By Ron Swilling
In the dry, dusty summer wind, the thatch grass-roofed structure of Mashi Crafts is bursting at the seams with the weavings of palm leaves shaped into well-made and beautifully crafted baskets. Situated in Kongola on the road that passes through the Caprivi Strip, 118 kilometres west of Katima Mulilo, Mashi Crafts is a centre for selling crafts produced in the conservancies of the area, providing them with an outlet for their goods.
Amidst the baskets and beads is the central figure of Joyce Sitapata, a field officer for the Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC) NGO. Joyce oversees the shop and supervises the managers. Every two months when the conservancies have a market committee meeting, she and two of her colleagues give HIV/Aids training to the committee members, presenting them with information to be passed on to the people in the conservancies.
Joyce is involved in organising and facilitating a public-speaking workshop in all neighbouring conservancies. The conservancies choose 15 women to attend the two-and-a-half day workshop, which is held in the local language. The women are given the floor to talk about themselves. Their initial shy hesitation and laughter at being given the chance to speak in front of a group disappears after a two-and-a-half day period, after which they can stand and speak without fear.
Voicing womens issues
The public-speaking programme encourages women to present their ideas and opinions and to have enough confidence to voice women’s issues at conservancy meetings. Before the public-speaking system began in 2005, the conservancy committees consisted entirely of men. Now, with empowerment emerging from women being allowed to speak up – and become flowers bursting into full bloom – the conservancy committees have begun to include women in the more responsible positions of manager and treasurer.
A craft workshop is also organised by Joyce. She invites the women who create the superior baskets to come and improve their skills and they learn new designs and trade ideas. The workshop usually ends in song and dance. The most recent workshop held was visited by a tourist group which bought every single basket as it was completed, says Joyce.
Keeping traditional crafts alive
Looking around Mashi Crafts, you notice a great variety of different baskets and crafts, such as the unique Kwee square baskets of West Caprivi, once used to carry fruits from the field, and the open East Caprivi baskets used when harvesting sorghum. Necklaces made from mbono seeds hang down from the roof. Once ground and boiled in oil, the seeds were used as a lotion for skin and hair.
The crocheted bags were introduced when there weren’t sufficient palm leaves. They are made from narukuku, fibres taken from fields and soaked in water. Reed mats lie balanced in a far corner and wood-carvings occupy the middle of the floor.
Mashi Crafts carries the work of 304 craftspeople, six among them men who make the woodcarvings. The basket-and-bead work is done by the women, enabling them to bring an income into the household that pays for their children’s school fees and clinic costs, or possibly a larger purchase such as a cow, if very fortunate.
The craft shop also allows the women to improve their skills and, most importantly, to keep the traditional skills of basket-weaving alive, as many 21st century western-world items replace the implements and vessels once used in every-day life.
There is more to this simple craft shop than greets the hurried passerby. Besides offering the attractive basketwork, a time-consuming skill that deserves more appreciation than it receives, it is a centre that keeps traditional crafts alive, offering a venue for the local Caprivi craftspeople. Joyce with her HIV training and public-speaking courses offers empowerment, weaving much more than palm leaves into people’s lives.
This article appeared in the 2008/9 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.