The Namibian (Windhoek)

4 February 2013

Namibia: Crafting a Living in Caprivi

FLORENCE Muatuli has just come in from ploughing the maize field with oxen. It is December and the rains are gathering. By nine thirty in the morning it is already hot, and Florence flops down gratefully on the reed mat on the sand, in front of her traditional house made of mud on a wooden framework.

On the mat are circles of tightly woven reeds - the beginnings of baskets Florence will continue with throughout the day, and eventually sell at Mashi Crafts, on the main road to Katima Mulilo.

Florence is an expert weaver who teaches others her craft. Like most of the craft work at Mashi, her baskets are beautiful and produced to a high standard, but it wasn't always that way.

Like most girls in Kongola village, Florence learnt to make baskets at her mother's knee. While she talks about basket making, her daughter Nephie is sifting maize flour from a basket into the cooking pot for a late breakfast of pap after the ploughing. In the old days baskets were strictly functional: large and deep to carry mealies from the field, wide to dry them in the sun, and smaller ones to sift the white flour from the chaff.

These days maize is taken to the hammer mill, but the milling price is high, says Florence. Everything costs money, especially school fees and uniforms. Cash is increasingly important, so the money she earns from basket making is a godsend. Still, it's not much: something that tourists could keep in mind when looking for a bargain. A small basket brings in fifty Namibia dollars, a large one two hundred, and Mashi crafts takes a small markup.

It takes a couple of weeks to make a medium-sized basket, doing it on the side of the other farm and house work. Florence says she feels free while she weaves. The patterns in the baskets are traditional. Light brown is the natural colour of the river reeds. Dark brown comes from the tree. The bark is pounded to a powder and boiled in water to make a dye. Brightly coloured baskets use chemical dyes.

When Mashi Crafts started up with help from support NGOs, the idea was to boost women's income in conservancies. Quality was important, and Florence learnt from ladies in Mashi Conservancy. Now she is happy to pass on her skills to others.

Just across the border, in Zambia, women in Imusho are learning how to produce crafts to the standard that tourists are looking for. An NGO pays Florence a small fee to teach basket weaving, but that's not the main thing: "It's good to help," she says. It's a small example of trans-border cooperation which is building up between Caprivian conservancies and the neighbouring countries in Kaza, the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area. When Mashi makes a sale, an SMS is sent to the weaver in Zambia who will walk 20 kilometres or more through the sandy forest track to the Namibian craft shop to collect the money.

Breakfast is ready and the girls have washed and put on their Sunday best. Florence lays down the basket she is weaving and gives thanks.

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