At the National Gallery in Harare, an organisation called ‘South Africa’s New Basket Workshop’ has organised an exhibition of basket-weaving techniques in Zimbabwe. Called “The Basket Case: Traditional meets Contemporary”, the exhibition is designed to showcase the talents of communities in north-western Zimbabwe. Here, basket-weaving skills are passed from generation to generation. Though the weavers normally make simple functional baskets, with the exhibition they demonstrate their skills to do intricate patterns and styles, such as the bold patterns and colours of the BaTonga women from Binga, who use natural dye roots for their colours.
With the disappearance of tourism in Zimbabwe, traditional industries like basket-making are in danger of vanishing. Thanks to the exhibition, buyers from the US and UK are interested in purchasing locally-made products for the export market. This not only provides work for the women of communities like Lupane, but also for the men, who help by collecting the ilala palm and water needed for the baskets. Small projects like these are helping rural communities to recover from the economic ravages of the past few years.
Most Zimbabweans still live on the breadline, with only around 20% in work. The economy is still in a desperate state, though a fragile recovery has begun since the unity government took shape nearly two years ago under the “global political agreement”. Health care and education is slowly improving, with hospitals reporting they have access to medicine stocks once again. And recently, 13 million textbooks from Western donors were delivered to 5,600 primary schools under the auspices of UNICEF.
And food supplies have been improving. Two years ago, the United Nations (UN) World Food Programme was feeding at least half the country’s population, currently estimated at between 8-9 million (since as many as 3 million Zimbabweans are thought to have emigrated). In 2010, the percentage of people being fed by the Programme has dropped to 15%, mostly families living in rural areas.
There is still a long way to go before the country is back on its feet, particularly in remote regions, where many Zimbabweans lost jobs on farms. An estimated 350,000 full-time agricultural workers and 270,000 seasonal ones, with at least 1.5 million dependants between them, had their livelihoods taken away when farms were expropriated. Since many of these workers harked originally from neighbouring countries such as Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique, fewer than 2% have been allowed to take any confiscated land for their own. So with little prospect of work on the land, the women of northern Zimbabwe are grateful their traditional basket-weaving skills can bring a livelihood for them and their families.