In the Western province of Zambia lies Mongu, not far from the border with Angola. This is where the mostly Mbunda speaking people weave these ruggedly unique baskets. Due to how strong and stiff they are, people often comment that they seem to be made of wood.
The Mbunda people arrived from Angola to this native Lozi tribal area in the late 1700’s. As this region is part of the Zambezi river flood plain, it is incredibly isolated and known to be amongst the poorest regions of Zambia.
Makenge are large bushes that grow throughout the Mongu region anywhere near water. They send out long, shallow roots that the weavers can dig up easily from the sandy soil.
They cut off the last two-thirds of the root and at each place they cut, the bush regenerates two new ones. The roots can grow up to three feet a month , so it doesn’t harm the bushes and makes for a long term sustainable source of weaving materials.
After the roots are cut, they are ‘peeled’ and the interior is used inside the basket coils while the outer part is split to fibers that can be wrapped around the coils. Depending on when the roots are harvested in relation to the rainy season, the baskets can have more, or less, of a shine to them.
The first day is spent digging roots while the next three days are used to ‘peel’ and prepare the fibers. Another day is used to do the dying. All of the colors are made from roots or leaves boiled along with the Makenge fibers. The fibers are then left to dry for at least a day and are re-wet as the women then spend several days weaving each basket.
Basket weaving provides the only opportunity for these rural women to earn income to support their children and extended families. They are organized as a cooperative and work together to manage their small weaving group of around 12 women.
Zambia is a landlocked country in South-Central Africa. The nation’s population of around 19.5 million is concentrated mainly around the capital Lusaka in the south and the Copperbelt Province to the north, the core economic hubs of the country. The country has a tropical climate, and consists mostly of high plateaus with some hills and mountains and broad river valleys.
Originally inhabited by Khoisan peoples, the Bantu people, including the Tonga, migrated to the region starting around 1000 CE. The British colonized the region in the late 19th century, calling it Northern Rhodesia. The Republic of Zambia achieved independence in 1964.
Zambia is racially and ethnically diverse, with 73 distinct ethnic groups. The nine main ethnolinguistic groups are the Nyanja-Chewa, Bemba, Tonga, Tumbuka, Lunda, Luvale, Kaonde, Nkoya and Lozi. Zambia is officially a “Christian nation” under the 1996 constitution, but recognizes and protects freedom of religion. While fewer than 3% of the population still observe indigenous faiths, Zambian Christianity is highly syncretic, and many self-identified Christians blend elements of traditional African religion with their faith.
In 2015, about 54% of Zambians lived below the recognized national poverty line of ZMK 214 (USD 12.85) per month. Rural poverty rates were about 77% and urban rates at about 23%. Unemployment and underemployment in urban areas are serious problems. Most rural Zambians are subsistence farmers.
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