Craft Uplifts Binga Women's Lives

The Herald (Harare)
March 3, 2007
Posted to the web March 3, 2007

By Kamurai Mudzingwa

Tonga women in Binga have turned a natural resource -- ilala palm -- with the help of Binga Craft Centre, into a treasured commodity through weaving beautiful products.

The craft centre, whose mission is to economically empower women producing Tonga crafts through sustainable use of natural resources, has done a lot to promote women's craft in Binga District.

The Tonga people, who have always lived close to the Zambezi River, have, like the weaverbird, perfected the art of weaving to such an extent that they have managed to captivate the world with their craftsmanship.

According to Betty Mwinde, the quality controller at the centre, the woven products are in such high demand that some of them are exported as far as the United States of America.

But it is the organised manner in which the Tonga women conduct their business with the craft centre that deserves special mention.

The Binga Craft Centre was established in 1989 and has since transformed into a members' association comprising 33 affiliate clubs with a total of 4 000 women. All the women are basket weavers.

"The women join the clubs in their areas. Joining is voluntary. We train them for a period of two weeks during the June-July period. Then they weave the baskets at their homes or at centres around their home area. We then go and collect the baskets and sell them for the women."

This is the advantage of being a club member because there won't be any hassles about transport and marketing on the part of the member, taking into cognisance the transport problems in the area due to bad roads.

Activity around the craft centre during the rainy season is low because the women would be concentrating on fieldwork.

The major craft product is the Tonga traditional basket that is woven in different shapes and sizes and the process takes about a week.

First, the ilala palm has to be cut down and stripped into thin pieces. It is then boiled and dried. The ilala has to be dried, a process which involves the collection of the bird plum tree bark (Berchemia). The bark is then pounded and boiled together with the ilala so that the latter is dyed. Dyed ilala is then dried before being weaved into different pieces of art.

What is also significant is that the craft centre trains women in environmental management since the resources they use are natural. The women are taught how to plant and harvest ilala palm. This could be a first case in the country, if not in the world, where ilala palm is actually planted and harvested to augment supplies and for conservation.

In many areas, the palm is just harvested because it grows naturally. This also signifies the seriousness with which the craft is taken in the area.

The women also receive training in quality control and the exquisite products that they produce evince this.

Because the centre has a board of management consisting of eight women who are all basket producers, the centre ensures that members are also equipped with the knowledge of the roles of the board. Those who lead clubs are trained in the art of running the affairs of the clubs.

One woman, Mbaita Muleya, according to Mwinde, is attributed with the success of the club concept in the district. She is hailed as the one who transformed the traditional Tonga basket used in the valley into an exquisite piece of art.

"We can say that she is also the founder member of the clubs," said Mwinde.

The women's craft has gone a long way in empowering them financially.

Binga District is located in Region Five and that means it is semi-arid. As a result, other sources of income and survival apart from crop production are crucial.

The craft products are very important for the women because they augment their monetary resources.

"Life is expensive these days. A 5kg packet of maize meal is going for $10 000 in this area. We also need money for school fees and uniforms. Where would we get that money were it not for the baskets?" said one woman.

Their products have been a source of attraction for tourists who are their major customers locally. Some lodges in Binga have the Binga Craft Centre pamphlet that advertises the products readily available for tourists.

"Sometimes we buy the craft products from the centre and then sell them to tourists whom we host at our lodges," said one lodge manager.

"We refer those who want bulk orders to the centre," she added.

Tinashe Makasi, a customer and regular trader of the crafts, said Zimbabwean craft was in demand outside the borders. He makes regular trips to buy these unique baskets for resale in South Africa.

"About 90 percent of the crafts in South Africa are supplied by Zimbabweans," he said.

It is obvious that the crafts end up outside the South African borders as most of the people who buy ship them to other parts of the world.

He said he has been selling the craft for the past four years in South Africa and now has regular customers.

"The market is huge," he enthused.

However, despite the level of success that these women have scored to date, there are several challenges they continue to face, with lack of funding being one of them.

"We need more money to fund our clubs and to assist the women," said Mwinde.

The shrinking tourist base, owing to negative publicity, has adversely affected business at the centre.

"Tourists are our greatest customers, but now they are few and this has affected our business," said one source.

But the fact remains that the unique club organisation and use of the ilala palm has uplifted the lives of many women in the district. What is needed is financial support for the initiative and their protection from unscrupulous dealers.

"Sometimes people take advantage of some of these women particularly during hard times. They swap cheap commodities such as sugar and soap for their expensive craft that they later resell for a killing outside the country. This is exploitation and it kills the value of art," said Makasi.

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