
She started weaving when she was 15 years old because other girls her age were learning. She started weaving baskets that were good enough to sell, and soon wove baskets that were graded as CC's (the highest grade). She was encouraged to attend workshops, and was later awarded a certificate qualifying her as a teacher.
Mayowa joined the Etsha Weavers Group in 1999, and now has no time to collect palm in the surrounding area. Instead she can afford to pay others to collect materials for her, so that she can weave full-time. Her favourite pattern is the 'forehead of the zebra', and she prefers weaving closed baskets.
Kathiku was born in 1971 in Botswana at Etsha 7. She lives with her parents and is single. She has three children, a son and two daughters. She learnt from her mother who wove patterned open baskets. Her mother taught her when she showed an interest in what she did.
She first started selling at Etsha Co-op when she was 14 years. After some years she sold some of her basket to BCC, then at the end of 1996 she attended a workshop on basket weaving and how it can be developed. From then on she made rapid improvements in her weaving and was awarded a certificate for being the best weaver in 1998.
In 1999 she joined The Etsha Weavers Group where she is now permanently employed. She weaves all year round. She helps her family with her monthly earnings. Her favorite traditional design is the flower and her favourite dyeing color is red. She is proud of weaving baskets, and she enjoys it.
Maria was born in Angola in 1966. She is single and has no children. Before becoming a professional weaver she was a farmer, mainly growing millet and sorghum.
Her parents arrived as refugees in the late 1960's, during the unrest in Angola. The government of Botswana settled the Angolan refugees in camps, which are a row of villages called Etsha 1 to Etsha 13. They were provided with donkeys, seed and food, but the area is a harsh one. The heat, endless sand and wild animals made subsistence farming a difficult task. Maria says "to be a refugee is not good because you experience many problems such as not knowing the local language in the new area, and apprehension of the local people".
She prefers weaving with light colours, and would rather weave open baskets as they are much faster to complete.
Dishaka was born in Angola. She came with her parents when she was still a baby. She is not married, and has two sons and two daughters. She has taught her teenage daughter how to weave. She learnt weaving from her own mother, who wove patterned, open baskets.
Dishaka is a farmer, and grows millet, maize, peanuts and sorghum. She has to use a hoe to plough because she doesn't have cows or donkeys. She now weaves all year round, and tries out all types of patterns. Her favourite traditional design is the flower, and her favourite colours are black, white and orange. She weaves to earn money to support her children.
She collects the raw materials at the river with other weavers; a palm-collecting trip can take the whole day, and may involve encounters with hippos and other dangerous animals. Dye materials are found in other places. Dishaka is proud of what she does and enjoys it.
Tukarenao was born in 1973 at Etsha 7, Botswana. She is single with a son and a daughter, and lives with her parents. She learnt weaving from her mother who used to sell her baskets in the 1980's to the Botswana Christian Council.
In 1990 Tukarenao dropped out of school and started weaving in order to earn an income. She was identified as a very good weaver and was taken to Gumare to be trained as a basket-weaving teacher in 1992. She then decided to join the Etsha Weavers Group, where she weaves all year round.
Tukarenao prefers weaving open, bowl shaped baskets, as they are easier and faster to make than closed ones. Her favourite colour is black because she feels it makes the basket more beautiful and stri
Mokwahepo was born in Botswana in 1971 at Etsha 11. She is has two sons and a daughter, and still lives with her parents at Etsha 11. To get to Etsha 6 where the basket weaving group works takes two hours, so Mokwahepo is hoping to move soon.
Mokwahepo's favourite colour in baskets is red, and she sometimes makes trips as far as Shakawe to collect dyeing bark. She prefers to weave open, bowl shaped baskets, as they are faster to complete. Like most of the inhabitants in that area, Mokwahepo was once a farmer, but much prefers to be a full time weaver. The income is higher, regular and does not rely on sporadic rainfall. She is proud to be a weaver, and loves the fact that her baskets are sold to people in far away countries.
Thimporeni was born in Angola in 1953, and came to Botswana as a refugee with her parents when she was 10 years old. Single, with no children, Thimporeni and one of her sisters are the sole providers in a family of six. Originally a farmer, she now weaves full-time as part of the Botswanacraft group of weavers.
The Mbukushu collect their raw materials in the surrounding countryside. Trips for collecting materials can take up to three days, and they do not eat for the duration of the trip because if you touch fire or prepare food before leaving it is believed that wild animals will eat you. The journey is solemn, as full concentration is required to avoid animals.
Such superstitions were reinforced when a crocodile bit Thimporeni on one such trip! She now buys all her materials from people who do not mind going into the bush. A gifted weaver, Thimporeni specialises in weaving closed baskets, even though they take much longer to complete. She has won prizes for the larger works.
Kayana was born in Botswana in 1976 at Etsha 13. She is a single mother with one son. She lives with her mother in Etsha 6.
She learned weaving from her mother at the age of 14. Her mother taught her to weave closed and open baskets with different patterns. She is a member of the Etsha Weavers Group and weaves different types of patterns and designs.
She says one of the main problems of basket weaving is the shortage of raw materials, and the difficulty in collecting tmaterials from the surrounding area. She attended workshops at Sa-Tau village in 2000 which helped her improve her weaving. She enjoys weaving and is proud of her baskets.
Mashe was born in 1965 in Angola .She came to Botswana in 1969 when she was four years old. She is not married and has no children.
She is a farmer and uses donkeys to plough. She learned weaving from her mother in the 80's at the age of 17. She used to sell baskets at BCC, then she joined the Etsha Weavers Group in 2000. She now weaves all the year round. Her favorite traditional design is forehead of the zebra and her favorite colours are black and yellow. She is proud of weaving baskets and she likes it.
Born in Etsha, Botswana, in 1970 Napemba is married and has a daughter and two sons. She learned weaving from her mother who wove patterned, bowl shaped baskets. Many of the women in her mother's generation did not know how to weave patterned baskets.
Napemba used to be a farmer as well as a weaver, but she now weaves baskets all year round. She likes to try out different designs, but her favourite pattern is the flower. She prefers to combine black dye obtained from Motlhakola (Euclea divinorun) roots, natural Mokola palm and Motsentsila (Berchemia discolor) which gives an orange-brown dye.
Napemba prefers to buy the raw materials when possible, as she doesn't like encountering snakes and other dangerous animals. However she does still collect them if other weavers are going collecting.
Keitumetse was born in Botswana at Etsha 7 in 1978. She is a single mother with two daughters. She was left an orphan at an early age.
She learned weaving from relatives who wove patterned open and closed baskets. She was interested in weaving and started making her own which were not of a high grade and needed much improvement. She tried for some years and in 1991 she started selling her baskets at BCC even though they were graded as normal standard. She was nominated a cook at the Etsha Weavers Group, but when she is through cooking she continues with her weaving. Today her baskets have reached the quality of her co-workers, even surpassing some of them, and another cook has been found. Her favorite traditional design is peolwane (swallows). She is very proud of weaving and enjoys it.
Kurushe was born in 1971 in Botswana at Etsha 7. She is unmarried and has one son and three daughters. She lives with her parents at Etsha 6.
She was a farmer who grew millet, beans and groundnuts. During her spare time when she came back from the lands, she wove baskets. She learned weaving from her mother in 1984 but experienced some problems when weaving. She also had difficulties making good designs and patterns. In 1990 she attended workshops at Etsha 2, where she improved markedly.
She is now a permanent member of the Etsha Weavers Group. She weaves all year round making different types of patterns and designs. She prefers open baskets because they are easy to weave. Her favorite traditional design is daylight and she prefers using black and orange dyes. She is proud of what she does and likes it because she regards it as a career. She buys the palms when she doesn't have enough time to go to the river with other weavers. She is keen to teach her children how to weave when they are mature enough.
Kare was born in Angola in 1966, and fled the civil war to Botswana with her parents when she was two years old. She is a single parent with five daughters and one son. She learnt to weave from her mother when she was 12 years old.
Kare worked at the Botswana Christian Council in the 1990's as a basket grader. This involves checking the use of colour, the tightness of the weave, the design and the quality of the finish. She says the job was difficult, as some people did not accept the grades she awarded their baskets, and the grading method. This made her unhappy, and she was relieved when she was invited to join the Etsha Weavers Group in 2001.
Kare prefers to collect her own materials, going as far as Nxamasere for the dye materials, but sometimes buys from other people as collecting can be dangerous.
Kushamona was born at Shakawe in Northern Botswana. She lives with her parents. She is not married and has two daughters and a son. She learnt weaving from her mother, who wove patterned open baskets.
Her children are still young so she can not teach them to weave. She weaves all year round, and tries out all types of patterns. Her favourite design is 'forehead of the zebra', and her favourite colours are black and orange. She weaves to earn money to support her children.
Kushamona collects the raw materials at the river with her mother. She has not encountered any problems during the collection of materials. She is proud of her baskets.
Tupwemo was born in Angola in 1969. She is married and has a son and a daughter. She learnt weaving from her mother who is still an active basket weaver, though not as good as Tupwemo. She is now teaching her own daughter how to weave.
Tupwemo weaves using the traditional coil method. Either a thin bundle of palm fibre, grass, or a single piece of vine is used for the interior of the coil. To make a basket, a small hole is pierced into the previously woven row with an awl, and then a strip of palm is inserted into the hole and wrapped around the core. Weaving strips of dyed palm into the appropriate places creates designs such as Tupwemo's favourite traditional flower pattern. It takes Tupwemo four to six weeks to complete a basket, weaving daily.
Moshinga was born in 1970 at Shakawe, Botswana. She is unmarried and has four sons.
Her third son has disappointed her by dropping out of school at the age of 11 years. She is worried about how he will support himself later in life.
Before becoming a full-time weaver at the Etsha Weavers Group Moshinga supported her children and herself by farming and occasionally weaving baskets. She joined the Group in November 2001, and is happy there because she earns more money with which to feed her children.
Although Moshinga can now weave intricately designed baskets which are of the highest quality, she still loves weaving the traditional 'peolwane' (swallow) design, using black and orange dyes as they contrast so well.
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