The Royal Chundu Homeschool Lesson #22

We are realising, more and more, as a global society, the importance and urgency of turning toward organic and sustainable lifestyles and eschewing carbon-heavy, non-biodegradable activities and products, such as plastic. Very often, ironically, these more sustainable ways of living, producing and consuming can be found in the traditions of our past.

For the women and men in the Malambo Village alongside us at Royal Chundu, the art of weaving is practiced today just as it has been for decades – to make mats, baskets, fish traps, fences and bedding, as needed. Not only are these handwoven items better for the earth, but they also empower the community, as the women in the village create arts and crafts that they sell to our guests to create an income.

Weaving is one of the many ways of “putting food on the table” in rural regions across the world, particularly where jobs or opportunities may be scarce. Many women and men in villages in parts of Zambia, and across Africa, survive through their ability to transform everyday objects into works of art. Traditional weaving is a skill that feeds families, instills a much-needed sense of pride in the artist and makes the world a more beautiful place.

The makenge tree is a resource turned to by such artists when scouting the tools of their trade…

It grows in eastern and southern Africa. In South Africa it is known as a fluisterboom (whispering tree). In Zambia it grows in the miombo and munga woodlands and gives its name to a woven bowl that could tell a fascinating story.

Also known as the large-fruited bushwillow, the makenge tree’s dry seeds have wings that whisper in the wind, seeds that can fly. It is, however, the roots that are used in the making of woven makenge baskets. The roots are peeled, boiled and dyed, after which they are dried and are then ready for weaving. The women of the Barotsi and Losi tribe in Zambia spend several days creating each intricate basket. Handwoven baskets that, in a centuries-old Zambian tradition, are given to a newly-married bride and that, one day, she herself will pass on to her own daughter.

The baskets are used to winnow grain or carry food. They are often passed from mothers to daughters, lasting over 100 years. They will be there for every celebration, every birth, every flood and every drought, they will be filled to overflowing one year and empty the next. If only they could talk.

Another resource for weaving is the lala palm…

The tree grows in much of tropical and Southern Africa, standing either as tall lonely sentinels or in clusters. Its ginger flavoured fruit is eaten, leaving the hard golf-ball sized seeds which are carved with intricate patterns to reveal the ivory coloured inner layer. These are sold as ornaments, trinkets and curios.

The young pliable palm leaves are harvested, boiled and then dried in the sun to prepare them for weaving. The BaTonga of Zimbabwe and Southern Zambia are famous for their basket weaving skills and dramatic patterns traditionally in the shape of a spider web or lightning. The baskets are finished with a distinctive herringbone pattern rim.

For thousands of years, using available local resources such as reeds, grass, roots, palm leaves and lots of time, African tribes have been weaving working baskets shaped to suit their needs. For carrying and storage of mielie meal, for sieving and winnowing of wheat and even as fish traps, beer strainers, flour sieves, sleeping and eating mats and a variety of tableware.

It is a skill traditionally perfected by women, using different materials and adding a touch of themselves and their culture to each basket and after centuries they have transformed coiling, plaiting and twining into a contemporary art form.

Artists from around the world have used these African basket designs as inspiration to create their own modern artwork utilising materials like plastic and telephone wire. Locally, they are humble working-class baskets, but internationally they have caught the eye of interior designers and can be seen hanging out with other African wall baskets in stylish homes in ‘wall galleries‘.

As for traditional mats…

Mats woven from reeds by the Lozi people of the Barotseland region of Zambia have been used for sitting and sleeping on since we first decided to give ourselves a bit of space between us and the dusty earth. The thin layer of reeds grown on the Barotse Floodplain in the country have allowed sleepers and sitters to remain connected to their world, to remain grounded. The different patterns and designs have allowed them to extend the journey of art with a purpose, while helping to support themselves and their families.

The weaving of mats and baskets by hand extends far outside of Africa…

Many forms and raw materials are used, reflecting the environment in which they are made: bamboo, liana vines, roots, reeds, grasses, rushes, papyrus palm leaves, bark and sisal. They are decorated with symbolic designs, using traditional dyes made from different coloured soils, roots, bark and leaves.

Traditional weaving used to be simply about baskets and mats, but in these days of climate change, the rules have shifted. It became, for a time, easier to buy a plastic bucket and to use throw-away plastic bags. But non-biodegradable plastic has made its way into our rivers and food chain and there is even doubt about whether biodegradable plastic does what is says. Traditional weaving for baskets, for instance, is a solution to this, a return to re-usable bags that came from the Earth and will return to the Earth. Traditional hand-weaving instills pride, provides independence and has the simple ability to bring a community together.

Another lesson that the new and shiny isn’t always better than the old, tried and traditional…