I first noticed these gorgeous, intricately-woven baskets on the wall above my bed at Wilderness Safaris’ Seba Camp in the Okavango Delta. Each basket is an individual with earthy colours so expertly entwined as to form the most perfect patterns – beautiful yet humble. Then, during high-tea one afternoon, Hailey Gaunt (one of Seba’s camp managers) arranged a table full of these beautiful creations – each one lovingly created by a Seba staff member – for guests to admire and purchase.
I was completely enchanted. Botswana, it turns out, is famous for its basket weaving, which is arguably the finest in southern Africa. Most of the women who weave are Bayei or Hambukushu, originating from the north-western regions of the Okavango Delta. For hundreds of years these baskets have played an integral role in village life – not only are they used as storage containers for grains, seeds, fruit, sorghum beer and a variety of other things – but they significantly contribute to a womans’ sense of purpose and identity. More recently, with Botswana’s booming tourism industry, they have become an essential source of income.
When there were no guests in camp, I was lucky enough to spend time with the ladies and to photograph and attempt to weave a little something myself. It was an afternoon of hysterical laugher, learning and a lot of singing! Some of the men walked by but I noticed that they kept their distance, as if there was an unspoken ‘women only’ rule. I heard afterwards that our songs had echoed throughout the camp. During interludes of no singing, the ladies chirped and chattered like weaver birds, teasing each other and sharing stories in Setswana.
“If you know how to make baskets it means that you are a good good lady. Your husband will say, ‘this one is so good because she can get money to feed our kids when she is not working’. If you weave that basket then you sell it in another village or to people that come from other countries and then you take that money to buy some food for your kids or even shoes for them. It can pay for something that you want to buy in the shop, this basket will help you to live a good life.” (Busi Mohena from Seronga, Housekeeper at Seba)
“The designs themselves – the shape, colour, pattern –suggest the unique origin and particular weaving tradition of the maker.” (Hailey Gaunt, Seba Camp manager)
The palm leaves that the ladies use come from the mokolwane palm (Hyphaene petersiana). The young, unopened leaves are collected and then separated into thin, fibrous strings.
“Different colours come from the different trees. We dig the roots from a tree and then we pound them. We take the palm leaves and mix them with the pounded roots and then boil them together. It takes about two hours to die the colour, and then you put it aside to dry.” (Busi Mohena)
“The palm trees we use in Seronga are on an island. I can ask my husband or brother to take me across with a mokoro to the island to cut those palm leaves.” (Busi Mohena)
The gwarrie bush (Euclea divinorum) imparts a dark-brown colour, the birdplum (Berchemia discolor) a reddish colour, the indigo dye plant (Indigofera tinctoria and arrecta) a purple colour and the red star apple (Diospyros lyciodes) a yellow.
“My grandmother taught me to make baskets when I was 5 years old, and I am already teaching my firstborn. I weave every day after work – especially after lunch and in the evening. It takes me about 2 months to complete one basket.” (Omphile Moabi)
“Often women will weave together. In this way weaving has as many rich social implications as it does practical – it’s a time where women commune: sharing and listening, counseling and dreaming.” (Hailey Gaunt, Manager of Seba)
“When we weave baskets we all sit together and we sing. My grandmother told me, ‘this song is about a woman who can’t weave baskets’. In our culture that means she is not a woman.” (Busi Mohena)
“When my Grandmother taught me to make the baskets I was 7 years old. I had an interest so I went to her and I asked, ‘my grandmother could you teach me how to make this basket?” She said ‘ooh thank you my grandchild but this basket is difficult, I will take a long time to teach you.’ I took 10-12 years to do a good basket.” (Busi Mohena)
When you’re at Wilderness Safaris’ Seba Camp make sure you ask to see the baskets!