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         ||   P.O. Box 356  ~  Browns Valley, CA 95918  ~  Tel: (530) 743-1339   ||   

African Baskets from Zimbabwe
By Guy Lynn

Having been born in Africa, I was well aware of the beautiful hand woven grass baskets that come from Africa. I have always had baskets in my life as either wall decorations or as a bowl to hold fruit or bread on the dining room table. It was just a part of my life. My Grandmother had them, my mother and older sister used them, and my wife and I have them scattered around the house and also as customer shopping baskets when we do trunk shows or trade shows selling our beads. They are just a part of our everyday lives.

What I didn’t realize until now was just how beautiful and timeless they are. Like most things in life, we take them for granted until they go away.

African artifacts have emerged for centuries as some of the most beautiful artistic expressions of mankinds skill using their hands and whatever raw materials they have in their possession. You can track totally different generations and cultures by the artifacts they produce and the materials they use or have access to. When I was a young boy and then man in Rhodesia, in the sixties and seventies, the woven baskets were totally different in style and artistic expression than they are now. They were made better back then. (I’ve never heard that statement before!) The baskets that the native tribesmen used in the bush were functional, tightly woven and without decoration, watertight, because the women had to walk up to 20 miles round trip to collect water for cooking, and had to last for years under harsh conditions. Now the baskets are only made for the tourist trade, and are intricately decorated with dyed grasses and beads and not watertight or virtually indestructible. They are beautiful, make no mistake, and are well made.

Most African countries produce hand woven grass or straw baskets, as the raw material is easy to obtain and inexpensive. The skill is passed down from mother to daughter, and is a social event at the kraals and villages in every area where baskets are made, as the women sit around and weave their baskets all day long, trading gossip and news while they work. Every area or district has its own style, and the different weavers compete with each other on patterns and shapes. However, copying of successful patterns and shapes is rampant, which is why a certain area or region becomes known for its style, as every weaver adopts that style as their own. The examples I have of the Batonka baskets show this clearly.


These baskets are from the Matabeleland North region of Zimbabwe, which is an isolated region bordered by the Zambezi River and Lake Kariba, and is at the bottom of the Zambezi Encampment, which is the last crack of the Great African Rift Valley. It is hot and arid, home of the tsetse fly, and where I lived for 3 years back in the late seventies during the war for black independence.






For many years these style baskets were easy to find, as traders could easily go to the region and ship the baskets to the U.S for sale. But ever since 2000, when Mugabe, the President of Zimbabwe, began his slide into insanity and his harsh land confiscation policies which have resulted in Zimbabwe becoming the economic mess it is today, these baskets, along with almost every other form of handmade art in Zimbabwe have disappeared from the world’s markets. Part of the problem is that living conditions are so harsh in Zimbabwe that no-one has the time or energy to make them, there is no –one to buy them, no petrol to drive into the region or drive out of the region to deliver them to market, and so none were being made. At least on a scale large enough that they would appear in the U.S. markets.

We were fortunate enough to meet Wendy Blakely, an American living in Zimbabwe and working for the Painted Dog Conservancy Project in Dete, which is an area close to Victoria Falls and the Binga region where the Batonka baskets are made. She is working with local women in a co-op environment who produce hand made art such as the baskets shown above, and is helping them market their products by bringing them to the U.S. for sale. We were able to purchase approximately one hundred such baskets, and are selling then to our customers. Wendy is buying them directly from the co-op, paying them cash. That cash will sustain each women and her immediate family for at least a month, if not more. Each sale is an immediate boost to the region, as the money will go directly into the local economy for such purchases as food, clothing and cleaning supplies such as disinfectant and/or medical supplies. Each sale also confirms the need for more product and therefore ensures that another basket will be made. We are excited to finally have some of these museum quality baskets in our possession, and hope that this means the Zimbabwean economy will finally be recovering and the people in the region will survive. In case you are interested, Zimbabwe is the only country in the world where every citizen is a billionaire. They have the world’s largest bank note - $10 billion. As you are probably realizing, the money is worthless. The inflation rate is the highest in the world – 20 million percent.

Another Zimbabwean we met over the internet was Onasis Mutasa, a trader who travels around Zimbabwe looking for art work to sell to the U.S. He too has access to Batonka baskets, and possibly in the future we will obtain some of his products for sale here. He provided us with some pictures of his last trip to the Binga region, with baskets in the process of being made.

Just to show you how arid and desolate the region is, here are some pictures of the village where these baskets are being made. The hut on raised stilts is a traditional Batonka hut to keep wild animals and crocodiles away.

The average temperature here is 100 degrees, with not much rain. Mosquitos and Tsetse fly are rampant, and there are no local stores nearby, with only one road in and out of the area. It was paved in the late 1990’s.

As soon as Mugabe is gone, and Zimbabwe returns to some normalcy J-Me and I plan on going back to Zimbabwe and working with these people and co-ops in the region to promote beadwork and handicrafts. I personally want to give back to an area that has had everything taken away.


Wild Things Beads  ~  P.O. Box 356  ~  Browns Valley, CA 95918  ~  Tel: (530) 743-1339

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