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The hidden value of basket craft

The hidden value of basket craft

Flight of the Swallow by Thitaku Kushonya
Flight of the Swallow by Thitaku Kushonya
Dr Rachel DeMotts

Southern Africa is a tourist destination because of the relative ease of seeing wildlife roaming freely in a unique landscape, but making conservation work on the ground for the local communities that live with wildlife every day is a major challenge.

Community-based conservation is a popular strategy that seeks to help mitigate some of the negative effects of living closely with wildlife – such as conflict between people and elephants over water, food, and space – while working towards more equitable sharing of benefits from the wealth that tourism can bring.

But managing wildlife is often seen as the domain of men, and sometimes this means women are left out of the conservation picture at the village level. At the same time, women harvest forest resources and play a crucial part in conserving the landscape itself, not just the wildlife.

One very important local resource for women is palm, which is used to weave the stunning baskets for which Botswana in particular is famous but which are made throughout southern Africa. With evocative names such as ‘The Tears of the Giraffe’ or ‘The Urine Trail of the Bull,’ baskets are a crucial form of cultural expression for local women and also give them access to cash income, often a rarity in rural areas.

Community conservation projects such as those facilitated by Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation in Namibia’s Caprivi Strip help women monitor the resources they use so that they can share and trade them sustainably. Equally important, women manage their own markets, such as Mashi Crafts, located at Kongola in the Caprivi, or Quality Baskets, a shop run by Thitaku Kushonya, a master weaver in Maun. Mma Kushonya, as she is called, teaches other women to weave and is currently building a small Hambukushu cultural village to share with tourists.

“My art is not only for me but it is also for other people, to help them to remember their culture but also to make income from tourism,” she says. “I depend on my work, because tourism is very important here in an area where there is often no other work for people. In this way, we can teach tourists something about our culture and this place, too.”

Employment in conservation projects, opportunities to learn new skills, and the ability to make decisions about their own income and craft markets have a transformational effect on individual women. Many women who make crafts for the market at Mashi, for example, use the funds they earn to pay school fees for their daughters who might not otherwise be able to attend school.

Baskets can provide more than just a lovely memory of a safari. They carry not just cultural knowledge, but the opportunity to enrich local women’s lives through participating in tourism.

Read more articles from this issue:
Zambezi Traveller (Issue 12, March 2013)

Read more about the region in our destination guide: