Weathering the Storm

Craftmaking in Zimbabwe

So what’s new and happening with the crafters in Zimbabwe?

Going back to Zimbabwe where I lived for 20 years, is always a great thrill and an opportunity to visit some of the many crafters who I used to work with. The social and economic woes that have afflicted the country over the past years have made life for craft makers difficult and I wanted to see how they are weathering these stormy times.

The major problem has been the loss of markets which has come about with the downturn of the tourist industry, and the fact that international buyers who may also be experiencing financial constraints, are wary of the current problems in the country.

What a wonderful surprise it was to see that there are some beautiful new products and local craft fairs and markets abound providing a showcase for these newly minted crafts. Craft skills are deeply embedded in the Zimbabwean culture and offer us an insight into, and understanding of the people and their lives.  The country is also lucky to have an abundance of the natural resources used by many craft makers.

In Bulawayo, the second city of Zimbabwe, crafters at Bulawayo Home Industries, are making some wonderfully quirky, reed and ilala palm fibre baskets which look a little bit like giant garlic bulbs and are inspired by a workshop in 2014, part of project co-sponsored by the British Council, Alliance Française and the Zimbabwe German Society, working with French designer Matali Crasset.   On their looms, they had table runners and mats woven with dyed reed and cotton.  And what about a shiny beach bag and mat, the work of one very old woman who collects wrappers from crisp packets and sweets dropped in the street by kids and carefully folds and stitches them!  How resourceful is that – something unique and colourful to carry your kit to the beach in! 

Bulawayo Home Industries has their own herd of mohair goats and exports hand dyed and knitted mohair scarves and hats to Japan.  They also make fine quality crocheted plain, heavy natural cotton throws are also available to order in the small shop at the centre.

The Lupane Women’s Centre, 171kms from Bulawayo on the road to Victoria Falls, is a successful community development initiative which, among it’s other projects has been running craft skills training and design workshops since it’s inception in 2005 for women living within a 60kms radius of Lupane.  Here we met a group of women sitting in the shade of trees, singing as they worked on new patterns for the traditional nambya baskets and their ‘porqupine quill’ baskets.  Lupane women make a wide range of quality, functional basketware and have established export markets in southern Africa and Europe.

From Lupane we continued on another 75kms to Gwayi River where potters have been making their wares since the 1980s.  Today there are about twenty five men and women who are hand building and decorating a range of plant pots, shrub planters and very large sculptural urns which would look amazing on patios, in gardens or in hotel foyers.  With far fewer buyers passing through Gwayi River, marketing has been difficult for this community – packaging and moving rather large ceramics is a problem, but the potters are able to bring orders to Bulawayo or up to Harare for despatch and the National Handicraft Centre will assist them.

Our next stop was at Dete a small village on the edge of the Hwange National Park where Iganyana Arts and Crafts, whose motto is Creating for Conservation, has upwards of seventy women making very fine nambya baskets, beaded wire animals, lovely little beaded Christmas decorations and both one of-a-kind and contemporary beaded jewellery .  But they also have another product that poignantly illustrates their conservation message.

Poaching in the National Park has seen serious decimation of the rhino and elephant populations and Iganyana is retrieving  the wire from which the snares are made that catch and kill the animals, and with this they make Snare Wire Art –faithful reproductions of animals that are found in Hwange. One third of Iganyana sales earnings goes back into wildlife conservation in the park and by supporting this project you will be buying fine quality crafts and helping to control poaching in Zimbabwe’s national parks.  Take a look at the Painted Dog website and understand how projects such as Iganyana are helping both the local community as well as endangered species in the Hwange National Park.

After a night in Hwange National Park, we continued on towards Binga on the eastern shores of Lake Kariba, an area where some of Africa’s finest palm fibre baskets are made by Batonga women with patterns created using natural dyes - recipes well known to these basket makers.

Majestically scenic but with harshly barren terrain, the production of isangwa, nsosa, nongo and chipali baskets is an important source of income and the on-going evolution of shape and pattern hopefully ensures that these beautiful baskets will continue to fascinate buyers and provide an income in this remote part of Zimbabwe. 

At Busungu Bunsiwatweezye club, there are 35 women making baskets and the National Handicraft Centre coordinator in the area, Lamek Mumpande said that he is working with four groups – a total of about 350 basket weavers.  And there is also the Binga Craft Centre, located right in the centre of the small town of Binga, where Matabbeki Mudenda is the manager  - this is a very rich seam of excellent basketry products.

This is also the area where some of the traditional Batonga craft can still be found - drums made and used in ceremonies and funerals, stools and headrests and the intricately carved doors from Batonga houses and granaries. Sadly, there is today very little left of the traditional Batonga beadwork which used to be an important signification of status and it would be interesting to see a project created to regenerate these skills before the generation who knew them so well, disappears.

This article has tended to focus on some of the very fine basketry produced in Zimbabwe but there are plenty of other interesting new developments and projects being born!

In Harare we visited a joint Danish/Zimbabwean initiative that is producing a range of contemporary, utilitarian stonewares – very stylish, clean Scandinavian designs beautifully executed by twenty Zimbabwean stone carvers at the Chitungwiza Arts Centre in collaboration with Fair Trade Designers, a Danish trio of product designers.   This very successful partnership is filling a niche which has, until today, not been much focussed on by Zimbabwe’s stone sculptors.  Designs in metal and textiles are being explored at the moment and it will be interesting to see new pieces coming from this innovative cooperation which is already exporting to southern African countries and Europe.  House by the Sea facilitates sales and exports of these products which are currently on show at a new exhibition at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe in Harare.

In Harare there are several workshops making handmade paper products – albums, notebooks, boxes, picture frames, menu holders, paper bags etc.  The paper quality is good, colourful and the products are well finished, can be produced in quite large quantities and would make very acceptable corporate or birthday gifts. 

And beadwork is there as well!  Using glass beads from the Czech Republic we found some beautiful pieces at Marigold Beading in Pelandaba in the suburbs of Bulawayo – this group of fourteen skilled women beaders will make up designs provided by their customers and this project will certainly go far as it becomes better known.

This article touches on some of the craft projects in Zimbabwe that we were able to see in our short visit, but there are very many that deserve mention but which will have to wait for the next visit!  So you might ask what’s new and happening in Zimbabwe?  Well a lot that is very well worth a closer look!

The National Handicraft Centre which works with the craft sector throughout the country will link potential customers to producers and facilitate export orders if the producer groups themselves are unable to. Zimbabwe Applied Arts in Craft Association (ZAACA) is a membership organisation for producers and the National Galleries in Harare, Bulawayo and Mutare can all advise and direct enquiries appropriately.

A website resource guide for Zimbabwe craft producers is in the process of being compiled and will provide contacts for craft producers around the country together with information on shipping, export documentation, banking etc.

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