About African Zulu Baskets

11/18/13

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AFRICAN BASKETS BY MASTER ZULU WEAVERS

South Africa is famous for its tightly woven Zulu baskets.  These hand woven African baskets are a true art form and are functional, beautiful and decorative as well as a testament to fine weaving skills.  Zulu baskets are considered some of the most collectable baskets in the world.  Master Zulu weavers are published and collected worldwide.

African Baskets from Zulu weavers:  Tholi holding a partially completed basket,  copyright Tribal Home  

For information about our bi-annual African Zulu Basket show, click here

     

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Benefitting the African Zulu Basket Weavers

Zanzibar Tribal Art encourages and supports co-operative ventures with African basket weavers of Zulu decent from the KwaZulu-Natal province in South Africa to produce handcrafted museum specimen iLala palm Zulu baskets and Telephone Wire Baskets.  KwaZulu-Natal is also known as the "garden province" of South Africa and is well know for some of the highest quality African baskets.  Many Zulu women on this well-watered land of rolling hills work from their homes making traditional Zulu African baskets.  All the baskets are made by hand using natural raw materials obtained in the area.

  Laurentia Ndwandwe, photo copywrite Tribal Home  Thembi holding an AIDS memorial basket, copywrite Tribal Home

 

The women are able to carry on their normal daily lives collecting water and planting the fields as well as attend to their children. These women have managed to turn the making of African baskets into a home industry and supplementing their income, and for some this is their only form of income.  Weaving can be a personal activity, but usually it is a social activity, with all women in a given community collecting and preparing materials and weaving as a group, talking and having a good time.

One of four commissioned AIDS Memorial baskets featuring the AIDS ribbon    Bongiwe holding an unfished large basket, copywrite Tribal Home 

Each African Zulu basket is unique in shape, pattern, color, weave and size. No two baskets are ever the same even if made by the same weaver.  This is a WONDERFUL opportunity to invest in these baskets!  Much like Native American baskets, Zulu Master Weaver African baskets are SURE to increase in value DRAMATICALLY in the coming years!

     

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Want to print a simplified, informative brochure about Zulu African Baskets?  Click here (requires Adobe PDF)

the above has the same general (shortened slightly) information presented below; you may also wish to scroll down to "commonly asked questions"

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R.I.P.

Rueben Ndwandwe

1941 - 2007

The world's #1 Zulu basket weaver - a revolutionist who created an ENTIRELY NEW way of weaving baskets that no one else could duplicate!  He passed away in the middle of June, 2007 from complications of Tuberculosis.  Immediately following his death, his baskets have increased in value 10 fold.  He was a good friend and a talented artisan.  We will miss you... in Zululand, one does not die, they simply "go to another country...".  We wish you well on your journey.

ReubenNdwandwe, copywrite Tribal Home  ReubenNdwandwe,photo CopywriteTribalHome Reuben Ndwandwe in front of ancestor hut, photo copywrite Tribal Home

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African Zulu Baskets

Zanzibar Tribal Art, in conjunction with a self-funded non-profit group is pleased to be able to offer our clients a range of Zulu baskets including the highest museum grade baskets crafted by Master Weavers.  We always have a fine selection in our retail gallery and twice each year we do a large sale, show and fundraiser where we display hundreds of baskets!  If you're interested, as we only put a very select few baskets online, contact us with your price range, size, color or specific artist and we'll email you photos of what baskets are available.   Click on this link to view SMALL selection of our  African baskets on our website. 

   

Among the rolling hills of South Africa in the northeastern coastal province of  KwaZulu-Natal (“Place of Heaven”), Zulu women work at the art of basket weaving. With the advent of the men moving off to seek work in the cities, the women have taken over what was once a dying craft, and turned it into an art form of international acclaim, and a major source of income for many families.  Zulu artistry has been somewhat overshadowed by their unprecedented proclivity in the creation of weaponry; shields, clubs and spears. Nevertheless, Zulu basketry is considered some of the most desirable and collectable baskets available and will soon rival Native American baskets for rarity and value. 

Reuben Ndwandwe sitting in front of his "ancestor" hut where ancestor's relics are located.  A sacred place for all Zulu.

The women work from their homes, where they can assimilate basket making into their normal routine - giving themselves time to raise their children, work in the fields, collect water and do other daily chores.   Each basket will be unique in size, shape, pattern, weave and color and is a true collector’s item.  All basket colors are natural and obtained from boiling roots, leaves, berries and bark or other organic material of indigenous flora.

Thank you for helping to support the Zulu women craftspeople and children of South Africa by purchasing this basket.  You are helping  the poor rural women of South Africa in earning decent incomes from the fruits of their labors, in order to care for their children.

History of the Zulu People of South Africa

The rolling Zulu hills of KwaZa-Natal province of South AfricaA tradition Zulu Kraal on the side of a hill, an extended family would live in this collection of huts

Map of Africa Showing the relative position of the KwaZulu-Natal provinceCloseup view of the traditional homeland of the Zulus, the remote KwaZulu NatalRolling green hills are part of the coastal climate where the Zulus live

move your mouse over the pictures for a description or click on them to enlarge

1400 - 1900

Descendants of the Nguni peoples of southeast Africa, the Zulu trace their history back to the 14th and 15th centuries when they migrated southward and settled into modern day South Africa. During the 1800’s, under Chief Shaka, the Zulus established themselves as a very powerful people and were feared throughout southern Africa.  During this time it was the men who wove Zulu baskets, however as the British took the men to work in the mines, women found it necessary to learn to weave the traditional African Zulu Baskets.  Zulu baskets served as functional utilitarian containers and were typically devoid of any designs or patterns (they were essentially plain, however the beer basket covers, called Imbenge were often highly decorated and colorful).  Today many patterns, both based on traditional Zulu or Ndebele beadwork designs as well as contemporary motifs based on other South African tribes or original ideas have appeared.  The development (and continued elaboration) of natural pigments and dyes as well as the weavers struggles to differentiate their unique styles has led to many and varied designs not previously known.  

1900 - present day

Around the turn of the 20th century, traded tin and iron replaced the baskets and by the 1940’s the skill of weaving was all but lost.  Starting with a Missionary, Rev Tjell Lofroth of the Lutheran Church, who wanted to convert the Zulus in the late 60’s, a workshop (called Vukani) was created and three very old zulu women were found that still remembered how to dye the materials and weave the baskets (one of these women is still living, and is currently still weaving:  Laurentia Dlamini.  From this the baskets refined through the 70’s, 80's and 90's until we have the pinnacle of quality and refinement today.  Regrettably, the techniques and skills may soon again be lost again due to migration to the cities and AIDS. 

Today most of the Zulu population lives in a 10,000 square mile Zululand reserve along the Indian Ocean. Once self sufficient, many  must now rely on employment outside of their reserve in nearby towns to survive.  Members of the more than 300 Zulu-speaking peoples reside in KwaZulu (“Place of Heaven”), an area approximately the size of New Jersey. Their economy is based on the cultivation of crops, tended by the women, and the raising of cattle, for which the men and boys are responsible.  The weaving of traditional African Zulu Baskets is also a small industry.  Most Zulus still live in their traditional Kraals, an area fenced in by thickets of spiny shrubs that contain their traditional huts and gardens.  Often a homestead will have an extended family living in close proximity to each other, often far removed from other clans.  Today, as during Apartied, older generations had little or no education, the South African Government provides a stipend or retirement to Zulus over the age of 58 (40 is a more common life expectancy) which averages around $120 US $ a month (enough to live off of, if humbly). 

  

Wealth, Children, and Turn-ons!

As wealth for a Zulu man is determined by how many wives, children and cattle he has, and thus it is not uncommon for a man to have multiple wives.  Of interesting note is that monogamy is not treated with the same emphasis that it is in many Western cultures.  A man will not usually marry a woman until she has proved her fertility by bearing at least one or more children (with by her future husband or another man).  Fertility is of paramount versus paternity.  Most Zulu women bear 10 - 14 children in their lifetime and the survival rate can vary widely, but is typically 75% - 80%.  Rape, regrettably, is extremely common, even today.  Also of interest is that bare breasts on a woman are NOT attractive or a turn-on to Zulu men - they are attracted to women's calves (the back area of the women's legs below their knees!)  Lecherous Zulu men will sneak a peak and even pinch a Zulu woman's normally covered calves if he gets a chance!  Men would NEVER consider separating or divorcing a wife, as this is part of his esteem and wealth. 

Marriage & Bride Price

Zulu men still pay a bride price to marry a Zulu woman (typically and traditionally it is paid in COWS and calves and occasionally bulls (as few as 2 - 4 for a rural woman and as many as dozens or hundreds for a princess), however in metropolitan centers and cities cash and other valuable are also exchanged.  The cows and any calves are the property of the woman and can be taken by her if she leaves her husband.   The men don't have to pay all the dowry at once.  He can marry the woman and pay the dowry over time - however until the full dowry is paid, the man cannot visit his in-laws compound and she cannot visit his family's compound.  Any children born can visit both grandparents. 

Tradition Wedding basket design - very difficult to make   

Traditionally women wove a "wedding basket" that included a design that graphically stated the number of cows that she would accept as a bride price, whether she would take calves (two calves equal one cow) or whether she would accept a bull or bulls (usually cows are preferred because they can produce milk and calves. .while bulls are... well, just bulls).  The basket was delivered to the man.  However it wasn't empty.  It contained beer.  Since the wedding design is very complex (very very few weavers know how to do this design and do it well today), it showed the man that the woman could weave complex baskets and if she can weave a complex basket she can also weave bowls, mats and other items - and she could make beer, too!.

Divorce

Don't consider that a Zulu doesn't have an option if her marriage is not a happy one:  if a Zulu woman's husband is not treating her well or refuses to get tested for HIV for example, she has the right to shave her head.  This is in essence putting her husband on notice that he needs to "get a clue".  If a woman keeps her head shaved for a full year, she is considered divorced from her husband and she keeps the kids, the cows - everything! 

 

Making a Living today

As there is no means for most men to make more than a subsistence living, most men do not live with their families - they often work in the coal, aluminum, diamond, gold and platinum mines far from their traditional homes.  Often the men will only return several times a year, for a few days at a time (Christmas, Easter and sometimes around harvest time to help with the harvest).  Thus many men are away from their wives, children and families up to 360 days a year!  As is acceptable, the men often hire prostitutes, and they incidentally contract HIV (and eventually pass it onto their unsuspecting wives and children) and eventually die of AIDS or an opportunistic disease.  Some men (and women) also work in the townships or cities such as Durban as cooks, gardeners or laborers.

While these working conditions are often dangerous, they are not known for paying very much - and the men rarely have any money left after paying their rent and upkeep (and prostitutes).  Take for example the diamond mines:  miners often work 7 days a week, 12 hour shifts in dark, deep mines.  After a long shift, the miners are subjected to a search and must report to the "glycerin shacks" - where they drink up to two quarts of glycerin so that their systems will FLUSH out any diamonds they may have ingested!  Amputations, injuries, pneumonia, Tuberculosis and so many other diseases (not least of which is contracting HIV/AIDS) are so common, that most Zulu men have very short life spans.  There IS hope for the men, as we also participate in a cooperative that gives rural men the opportunity to help support their families by weaving Telephone wire baskets. 

If a woman needs money to purchase foods in drought years, buy modern essentials like medicines, coffee, flour or sugar (and the occasional treat of candy or a soda) or even take the difficult route shopping to a major township or even large city such as Durban, she must make it on her own - THAT is where our cooperative comes in!  By buying women's baskets NEAR their homes, paying them FAIR, LIVING WAGES and encouraging quality and sustainability, we are IMPROVING the lives of these rural Zulu basket weavers.  Unfortunately, many younger Zulu women are leaving their traditional homes and migrating to the city centers and towns where they eek out an existence living as maids, cooks or clerks. 

Zulu Baskets

 The products of grass and ilala palm weaving (such things as sleeping mats) and basketry are associated with the widest possible range of activities throughout a Zulu’s lifetime, touching virtually every domestic, social, and religious function.  These baskets are evidence of the expertise of these artisans and their ingenuity for using indigenous plants.  Traditionally Zulu women weave the African Zulu baskets using age-old, time-honored methods that are passed on from mother to child.  The patterns, each with their own meaning, vary from decorative bands to intricate triangles, diamonds, zig-zags, and checkerboard motifs. 

African Zulu Basket Master Weavers

While there are approximately 2,000 +/- Zulu women (and a very few men) weaving baskets (inconsistently), our cooperative (a non-profit organization) works with about 270-600 weavers (+/-), (over half of these are junior or apprentice weavers, so only about 200 standard weavers); about 100 collector quality and only about 38 (as of early 2007) are considered “Master Weavers” and of these, only about 15-22 of these master weavers are weaving currently/consistently.  There are about ten weavers capable of producing a museum quality basket, however there are currently only four museum World class grand master weavers.

Skill levels of Weavers

When first starting to learn, a weaver is an "apprentice".  From apprentice a weaver becomes a "junior weaver".  Most experienced weavers are considered “Standard Weavers” while a few are "Superior Standard" and only a few become “Collector Quality.” or “Masters.”  VERY few become "World Class Masters" or "Museum Grade Masters" or "Grand Master Weavers" (there are four today).   A “Master Weaver” is recognized by the overall quality of the basket, especially the tightness of weave and the intricacy, as well as size (only master weavers can accomplish larger baskets) and shapes she is capable of producing and consistency of her work, pattern and design, as well as her ability to pull consistently when making a basket, creating an even basket.  Consistency (being able to consistently and repeatedly produce high quality baskets) is also of great importance.  There are many standard or collector quality weavers that have produced one fine quality basket, but their next baskets are not good at all!  Master weavers also produce all the products (dyed materials, etc.) for their baskets and are typically champions in their communities - encouraging other weavers to excel and weave better quality baskets through example. 

Master Weavers

To be considered a Master Zulu Basket Weaver, a title that is given by fellow weavers, a woman (or man in rare instances) must show that they have an overall grasp and skill in ALL aspects of basket production. These aspects include: Preparing and dying of the materials (palm fibers), tight weaving, good proportion, smooth transitions and shapes, even design spacing and overall quality of weave, shape and design. They must also be consistent, able to produce good baskets in a variety of styles and with consistent weave (applying the same pressure/pounds per square inch of pressure each time they pull a thread of Ilala palm.  Master weavers are also the only ones who will undertake the making of larger baskets - as without skill and a very tight weave, large baskets (over three feet) simply collapse under their own weight. CONSISTENCY of quality is also a factor. Some standard weavers can produce a beautiful, master-quality basket one time - and the next basket is just horrible.

Standard & Superior Standard Weavers

There are also standard weavers who can consistently weave a very tight, well formed basket with even spaced designs, however they may not for example, do their own preparation or dying of materials - thus they are not given the title of Master Weaver. Some women excel at one step or another but very few master all the steps in weaving a basket. While there are about 38 master weavers within our cooperative, only about 20 some are currently weaving consistently.

Learning to Weave

Young women start out learning basket making from their grandmothers or mothers or aunts. They often start out assisting with preparing the materials or weaving odds and ends left over. This is very much a volunteer apprentice-type program and a girl has to want to learn basket making to undertake the training that is required. While many young girls show an interest in weaving, very few keep at it for more than a short period. Weavers are first APPRENTICE weavers, then JUNIOR weavers, then STANDARD weavers, and finally SUPERIOR STANDARD weavers prior to them becoming a MASTER weaver. Very few (less than a dozen) Master weavers go onto being a WORLD CLASS MASTER weaver.

While there is no specific age when someone becomes a master weaver (and baskets that are not master weavers are often nearly as fine) it often takes decades of weaving for a woman to perfect her skills. When eyesight or upper body strength begins to fade, master weavers often weave smaller "herb" baskets that do not require the meticulous work of the larger pieces. How can you tell the difference between the various grades of weavers? Well, with a little practice and common sense and a few examples, most people can begin to distinguish between the graduations.

World Class Museum Quality Grand Master Weavers

There are only several (four to be exact) published, "World Class" weavers (including Reuben Ndwandwe (deceased as of June 2007), Beauty Ngxongo, Laurentia Dlamini (sometimes misspelled Laurencia Dlamini) and Vina Ndwandwe.  Bettina Mlotshwa is usually also considered among this group, albeit not officially)  These four weavers are considered the finest Zulu weavers in the world and are published, in many museum collections, highly collectable and known for their individual styles.  To be considered for this honor, they must be approached by several South African museums (and banks) and have baskets commissioned by them, then they must have a one person show at one of these museums, be published in a book(s) and lastly, must win the coveted "Artist of the Year" Award in South Africa.  Of the museums of note, there is the Vukni Museum (the premier museum of Zulu collections and artwork), the Durban Art Gallery, the South African Arts Center, The Louvre (Paris), The Met (NYC), The Smithsonian (Washington DC), Bonn (Germany), Stockholm (Sweden), as well as several large bank collections including the Standard Bank and the First National Banks of South Africa. 

Unfortunately, with the spread of HIV and AIDS and the tendency of Zulu youth to move to cities and seek work, there is a lack of interest of younger women in learning the traditional skills necessary to weave fine quality baskets and this unique art form may soon be lost.  These baskets are an incredibly value and a solid investment.  ALL of our master weave baskets come with a color photograph of the weaver along with a brief description of the basket and a brief weaver's biography.  Standard baskets have a tag with the artists name.

Although baskets are being replaced with plastic and tin/aluminum containers in many Zulu homes now, these woven baskets continue to hold great cultural significance for the Zulu people and many have once again begun using baskets for storage of grains, herbs and other items. 

Weavers of Zulu African Baskets

Sawubona! (a traditional greeting in Zulu, which roughly translates as "I see you").  Zanzibar and the non-profit group Tribal Home support the rural Zulu Weavers of KwaZulu-Natal province in South Africa.  Although Tribal Home is non-profit organization, the purpose is a joint venture with the Zulu weavers in the rural communities for economic empowerment. 

Espa Mlotshwa weaving a large bowl, copywrite Tribal HomeA group of our weavers and some of their baskets, copywrite Tribal HomeMary Sibaya holding a large Wedding Basket, copywrite Tribal Home

Master Weaver Elizabeth Zitha (Bonisiwe's mother) before cataracts stopped her from weaving, copywrite Tribal HomeYou have to LOVE this photograph of Olga Mbatha - one of our favorite weavers.  Zulus don't typically smile, so when they do, its a BIG one!  copywrite Tribal HomeRueben Ndwandwe, one of the few male weavers (and a master).  He now has Parkinson's disease and won't be weaving much longer... , copywrite Tribal Home

Zulu Master Weaver Khanyasile, copywrite Tribal HomeMaster weaver Beauty with John from Tribal Home, copywrite Tribal Home

move your mouse over the pictures for a description or click on them to enlarge

The cooperative that we work with, Tribal home, is unique in that the cooperative members work with the weavers month-to-month, year-to-year and get to know them.  Members keep track of weavers, their relations, accomplishments and call many of them friends.  EVERY COLLECTOR AND MASTER woven basket comes with a photo of the weaver and a brief biography. 

The cooperative currently helps to support approximately 600 weavers.   In recent years Tribal Home has grown from sourcing baskets from 5 to 15 villages, spread out over a very large area with Hlabisa (pronounced SH-la-bi-sa) being the major location. The Hlabisa district encompass 552 square miles alone. The 15 villages are sprawled out over this area, with the furthest being an 8 hour ride on a toll road from Durban, then 6 hours drive by 4 wheel drive on a rutted dirt road each way, and the nearest 1 hour from the main highway that goes up to the north to Mozambique from Durban.  From Durban it takes about six-eight hours to get to the turn off of the dirt road, and again, the closest village is about 1 hour on this ROUGH dirt road.  

Many of the cooperative's best  weavers are “Master Weavers” and we regularly source from these women, buying finished baskets as well as commissioning baskets.  Weavers are first APPRENTICE weavers, then JUNIOR weavers, then STANDARD weavers, and finally SUPERIOR STANDARD weavers and COLLECTOR quality weavers prior to them becoming a MASTER weaver.  Very few (currently there are three) Master weavers go onto being a WORLD CLASS GRAND MASTER weavers.  These weavers are internationally known, collected and published.  These include Beauty Ngxongo, Rueben Ndwandwe (died June 2007) and Bettina Mlotshwa, and Vina Ndwandwe.   

  

Most of our weavers are married, with their husbands working away from their homesteads (villages/Kraals).  While the men work away in the gold,  platinum and diamond mines for most of the year (only returning for a week or two at Easter, Christmas and occasionally to help with the harvest), they often do not contribute any monies to their families.  It is up to women to grow most or all of the food that the family needs and to provide for the children. 

HIV & AIDS

The sad part about this venture is that 2 out of 3 black South Africans in the rural communities where we work have HIV and AIDS and its opportunistic diseases affect almost everyone, and Hlabisa has the highest ratio in the world.  It is always maddening and with sadness to lose a weaver and a friend as well as a human being, but it is the way of things and the reality for now in South Africa. One can only aspire to that the world community at large, as well as the South African government itself, acknowledge the epidemic and crisis, without which, little progress will follow.   By purchasing an African Zulu basket, you are helping to make a difference in these women’s lives.  Often women use the money they earn to supplement their children’s education or medication.  The very best Master weavers who are HIV positive (such as Beauty) may also be able to afford the Cocktail such as AZT (at a cost of about $8-$10 per day).  This is a HUGE amount of money to most Zulu weavers, however.  There are numerous programs in place, however the SINGLE BEST THING we can do to help is to purchase these women's baskets at FAIR prices!

 As many of the weavers are HIV positive, the sale of their baskets also help them purchase anti-viral drugs.  HIV positive pregnant women can take an anti-viral pill each day (at a cost of about $1 per pill) to prevent her fetus from becoming HIV positive.  Women MUST take this drug for the entire length of the pregnancy and while nursing - every day.  Regrettably, without a consistent income, women often miss doses or take only half a pill or don't complete the program and thus their children are born HIV positive or become so through breast feeding. 

Schooling & Education

The Zulu government covers the cost of tuition to school for Zulu children, one pair of shoes and one school uniform per year, however as a child grows he/she must purchase new uniforms and or shoes. Children walk up to 20 miles each way to and from school!  Many children drop out by the equivalent of grade five.

How weavers are paid for their work/baskets

Weavers are paid by the centimeter on a pay scale determined by the quality of their work and skill level (up to Grand masters - who can charge by the piece whatever they want!)  Raw materials and bonuses (such as raw ilala palm fronts, flour and sugar) are also provided and factor into the cost of the baskets.  The pricing structure for our African Zulu baskets is based on the total costs of goods sold and these include the price that we pay the weaver (always a fair wage, however it varies by class of weaver), the shipping costs, the warehousing costs, and the insurance costs.  The cooperative has a zero overhead budget currently (i.e. no payrolls, no stipends, no travel allowances and no bonuses).  Essentially, everyone that works for the cooperative is a volunteer.   A variety of programs are in place to assist women and children of Zulu weavers.  Your purchase of a Zulu basket helps to fund these programs.  We will also accept donations of cash, clothing, coats and shoes that we distribute to the weavers.  Zanzibar also sells AIDS memorial pins where 100% of the proceeds goes to a variety of educational programs for Zulu youth and women. 

Tholi holding the half-finished giant wedding basket, copywrite Tribal HomeTholi in July 2003 with our good friend John.  She died of AIDS five months after this photo was taken. copywrite Tribal Home

move your mouse over the pictures for a description or click on them to enlarge

The photos above are of Tholi Mlotshwa, one of our very best master weavers.  Her family (sister and daughter) wove the largest Zulu baskets.  The basket she is holding is less than half finished - the final size was just over 7 feet tall by 19 feet around.  The completed basket is probably the largest woven in Zulu basket history.  Tholi is no longer with us. She died of AIDS in December of 2003. This huge basket took 16 months to weave and was completed in November 2002.  Since it took more than a year, Tholi had to move the basket to her hut to continue her progress and to keep it out of the elements, rain and sun (fading).  But when completed, we couldn’t get it out of the front door so we had to dismantle a portion of her thatch roof to get it out. There were a lot of supervisors that day providing countless suggestions and comments.  Some suggestions even had merit like why did we not make a lean-to hut if we knew we were going to make something that big.  And of course, the typical comments such as we were crazy to make something this big.  “Can’t be used for anything...too tall, too wide and too heavy.”  Since it was a marriage pattern (i.e. a wedding basket), the number of cows requested as dowry for this basket was 160.  Nobody gets that many cows now.  And the list went on.  Tholi was a good friend, a wonderful artist and she will be missed.  She has a daughter that is a master weaver, however she is currently ill with AIDS.  The picture of her on the left, with John, shows how much weight she lost.  The basket she had started was never finished, and her sister finished it as a large bowl.  Her sister, who made the second largest Zulu basket (six feet tall) died of AIDS in 2004. 


Creatiing & Weaving an African Zulu Basket

A grain basket by Busi, Scott's favorite weaver, copywrite Tribal HomeThembi Mbokazi working on a basket lid, copywrite Tribal Home

move your mouse over the pictures for a description or click on them to enlarge

Every Zulu basket is made by hand, using indigenous raw materials. The fronds of the iLala Palm (Hyphaene Coriacea) (prounounced EYE-LA-LA), which grows along the North-Eastern Coast of Kwa-Zulu Natal Province is commonly used to weave the fine, watertight baskets. Coils of marsh reeds and grasses are covered by either a figure-eight or wrapped stitch of the iLala palm fronds, many of which are dyed colors.  ilala palm fronds when dried have a natural cream color.  All basket colors are natural and obtained from boiling roots, leaves, berries and bark of indigenous flora. 

Learning to Weave

Following in the footsteps of their mothers and grandmothers, young Zulu girls are taught to weave using scraps left over from their mother’s or grandmother’s basketry work.  They entertain themselves and play, learning the various designs and methods of basket making.  By the time they reach their teens, they are fully conversant in the age-old art of Zulu Basket weaving.  When a village has a master weaver, she is a champion - passing on her knowledge, skill and example to younger less experienced weavers.  Often we see the finest baskets coming from villages with Master weavers.  When a village lacks a champion or Master weaver, the baskets are often inconsistent, of poorer quality and refinement. 

Collecting the Materials

The raw materials must be collected, dried and prepared or dyed.  Sourcing the raw materials is a lengthy process and these preparations can equal the time it takes to actually weave a basket.  For more information on the raw materials and dyes used, scroll down.  A basket is started from the bottom.  The coils of water grasses are wrapped by split iLala palm fronds.   

Some types of Zulu baskets can hold liquid because of the tightness of the coil/weave and the material used.  When liquids (traditionally home brewed beer of about 1% alcohol) are kept in the baskets, the material  swells, making the basket watertight, while the outside sweats.  This keeps the liquid cool by means of evaporation much like an evaporative (swamp) cooler. 

The form and function of Zulu basketry are closely related. While baskets usually fall into several basic categories, each weaver has her own style and actual shapes can vary quite a bit.  Occasionally completely unique shapes are created.  There are five basic shapes of woven artifacts that are constructed for domestic utilitarian purposes (and several minor styles which are actually variations on the other shapes/functions):

 

  Ukhamba - Beer Basket (Water Tight) A rigid bulb-shaped container rendered watertight by the tightness of the coil-weave, and the material used (Ilala Palm). Generally used to serve low alcohol (about 1%) fermented sorghum or millet beer on ceremonial occasions as well as when visiting a Zulu household.  It is customary to offer your guests a communal basket of beer upon them visiting your home.  The beer is passed around and is refilled continually; however each time the container is offered, the size shrinks until you've overstayed your welcome, drank too much beer and the tiny stingy pot (about the size of a baseball is brought out.  You know its time to leave, because while Zulus NEVER say "no" they give mighty powerful hints like this one:  which roughly means, "you've drank most of my beer, its time for you to go home." They are often given as treasured wedding presents. 

These baskets, which today often have matching tops originally did not have tops.  A separate basket called an Imbenge was used to cover the basket when it contained beer - to keep the flies out!  This is the most common basket shape, although even within Ukhambas, shape can vary widely.  Smaller ones are used as drinking vessels and larger ones for storage of beer for short periods of time or as the "keg" at a party.  When made as a wedding basket (as shown here a very difficult design to accomplish), the larger the basket, the larger the bride price that was paid!  When filled with beer and kept in the shade, the unique nature of these water tight baskets is to condense water on their outside surfaces, then have it evaporate - thus cooling the liquid (we've witnessed beer at a constant 50 degrees inside the baskets while the air temperature was over 100!) 

 

Isichumo - Water Basket (Water Tight) A rigid, bottle-shaped basket used for carrying and storing liquids (usually water), it has a lid, which fits over the neck like a cap.  One of the more difficult designs to create, because of the narrow neck.  Typically two sizes of this style of basket were created - a large one that would be kept in a hut and hold about 30-40 gallons of water (typically about two days' worth for a family and its animals) and smaller ones (holding about 5-15 gallons (about 50-150lbs!) that would be used to transport (on top of the women's heads and from a distance of up to 5 miles each way) water from its source to the larger container.  CURRENTLY, within our cooperative, only several master weavers are skillful enough to weave this style of basket and only a few of these are willing to do so!  (This shape is the preferred shape of Beauty - the second (as of June 2007, with Reuben's passing, Beauty is now THE most famous weaver) most famous and published Zulu weaver in the world!)  Today, most Zulus use plastic jugs to store water. 

 

Imbenge - Saucer/Small Bowl (Some Water Tight, Some Not) A small, saucer-shaped bowl, used to cover clay and palm Ukhamba in order to keep the beer insect and dust-free.  We sell contemporary ones, as well as vintage ones (see examples below).  Decoration appears on the convex side.  Also historically commonly made of telephone wire (typically by men).  Also used to hold nuts.   Some are water tight for serving moist foods (such as boiled millet or root-like mash potatoes!)  For more information on Zulu Telephone Wire baskets, click here (coming soon!)
Isisquabetho - Winnowing/Grain Basket (Not Water Tight) This is a large flat bowl (up to four feet or more wide!) made for carrying and storing grain. They are also called "dough bowls" because dough for bread are made in them - often in very large quantities.   Smaller flat baskets are also used for serving food.  They are also used for kneading bread. 
     
  Isilulu - Large grain Basket (Not Water Tight) Large baskets are used to hold grain for long periods.  The basket is woven with alternating closed (tight) weave and open weave (breathing weave) that allows air to circulate so the grain won't mold but keeps insects out!  These large baskets are extremely heavy and only the best master weavers can accomplish one (inexperienced weavers who attempt this basket often have them collapse under their own weight - and so they make large Isisquabetho baskets!  These baskets are typically squat, and either round or bell shaped, depending on the area and weaver. 
 
     
  Iqoma Open Bowl (Not Water Tight)  Straight sided bowls, from small to large, sometimes with lid, typically used to hold, transport or serve food.  May also be used to hold materials for weaving or valuable personal possessions.  


 

     
  Canister (May be water tight or not)  Straight sided basket with lid used to hold and serve bread, coffee beans, candies and hold personal possessions.  


 

     
  Iqutu Herb Baskets (Not Water Tight) - The smallest of the Zulu baskets, these are not woven to be watertight as they are used for the storage of dried herbs, for both culinary and medicinal use. Thus, you want air but not insects to be able to circulate through the sides of the baskets.  Young apprentice and junior weavers usually weave these baskets and thus they are quite affordable. 
     
  Grandmother Herb Baskets (Not Water Tight) - The finest (and smallest) of our herb baskets are woven by older master weavers called “grandmothers.”  Currently there are 15 grandmothers who no longer have the upper body strength to make larger baskets or are ill with AIDS.  When our cooperative was faced with these women not having an income, even though they were historically some of the finest weavers, we found a solution:  have them weave INCREDIBLY TIGHT, perfectly round herb tiny herb baskets with amazing colors! 
     

  Antique/Vintage Imbenge:   (Not Water Tight) - A small, saucer-shaped bowl, used to cover either a beer basket (Ukhamba) or clay pot in order to keep insects and dust out of the beer. Typically not water tight, but with an open weave (yet small enough to keep dust and insects out) that would allow the brewing beer to "breath". 

The decoration/finished side appears on the convex side, and is occasionally adorned with beads. Traditionally these were woven from grass, and unlike the undecorated (dyed) fronds of baskets of old, they were highly decorative.  Sometime in the early 20th Century Zulus began weaving them from "telephone" copper wire and today this has evolved into the Zulu Telephone wire baskets below. 

Some are quite simple while others are very colorful and elaborate.  Not used any longer and vintage/antique ones are becoming increasingly scarce. 

     

  Zulu Telephone Wire Baskets  Decorative Imbenge (Not usually Water Tight but older ones can be/were) - This style of basket, originally used to cover traditional iLala palm beer baskets, has grown into a contemporary art form taken to incredible levels of skill and color.  These baskets are actually woven using plastic coated telephone wire!  Amazingly, the baskets are woven from the outside edge toward the center. 

Beautiful and functional, these baskets are every bit as collectable as the traditional iLala palm baskets featured above.  Zanzibar works with a cooperative made up of primarily of Zulu men who learn (are taught) to weave these amazing baskets after having been injured working in the gold and diamond mines or oil fields of South Africa.  75% of our retail price goes directly to the weavers.  Once Zulus actually downed telephone poles to get wire.  Today our cooperative foots 25% of the cost of the raw materials while the South African Government underwrites 25% and the South African Telephone company donates the other 50%!  Visit our gallery for a large selection of Zulu Telephone Wire Baskets starting around $20 and going to about $200. 

CLICK HERE TO LEARN MORE ABOUT OUR TELEPHONE WIRE BASKETS!

Other related African Zulu items:  Zulu Shields, Zulu weapons, Zulu spears, Zulu beadwork, Zulu knobkerries, Zulu Love Letters, Zulu Matron hats, Zulu Olivewood spoons (COMING SOON) 

Buying an African Basket is more than merely buying a handicraft, but acquiring for yourself an artistic interpretation of African culture while helping a woman gain independence.  Our weavers and their families thank you!

The Zulu craftspeople favor symmetry, precision and organization in the designs of their baskets — the qualities that seem to appear in their social patterns.   Traditionally, Zulu baskets were plain (the color of dried palm fronds) and only the Imbenge tops were decorated.  Today, baskets are highly sophisticated and have both traditional Zulu and other South African tribe (such as Ndebele) designs, typically from beadworks.  Many people and weavers believe each design has a specific meaning.  Some of the more popular meanings are below: 

 

Triangle - A masculine symbol, also represented on wedding baskets as the number of steers/cows (and 1/2 cows:  calves) paid for a bride price payment.  Two triangles facing each other (in an hour-glass shape) may designate a woman as entering a marriage as a second or third, etc. wife and not a primary or first wife.

 

  Diamond - A feminine symbol.  May also designate status of first wife.  Double Triangle -Marriage, man.  Double Diamond - Marriage, woman.  

  Zig-Zag - Masculine, represents the spear of Shaka or lightning.  Also represents bulls (as in whether a bride will accept bulls as payment on a wedding basket design). 
  Series of Diamonds  - Feminine, represents the shields of Shaka. 

  Checkerboards, Whirls or Circles  - Good news, new baby, good rains, plentiful harvest.
  Stepped patterns are typical Ndebele influenced but also represent the rolling hills of Zululand and may also represent the firmament (earth) and the heavens.
  Zulu cross - this outlined, double barred cross which often resembles a coptic cross is actually a Zulu cross.  In recent times, only two weavers do this design, Olga (who is no longer weaving) and one other weaver.  RARE
  Points Around the Outside of a diamond - Shows the number of cattle paid as bridewealth for a wedding.  Solid points represent cows or bulls, while those checkered means that the woman will also accept two calves in place of a cow or bull.  Various other complexities of this design have other meanings, and such things as the bride's position in the new family (as first, second or third wife) and her status within the community can be determined.
  Stairway to heaven - this design represents either climbing a tall mountain or steps to another country (heaven) and life's journey. 
  Pictographic designs - Some weavers have experimented with pictograph designs, representing the human or animal form(s), shields, houses, vehicles and other recognizable items.

  Other designs -  Many of the Zulus also experiment with contemporary, fanciful or individual designs.  While many of the designs are based on beadwork designs, often they are simply decorative, owing to the Western market's desire for what they THINK is traditional designs.  We have purchased or sold several baskets that were commissioned as "AIDS MEMORIAL BASKETS", that included unique designs (including the weaver's interpretation of the AIDS RIBBON).  Each weaver is unique and often a particular family, clan or region will have designs that are specific to them and sometimes weavers become very well known for specific designs.  THE TOP DESIGN REPRESENTS GUINEA FOWL FEATHERS AND IS A TRADEMARK DESIGN BY Laurentia Dlamini.
  No Designs - Several weavers have been experimenting with solid colors, most notably Beauty who has made somewhat of a trademark of her solid colored water vessels:  in solid black, white and even pink! (the black and white ones are in the New York Metropolitan Museum's collection and the pink one is in a museum in northern Europe.  Traditionally and historically, Zulu baskets (other than Imbenges which were usually decorated) were undecorated and of the natural color of the dried palm fronds of which they are made.

Standing Ilala Palm - grown specifically & sustainably for our weavers by a family cooperativeCarrying the dried, ready to be worked Ilala palm fronds, copywrite Tribal HomeCollecting the dried Ilala palm fronds

Closeup of a female iLala with fruit which can take up to two years to matureA mature grove of iLala palms on the coast of South Africa norther of DurbanCloseup of a mature iLala palm frond

move your mouse over the pictures for a description or click on them to enlarge

The ilala Palm

A variety of sustainably harvested plant materials are used to create different types of Zulu baskets.  These include:  ilala (pronounced EYE-LA-LA) palm fronds, Isikonko (a grass, however some five different grasses and reeds are used), Noebe (the bark of the wild banana tress) and Imizi (a water grass).  Ilala palm fronds are collected, pulled into strips, naturally dyed and then hung to dry as the traditional Zulu women prepare their other materials for basket-weaving. The palm fronds have a waxy coating which makes them ideal for the weaving of watertight baskets. 

The Ilala palm is, regrettably, no longer found in much of the Zulu's traditional home areas and where it is, the soil conditions are inferior and produce a very weak frond, unsuitable for the best baskets.   This is due to over collecting of the palm along with its purposeful destruction by Europeans (attempting to subjugate the Zulus). It was probably never common on the interior, as it is more of a low coastal palm.  With this in mind, one can assume that there was an extensive trade network set up to bring the material inland.  The palms grow to the west, near the coast, however the vast majority of the raw Ilala palm fibers that are used by our weavers is sustainably grown and harvested to the north, near the Mozambique border (many hours drive away).  The ilala palms that grow in this area grow in rich, fertile soils and produce the strongest, waxiest and best quality palm fronds - and thus the best for weaving superior quality, water tight baskets.

Sustainable Materials

While SOME poor quality ilala palm still grow in the region where the weavers live, good quality ilala palm is found farther north and must be either traded for or provided by the cooperative to the weavers. 

One family sustainably grows the palm fibers and our cooperative makes twice yearly collecting trips (often making multiple trips) to collect the dried and prepared materials that the cooperative provides (advances) to the weavers.  The palm trees are no longer killed, but the fronds are selectively harvested so that the tree continues to grow and live.  The leaves are robust, thick, costapalmate, up to 4 1/2 feet in diameter on a long petiole, the latter armed with thick, black, recurved thorns along its margins. The foliage is attractively grey-green with a whitish bloom on the leaf undersurfaces.  When we purchase a bundle (currently about $15-20 US $), we provide these FREE to the weavers.  This ilala palm is of SUPERIOR QUALITY, with strong, shiny leaves as compared to other ilala that is locally harvested.  It produces a superior basket and is worth the investment.  While we provide this palm fiber for the weavers, we only receive a fraction of it back - the weavers use it to produce their own baskets, mats, roofs as well as trade or sell it to other weavers!

Other uses for the ilala palm

The iLala palm is also used to create a wide range of other items besides just baskets, including:  sandals and mats and thatching of roofs.  But perhaps the most interesting economic use is in the vigorous local industry in the manufacture of palm brews: tapped stems and inflorescences produce a sugary sap which is fermented by natural yeasts into a kind palm wine or beer called ubuSulu or iNjemane which, when fresh, tastes rather like gingerbeer, however most westerners think it is quite awful and compare it to drinking, well... urine.

Even though, our non-profit Tribal home essentially purchases and provides the materials and commission the baskets, the cooperative does not receive a large percentage of the raw material back in the form of baskets (because the iLala is also used for other purposes and some of it is used to create baskets other than for our cooperative (sneaky, but true), the weavers will make mats and baskets and even dye and sell the fronds to other weavers!.   Some weavers try to pass off inferior baskets using local iLaLa palm fibers, however we turn these down and they are often sold to tourists or runners who sell them to the galleries and stores in South African towns.

Grasses

The other materials, including the various grasses or reeds and dyes are all sustainably harvested near the weaver's homes.  The grasses which typically forms the coils (and is covered by either a figure eight stitch or simply wrapped with split iLala palm fronds) are river/swamp grasses from about 15 species, including six primary grasses (most common:  Imizi, Nceme, Itkhantla among others).  These grasses grow in swampy areas or along the streams and rivers.  Different grasses are used either individually or mixed for different types of baskets or by different weavers.  The march and water grasses are used for watertight baskets because they are resistant to rotting.

Cutting these grasses is extremely hard work - and is dangerous, too!  The weavers often wade up to their calves or even their knees in water along the edge of rivers filled with hippos and crocodiles!  Little known fact:  Hippos actually kill more people in the world every year than any other animal!  Our cooperative members have met more than one weaver missing a hand, arm or leg from a crocodile that attacked them while they were collecting grasses or washing clothes (the Zulus often dismiss this and simply say "I was nipped by a crocodile!)  While this sound truly dangerous it is not really common - as the women know the cycles of the crocodiles (when they are going up or down river, and when they come closest to shore (usually in the early morning and late afternoon when game animals come to drink) and thus they avoid these times.  Bending over, using a machete to cut grasses at their base take a lot of effort.  The women often travel long distances on foot to collect the very best grasses.  The grasses must then be carefully dried (or in some cases, woven while still wet). 

Boiling ilala palm fronds in toxic black , photo copywrite Tribal Home   Weaver Bonisiwe preparing/boiling the toxic "shiny" black dye

Dyes used

All the colors used in traditional Zulu baskets are natural dyes, derived from organic sources.  Different regions and weavers use different colors and even different color sources.  The individual color’s intensity and saturation depends on the length of time the raw material is soaked in the dye bath, the combination of materials used and the expertise of the preparer.

Common colors and their sources:

   There are now between 30-50 plus known, natural dyes and pigments used in dying Zulu Baskets.  Some dyes are closely guarded family secrets (like hot pink) while others are common knowledge.  Not all weavers dye their own iLala palm.  Some Zulu Basket weavers purchase their dyed iLala palm fronds from other weavers.  All dyes take a considerable amount of time to collect the raw materials, prepare (dry/pulverize) and boil.  Some dyes can be heated in metal containers while others must be prepared in cast iron or in a ceramic pot (as some dyes react to metal and would turn black instantly).  Some dyes come from commonly available plants while others can only be collected in remote areas as certain times of the year.  Some dyes come from single ingredients and others are complex, requiring many ingredients and controlled boiling.  Certain colors (reds, pinks, toxic black) can significantly increase the cost/value of a basket.  The rarer the color or the more difficult to make, the more expensive the basket.

COMMON COLORS INCLUDE:

 Brown/Black (isizimane) - Roots of tree and or palm fronds crushed and boiled for up to 7 days.  One type of Shiny Black is called "Toxic Black" and is made using the boiled toxic leaves of a tree.  This dye is difficult to make and only the most skilled weavers use it.  Golden Brown & Pink/Lilac (mpheghmbetu) - Leaves of a small bush.  Coral (mgweyna)  - Aloe root.  Red/Purple/Blue/Fuchsia  (umdoni) -The Skin of ripe Umdoni berries or the root of certain plants including the indigo plant.  Red/Burgundy/Maroon (isfixu) - Bark of Marula tree or wild berries only available for a short time each year (rarest color).  The rarest reds come from the skin of a berry.  Up to 30 pounds of berry skins (100 pounds or more of the full berry) may be needed to produce one pound of dye which is enough for just the accent colors of a small basket.  Orange (xomisane) - Roots of small hairy-leafed plant  Mustard Yellow (icena) - Paste of wood-ash and water, soaked overnight, boiled for 5-7 hours.  Bright Yellow   - Saffron (very expensive and rare) Grey/light blacks/browns (ijuba)  - Soaked in black mud for up to one week.  Green/Khaki Green/Blue Greens (mxuba) -  Fresh cow dung (don't be grossed out... think of it as fermented grass! ...and there is NO odor!), soaked in water overnight and boiled with palm leaves for 4-5 hours. The green color is clearer in the spring due to the diet of the cows. Blue green colors may have other ingredients including aloe and indigo roots or other "secret" ingredients added.

Some dyes are complicated and have multiple ingredients.  Sometimes adding an ingredient (such as aloe, indigo root, a strip of metal, etc.) is very time-specific and thus very few weavers have the knowledge, skill and patience to produce the most difficult dyes.  Dye color can SIGNIFICANTLY influence the cost of a basket.  Several families are famous for their dyes and they keep the ingredients a secret.

Very few weavers are full time weavers.  These women (there are only a couple of men who weave traditional Zulu palm baskets, however men predominate in the telephone wire baskets) are for the most part subsistence farmers - and during the growing season they are often too busy planting and caring for their crops, families and livestock to do much weaving.  Thus, most weaving is done seasonally, especially during the dry season.  Even when weaving, women will be conducting their day to day business, fetching water, taking care of the animals and children, etc. 

Weaving all but stops when the men (most of whom work in far off cities or in the mines or oil fields) return (some villages the men return once a year for a week or two at Christmas time, other villages the men may return twice or more times a year).  When the men are back in the village, the women typically hide the fact that they are weaving, otherwise the men would take all their money.  So its often a game of hide and seek - with the women hiding their partially finished baskets when they know the men are returning. Don't take this as evidence that the men are in charge, however.  Anyone who has visited a Zulu village can attest that it is most definitely the women who run things!

Style of stitches used to weave baskets

A variety of stitches are used depending on the type of basket being produced.  Historically bone needles were used, however today needles crafted from the metal (aluminum) ribs of old umbrellas are commonly used.  The ribs are cut, with one end being flattened with a hole placed in the center and the other end is made into a sharp point.  You have to love creativity born from dire circumstances!  Metal needles were used for a while, but they rusted and were difficult to sharpen so were abandoned by most weavers.  The most common stitch used is the figure-eight stitch, however several others stitches are used on every basket.    Different types of baskets use different types of stitches.  Whichever stitches are used, it takes a steady hand, good eyesight and GREAT upper body strength to weave a Zulu basket.  Most designs require EXACT placement of each stitch, without gaps or overlaps.  It takes a very steady hand an consistent pressure when pulling the palm fibers so that the stitches are even and not warbly (that's my own word for you English teachers out there!).  The women usually do NOT use a thimble - and thus they have VERY strong fingers.

Needles and other tools

Today large needles are used, with each stitch being painstakingly placed, making sure that the free-hand design will line up properly and not be “squished” or distorted.  This actually takes a HUGE amount of strength and talent to push the needles through the basket and each stitch has be be guided so that it doesn't overlap.  It is EASY to identify the skill (grade) of the weaver simply by looking at their weaving - and how many errors, gaps and overlaps you find.  It is not uncommon, especially for standard weavers, to have an apprentice start the basket and to do the accompanying lid. 

Baskets are typically (as with MOST baskets produced ALL over the world) finished on one side and rough on the other (often inside).  Currently only TWO weavers that we work with produce baskets that are finished on both sides.  This type of weaving, invented by Ruben Ndwandwe takes 3-4 times longer than the standard weave.  Ruben is not only one of the very few male weavers, he is considered one of the most talented, world-class weavers (died 2007).  Busi (one of Scott's favorite weavers) is the other weaver who has undertaken the challenge to weave in a manner similar to Ruben and her baskets are steadily improving even though they are not yet of the same quality as Ruben's (I'm sorry to say that Busi died in 2004 of AIDS at the age of 28, thus Ruben who is 65 in the year 2006 is the only one ... and he has advanced Parkinson's disease - died June of 07 of TB).  This style of weaving takes approximately 4 times as long to do as a similar sized master quality water tight vessel with a complicated design.  The finished peace is AMAZING, however. 

A good master weaver’s water tight basket can contain 180 to 300 stitches per square inch of a basket.  Baskets can take weeks or months to finish.  There are VERY FEW Master weavers who are capable of producing the tiny, 19th Century-style finest weaves.  The largest basket the cooperative commissioned (and possibly ever made) took 16 months to weave!  This basket was by Tholi (see story).

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COMMONLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT ZULU BASKETS

for a SHORT printable history and synopsis of how these baskets are made, click here (required Adobe PDF)

1.  Why are Zulu Baskets So collectable?

Zulu baskets are considered some of the finest woven baskets in the world.  Many of these African baskets are woven so tightly that they actually hold water.  To understand why they are so collectable, you have to know a little history. 

The Zulu people of South Africa have been weaving baskets for centuries.  Up until the 19th Century (1800), Zulu men did the weaving.  However, European Colonial contact changed that as the men were forced to work in the mines - and women had to learn to weave.  The women did learn and until sometime between 1900 and 1920 produced basket for day to day use.  As outside materials (cups, pans, containers) made their way into even the most remote regions through trade, basket weaving all but stopped.   For the most part, South Africa had smaller populations of people than did Eastern and Western Africa - thus there were and are fewer items coming from these areas. 

Zulu basket weaving was basically a lost art when a Lutheran Missionary, in an attempt to win more converts, founded a basket weaving school.  He had found just a handful of women who remembered the craft and was willing to teach it - even though they hadn't woven a basket in over 30 years! 

In the last twenty-odd years weavers moved up from being APPRENTICE weavers to JUNIOR weavers to STANDARD WEAVERS and onto COLLECTOR and MASTER WEAVERS.  At the peak of sophistication and ability, over 100 master weavers were sporadically weaving baskets from a total of just over 2,000 weavers.  At any given time, only a few weavers obtain the skills to become a master weaver - a title bestowed upon them by very strictly controlled self governing body of the weavers.  A few weavers weave full time, however most weavers only weave in their free time - in the dry season when they don't have crops to tend to.  Some weavers produce baskets regularly and others only occasionally.  In any given year, there are usually only about 20-30 master weavers producing baskets.  This number is shrinking fast due to AIDS and the fact that the younger generation is being pulled into the cities and are abandoning their traditional way of life. 

Unfortunately, the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa has Africa's highest incidence of HIV and AIDS.  Men are gone much of the year working in the mines and often bring this disease home to their wives.  We have lost MOST of the Master Weavers in the last few years and most are infected with HIV.  While we get a few younger women wanting to learn basket weaving, most give it up within the first year or two and very few put in the time and effort it takes to become a master weaver.  The draw of working in the big cities often draws them away or they just don't have interest.  Thus, our master weavers are being lost and not replaced.  That is NOT to say that the art of basket weaving will again be lost - it most likely will continue.  However, the BEST quality baskets are becoming very scarce and their likes may not be seen again. 

When you also take into consideration that most Master Weavers have an area of specialty, often only producing one of the many types of baskets and within that often only produce baskets of a specific design or size, you see how these baskets can become collectable and yet, by many standards, they are STILL VERY AFFORDABLE!

Thus, they are an art form that has matured and peaked in the last decade or so and because of limited production, there is a demand for these high-quality baskets.  Consider for a moment Native American baskets during the early 1900's - they were relatively inexpensive, however today they often command prices in the thousand, tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Why?  Because few Native Americans know how to weave or are skilled enough to produce fine quality baskets or are willing to put in the time and effort that it takes (often months) to finish a basket.  We are at a point - that is fleeting - where good and great quality baskets are available at very reasonable prices. 

2.  Why do baskets range in price so much?

Simply put, you get what you pay for!  ...at least from reputable dealers.  Master weavers command higher prices for their baskets and the larger the basket, the tighter the weave and the smaller the coil, the more difficult the design or shape and yes, even the rarer / more difficult the color(s) - the more expensive the basket is.  Baskets with difficult, complex designs (such as wedding baskets) command a higher price because so few weavers are capable of producing them. 

Believe it or not, the quality of the raw materials such as the iLala palm fronds and the size and variety of water grasses also play a role.  The BEST iLala palm fronds are collected by us (our cooperative - and are advanced to the weavers) far to the north, near the Mozambique border.  These fronds are waxy and of strong nature.  Local grown iLala is often inferior, and often dries out and breaks and does not hold water well.  Depending on the grasses used for the coil, the coils may also be larger or smaller and typically the smaller the coil, the more expensive the basket.  Also, there are a very select few weavers who are world renown and command higher prices (think buying a painting by a local artist vs buying a Picaso).  Baskets by apprentice, junior and standard weavers are going to be less expensive than well known master weavers.  Consider also, that our cooperative rejects MANY inferior standard weaver baskets - and these baskets ultimately are sold to other dealers. 

A very select few weavers become internationally known and command very high prices.  These "World Class Grand Master Museum weavers" sell their baskets by the piece, rather than by the cm as the other weavers do.  BUYER beware.  We've seen MANY examples of inferior quality baskets being sold as superior or even baskets by a standard weaver being sold under a master weavers name.  We KNOW the weavers (esp. the Master weavers) work and we can instantly tell if the basket being offered is not by a particular artisan.  Often dealers won't even know WHO wove a basket and will put a made-up name on a basket.  Our cooperative STRIVES to be completely accurate with all of our weavers works and their names.  THAT is why we put a photo of the weaver (often but not always of the weaver actually holding THE basket) on all our baskets and give a brief biography.  We can OFTEN give a more detailed biography on our master weavers upon request. 

COMPARING BASKETS

When considering prices, you MUST compare similar baskets.  This is often not easy to do.  For example, take two baskets of similar quality and size from closely skilled weavers.  Now look at the COLORS of the baskets  - the one with earth tone colors sells for $150 while the other one has reds, purples and violets and its price is MORE THAN DOUBLE at $350.    The natural dyes that are used to produce the reds, pinks, purples and violets are much more difficult to source (limited to a few short weeks a year when the berries are ripe and available) and are very difficult to make - so they are considerably more expensive than more standard colors.  Many colors are also known only to one family or small group of weavers and are considered tightly guarded secreats.  Thus even colors can have a dramatic influence on the price of a basket!

Not all Zulu basket are alike. Here's some tips and guidelines when evaluating a basket you are considering purchasing (we HIGHLY recommend you see baskets in person - be VERY wary of buying baskets in an auction or online unless you can evaluate the basket and return it if you are not happy.

  1. First you must consider if the basket appeals to you.  Is it pleasant to look at?  We strongly suggest you first view the basket from a distance - as it would usually viewed when first entering a room.  If you initially look at the basket from very close-up, it may not give you a true appreciation for the baskets shape, form and design.  
  2. Now  consider the structure of the basket and the tightness of the weave.  Squeeze the basket.   Does it feel firm?  Does it feel spongy? The sturdier the basket, the more experienced the weaver's skill.
  3. Look at the execution of the weave. Is it even throughout?  The coils should be uniform in size and thickness from the top of the basket to the bottom. 
  4. Look at the finesse of the weave; is the individual stitches on the coils of the basket made with small, thin strips or wider strips of Ilala palm?  Look at the tightness of the weave.  What is the thickness of the coil? The larger and / or taller the basket, the thicker the coil must be or else the basket will eventually collapse within itself.  If the thickness is even and small, this means that the weaver has had to stitch the coil with the grass reeds being wet when they are soft and more pliable.  Weaving "wet" is harder than working "dry" as most weavers use dried strips and with thicker coils as it is easier and faster to complete.
  5. Look at the design.  Is it complex? The flame pattern or zigzag is the easiest to weave. If the bands are continuous, are there any further embellishments to the pattern? How many color changes are there in the bands? The more colors means the weaver has to make more varieties of dye bath and use multiple threaded needles or change out the color of the fronds being used. All these steps take more time.
  6. Look at the uniformity in the design. Are the symbols and motifs repeated evenly?  Are the forms pleasant?  Is the overall impact of the design on the basket complementing the basket shape?
  7. How many colors has the weaver incorporated into the basket?  Some colors take more time and are much more difficult to execute, thus they are more valuable (rare). 
  8. Look at the lid. How well does it fit?  Is the lip oversize? Many standard weavers often let someone else or a junior weaver  make the lid.  Check the design on the lid.  Does it match and fit into the overall basket design?  Look at the neck of the lid (the inside rim of the lid). Is it clean?  Are there any exposed wrapping?

WHEN WAS THE BASKET MADE?

As strange as it sounds - you must also consider WHEN the basket was commissioned and finished and when it was "purchased."  The exchange rate of the US dollar vs. the South African Rand is highly volatile (and not in the US's favor currently).  Thus a basket commissioned and purchased by someone five years ago (say when the exchange rate was 12.4 Rand to 1 US dollar) is going to be less expensive than one purchased this year (while varied, there is approx. 5.7 Rand to the Dollar - thus a basket costs roughly 2x what it did five years ago!) simply because the exchange rate was more favorable five years ago. 

You would not walk on to a car lot and expect a used Toyota to cost the same as a brand new Ferrari.   Think for a moment:  Say you purchased your house five years ago - has it gone up in value?  Of course it has!  So have baskets....

Buyer beware!  We GUARANTEE the quality of the baskets we sell.  Before buying a basket - PLEASE educate yourself.  If you have specific questions or want to learn the difference between various qualities of baskets come into our gallery or call us and we'll be happy to discuss it at length with you.

COST OF GETTING THE BASKET TO YOU

You must also take into consideration all the efforts it takes to get baskets from the remote areas where they are woven to where you live.  This includes vehicle and fuel costs, gifts  and bonuses for the weavers, the cost of advancing materials and deposits to the weavers, as well as the cost of the armed escorts (consider this:  when traveling in remote areas with tens of thousands of dollars in cash you MUST have armed guards with every member of your team and with every vehicle.  The shipping costs are also often significant - we ship our baskets by container and the baskets must be carefully packed so that they are well protected from humidity and moisture. 

The cost of overhead of the gallery or store the basket is purchased from will also factor into the price (how much does someone in a small town pay per square foot of rent versus a gallery in Manhattan?) 

In addition to quality, you must also consider how many hands a basket passes through from the producer to the end consumer.  Even within the big cities of South Africa, a basket often passes from the weaver to a local representative who sells their basket to a runner who sells this basket to someone else who sells it to a gallery who ultimately sells it to the customer.  Here in the states few galleries or stores buy directly from the weavers and when they do, they often buy the baskets that were either rejected or sold in the local market because they didn't meet our or other's strict quality standards. 

THE BASKETS THAT ZANZIBAR OFFER BYPASSES THESE "MIDDLE MEN".  Essentially our baskets are purchased through a cooperative directly from the weavers and a significant portion of the retail prices goes back to the weavers.  For us to acquire the best baskets, they must commissioned - giving the weaver a deposit toward the finished product and often more money as the baskets are completed (some of which takes months and months to make).  We sell our baskets all year round in our gallery, however twice a year (in the spring and fall) we have a special three day sale and benefit where we showcase hundreds of baskets and offer them at very favorable discounts.  If you'd like to learn more about how the weavers benefit, see the question "How are the women compensated?" below. 

AVERAGE COSTS OF BASKETS

What can you expect to pay?  Small herb and apprentice baskets range from the $12 to $24 range.  Standard weaver baskets (depending on size and style) range anywhere from $24 - $200 (usually in the $80-$140 range but can go over $200 for larger baskets).  Master Weaver baskets start at around $180 (sometimes lower)  and go over $3,000.00, depending on size, style, quality and complexity of weave and how well known the weaver is.  Most of the master, museum quality baskets we commission sell between $180 and $600.00. 

We have historically commissioned some very large (over five feet tall) baskets (over $3,000).  While we still stock some of these larger baskets, we are less likely to commission them these days because of their expense and the fact that very few weavers are living that are capable of producing them (as of October 2006, only TWO living weavers can make baskets over four feet tall).  Very likely, large baskets will become increasingly scarce in the years to come.  If you are interested in large baskets or would like to consider commissioning one, please contact us!  (Tribal Home has commissioned the largest, second largest and third largest Zulu baskets ever made.  The largest was over seven feet tall and nineteen feet around and took 17 months to create.  One family created these huge baskets, regrettably the mother and two daughters have died since 2004. 

If you have a particular style, pattern, color, favorite weaver or size of basket you are looking for, please let us know and we'll be glad to send you photos of a few of the HUNDREDS of baskets we have in stock and or arrange to have the basket(s) that match your interest(s) in our gallery for you to review.  Large Zulu baskets for museums and corporate or public art display (loan), sale, rental and leasing also available.  Custom commissioned pieces MAY also be available.  Please contact Scott Farrell at (916) 443-2057. 

3.  What does it take to become a master weaver?

To be considered a Master Zulu Basket Weaver, a title that is given by fellow weavers, a woman (or man in rare instances) must show that they have an overall grasp and skill in ALL aspects of basket production.  These aspects include:  Preparing and dying of the materials (palm fibers), tight weaving, good proportion, smooth transitions and shapes, even design spacing and overall quality of weave, shape and design.  Master weavers are also the only ones who will undertake the making of larger baskets - as without skill and a very tight weave, large baskets simply collapse under their own weight.  CONSISTENCY of quality is also a factor.  Some standard weavers can produce a beautiful, master-quality basket one time - and the next basket is just horrible. 

Thus, there are standard weavers who can consistently weave a very tight, well formed basket with even spaced designs, however they may not for example, do their own preparation or dying of materials - thus they are not given the title of Master Weaver.  Some women excel at one step or another but very few master all the steps in weaving a basket.  While there are about 40 master weavers within our cooperative, only about 15 are currently weaving consistently. 

Young women start out learning basket making from their grandmothers or mothers or aunts.  They often start out assisting with preparing the materials or weaving odds and ends left over.  This is very much a volunteer apprentice-type program and a girl has to want to learn basket making to undertake the training that is required.  While many young girls show an interest in weaving, very few keep at it for more than a short period.  Weavers are first APPRENTICE weavers, then JUNIOR weavers, then STANDARD weavers, and finally SUPERIOR STANDARD weavers prior to them becoming a MASTER weaver.  Very few (less than a dozen) Master weavers go onto being a WORLD CLASS MASTER weaver. 

While there is no specific age when someone becomes a master weaver (and baskets that are not master weavers are often nearly as fine) it often takes decades of weaving for a woman to perfect her skills.  When eyesight or upper body strength begins to fade, master weavers often weave smaller "herb" baskets that do not require the meticulous work of the larger pieces.  How can you tell the difference between the various grades of weavers?  Well, with a little practice and common sense and a few examples, most people can begin to distinguish between the graduations. 

4.  Are the materials for the baskets sustainably harvested?

Yes.  In actuality, few of the weavers harvest their own ilala materials.  Why?  Basically, because of over harvesting of the iLala palm by the Zulus combined with the purposeful destruction of the traditional groves by Europeans during the 19th century (in an attempt to subjugate the Zulus and make them less self dependant) has resulted in very few Ilala palms growing naturally in their traditional areas.  Good news, though... one family (about 4 - 8 hours from the cluster of villages that we buy most of our baskets from) sustainably grows and harvests the fronds from the Ilala palm trees.  The trees are not killed.   The South African government strictly controls the harvesting of iLala palms (both for basket crafting as well as for the production of palm wines/beer).   The various grasses and dyes that are secondary to the production of the baskets are typically collected (or grown) by the weavers and are all sourced from non-endangered plants. 

5.  How are the women Compensated?

The cooperative that we support buys and commissions baskets directly with the weavers.  Baskets are paid for by cash (and sometimes trade goods like flour and other basics when requested by the weavers).  Basket prices are determined by the weavers ability, quality of the basket, colors and size.  Our weavers are given the finest raw materials of iLala palm fronds free of charge.  They receive a deposit from us when we commission the basket(s) and are paid in full upon the completion of the basket(s).  Bonuses of flour and sugar are also given.

Baskets are measured in centimeters around the outside.  A certain level of weaver for a certain style of basket will be paid X amount per cm.  Women are very fairly compensated for their work.  Over the years the cooperative has increased the amounts paid per cm.  The cooperative members usually give the weavers a deposit when requesting a specific size basket.  Weavers are often fiercely independent, however and don't always take direction well (or at all) - they produce what they want when they want it.  Some weavers are very dependably while getting others to produce a basket is like pulling teeth!  The weavers know when the cooperative's twice yearly buying trips are and usually finish their baskets to coincide with these visits.  While the cooperative has two main collecting trips per year, we actually have representatives visiting most of the weavers every month.  This consistency is important because if the women have an emergency and need funds we are generally available. 

A runner is usually sent ahead to the various villages letting them know in advance when the cooperative's caravan will arrive.  Often women from remote areas will congregate at their homesteads or village's master-weavers residence, chiefs residence or at a pre-determined location, awaiting the cooperative's buyers.  This is a fun time, often relatives and friends seeing each other and catching up on gossip and news.  Usually one women acts as the head of a group of women and designates which weavers are seen and what they will be paid (based on their skill level). 

Tape measures and or strings are fitted around the baskets and then are laid out along the tailgate of one of the pickup trucks - with markings CLEARLY designating how much money will be paid for how many centimeters.  Weavers are paid in CASH.

The cooperative works as a non-profit with volunteer labor and staffing.  The cooperative has a zero employee overhead budget currently (i.e. no payrolls, no stipends, no travel allowances and no bonuses).  The retail cost of the baskets are determined by the amount the women are paid, the shipping costs (via sea cargo), warehousing costs and insurance costs plus a modest markup.  A significant percentage of our retail price (usually 75%) of the price paid goes directly back to the weavers.   

Zanzibar always has a fine selection of Zulu baskets in stock and also hold regular shows, sales and benefits where the majority of  the net proceeds goes back to the weavers and the various programs the cooperative has put into place.  Participating members of the cooperative purchase their own airfares, provide their own lodging and travel (vehicle) expenses on the buying trips to South Africa and take no salary or compensation.   The cooperative has put a variety of programs into effect to assist women and children of Zulu weavers and your purchase of a Zulu basket helps to fund these programs. 

6.  Do you ship from South Africa?

Not really, no.  The baskets that we offer for sale are all from inventory that is warehoused here in the United States (most in California although the cooperative also maintains a small warehouse in New York).  Zanzibar Tribal Art Gallery usually maintains a reasonable inventory and twice each year has a large show, sale and benefit where hundreds of baskets are featured.  The cooperative typically does not ship baskets directly from South Africa to clients, as shipping baskets via air is expensive.  The baskets normally arrive via one of two sea containers from South Africa to the states (which can take from 5 weeks to several months) which Tribal home ships each year.  In rare instances the cooperative can and do ship baskets from South Africa.  We CAN ship baskets to most countries in the world.  Shipping baskets CAN be expensive as we DOUBLE box these baskets to protect them.  Large baskets often are oversized and must be shipped via TRUCK and not UPS, FEDEX, USPS Mail or DHL. 

7.  How will I know which weaver made a particular basket?

All master woven baskets come with a laminated card that features a photograph of the weaver, her (his) name and brief description of the basket and bio of the weaver.  Additional biographic information is available for most of our weavers.  All standard woven baskets come with a description card featuring the type of basket and the weaver's name.  Baskets are not signed, however many master weavers have a distinctive style that is instantly recognizable to us and to those familiar with their work (we've seen many poor imitations crafted by less experienced weavers sold as well known master weaver's work by other dealers.  Since we KNOW the weavers very well, we guarantee the authenticity of the baskets we sell).  Beware:  Many baskets sold in South African may have made up names attached or no names at all!  All of our standard weaver baskets come with a tag with the weavers name.  Junior weavers and grandmother herb baskets do not come with a name as they are impossible to distinguish oftentimes. 

8.  How tight is the weave of a good basket?  How many stitches per square inch?

Oh, tough question!  There are several weaving styles and tightness of weave varies between the different style of baskets, materials being used as well as from weaver to weaver.  A good master weaver's water tight basket can have 180 to 300 (and sometimes more!) stitches per square inch of basket!  Some basket types (and sizes) have different weave frequencies and tight weaving does not always designate the quality of a basket.  You should also consider the consistency of the width of the iLala palm fronds and the tightness of the coil. 

9.  How long does it take to weave a basket?

Oh, another tough question!  Again, this depends a lot on the weaver, their skill, the type and size of basket and how many hours each day a weaver dedicates to weaving.  Often collecting, splitting and dying/preparing the raw materials takes as long as it actually takes to weave the basket. 

Our smallest herb baskets made by our master grandmother weavers can be done in less than a day.  A typical herb basket by an apprentice or junior weaver can take three or four days.  Smaller standard baskets can be woven in a few weeks while larger baskets take months to finish.  Obviously finer woven, baskets with complex designs or larger baskets take longer. 

The largest basket we've had (and we think the largest EVER made) took 17 months to complete, pretty much dedicating 8 plus hours each day, 6 plus days a week!  If you purchase a basket from us, we can give you an approximate length of time it took to weave a given basket.    Not all weavers are full time weavers (weaving five or six days a week, eight hours a day).  Most Zulu basket weavers weave seasonally and between their other chores - thus some work a four or five hours each day while others work more or less.  Obviously work in the garden and the children come first.  Sometimes collecting, preparing and dying the materials can take as long or longer than the actual weaving of the basket!

10.  Why do some of the Zulu women appear to have red or white faces?  And what's up with them SMILING SO BIG?

The red or white that many Zulu weavers have on their face is a natural clay ocher that acts as a natural sun screen.  As to why they smile so big (with full white teeth showing and their eyes open so wide) is that Zulus don't usually smile and when they do they tend to REALLY exaggerate it.  While to some people it might seem stereotypical its just the way they smile.  We should all be so happy (or at least appear so!).  Trust us, getting a Zulu to smile isn't always easy! 

11.  Will these baskets be around in 10, 20, 100 years?

The art of making Zulu baskets was almost lost twice in the last 200 years.  It is doubtful that it will be lost again, HOWEVER - we've seen a real renaissance in basket making in the last 20-30 years.  Consider Native American Indian Baskets about 100 years ago:  to meet the demand of traveling tourists, baskets got smaller, more sophisticated in design, colors were improved and some of the very finest work was done.. how many Native American weavers are actively weaving today?  A few hundred, MAYBE?  More likely dozens if that.

Zulu basket making won't be lost, however the VERY FINEST baskets have been made and are being made in the last ten years.  2/3rds of our weavers are HIV positive and many of the older weavers that are not HIV positive are no longer weaving due to either illnesses or because they received stipends (pensions) from the South African Government (about 120 US $ per month - enough to survive on without making baskets).  We're losing weavers every day of AIDS.  Without the best weavers to encourage and teach the younger generations, we may very well be in the GOLDEN years of Zulu baskets.  Certainly the two most collected basket weavers (Beauty who is HIV positive and Rueben who is 65 and has Parkinson's disease) won't be with us much longer.  NOTE:  Rueben passed away of anti-biotic resistant TB in June 2007 and his baskets increased in value ten fold within the few days of his death. 

12.  CHEERS MATE!  Beer, beer, beer... are Zulus obsessed with beer?

Low alcohol beer (about 1% alcohol) made from either fermented sorghum or millet or a combination of both is a constant in Zulu homes and homesteads.  Remember, much of the Zulu homeland is at a high elevation - 6,000 to 12,000 feet above sea level and it is usually cold (note all the weavers wearing blankets) and the mild alcohol probably helps keep them warm!

Beer is offered whenever a visitor comes to a Zulu home and is served at special occasions such as weddings and funerals.  Traditionally each home has a large terracotta (clay) fermenting pot in the back corner of the hut (today, many of these traditional pots have been replaced by plastic tubs).  Water, either millet or sorghum and a starter yeast (not the type used in brewing beer, but usually just a cooking yeast is added and is allowed to ferment.  When the pot gets low, more water, grain and occasionally yeast is added - thus the concoction varies in intensity, flavor and consistency from day to day. 

What does it taste like?  Well, it really doesn't taste like beer in most Westerner or European's taste buds opinions.  Its been compared to, well... best not to say.  But it is NASTY. 

Typically the beer is ladled out of the fermentation pot (historically it would have been with a hand carved wild olivewood ladle, however today it is usually a tin or metal ladle), strained through an ilala palm woven strainer and put into a 12 - 15" tall bulb shaped Ukhamba (beer basket) that acts as a communal (everyone shares) mug.  The Ukhamba is the most commonly woven style of Zulu basket. 

The Ukhamba is passed around while everyone visits and catches up on gossip.  As the container is emptied, more beer is served, usually in progressively smaller Ukhambas... until one has overstayed their welcome and the "stingy" basket comes out (which is tiny... about the size of a baseball!).  This means it is time to go - you've overstayed your welcome and drank too much beer! 

In Zulu culture, Zulus RARELY say "NO", as it is considered rude.  They often will say YES even when they know that they mean NO just to save you both the embarrassment.  This often confuses Westerners who are often frustrated by this always wanting to appease.  If you overstay your welcome, fear not - your hosts will probably visit you tomorrow and drink all of your beer!

Beer is common, usually home brewed and thus can (like everywhere in the world) become a problem and some Zulus are basically drunkards.  Sad, but true. 

13.  Are Zulu baskets really water tight?  They will hold water and won't leak?

For the most part, yes!  However, there are several different types of Zulu baskets and weaving stitches.  The most common stitches are the figure eight (which if done correctly, is basically water tight) and the herb basket stitch, which is not (this weave is actually suppose to allow air to circulate but keep bugs out of the grain baskets, herb and medicine baskets). 

Essentially, if good quality grasses (which are typically marsh grasses and resistant to rot) and iLala palm is used and the weave is done tightly, if you pour liquid into the basket, the palm fibers will absorb a tiny bit of the liquid, swell and thus the baskets will hold water.   Some baskets are specifically to fetch or store water, while others are used to temporarily store or serve beer. 

14.  What are some of the challenges facing collecting these baskets?

Challenges are many and varied and go beyond the challenges of importing baskets made of organic material into the US!  Some of the challenges include:

  • Traveling in remote areas with large amounts of cash.  We have to take special precautions and hire armed guards.  Running roadblocks and avoiding being kidnapped is just some of the challenges faced each collecting trip.  We also are not very specific about which day(s) we will be visiting but have to be more round about (we'll be there sometime next week).  Fuel and flat tires are also a big hassle!
  • Traveling to remote villages (often requiring HOURS of 4-wheel driving with no roads on often very steep inclines!
  • Flat tires (on one of Scott's collecting trips to Africa, he had 13 flat tires in three days!  No, really!  ... and that was on ONE vehicle. 
  • HIV and AIDS:  We've lost many friends, artisans and weavers to these devastating diseases which are rampant in South Africa.
  • CONSISTENTLY buying baskets from the weavers so they have a regular income.  Currently the cooperative has a member who makes monthly buying trips to most of the villages.  Usually two trips a year are made by cooperative volunteers from the states, to finalize the shipments and visit the weavers. 
  • Finding quality weavers that won't just take the deposit(s) and materials and sell the baskets to someone else!  Most weavers (esp our Master weavers) are honest and produce the baskets that are commissioned, but some are lazy and just want to get paid for doing nothing!  We also, regrettably, lose some weavers (some move away, others pass on).
  • Finding the weavers:  Sometimes weavers go off for a wedding or funeral the week we're there.. so we may not receive a basket for up to a year after it is completed!
  • Buying the supplies:  Since most weavers don't have access to the iLala palm fibers that most baskets are made from, the cooperative has to source these materials and advance (give) them to the weavers prior to commissioning a basket.  The palms are grown a great distance from the villages. 
  • Doing business in a country where poverty is rampant.  On our buying trips in the bush we MUST hire a security detail as a deterrent (when carrying large quantities of cash you must be protected from robbery and kidnap). 
  • Getting the weavers to produce what size and color baskets you want (can sell).  Weavers are often very independent and often it's a dance to convince them to produce what sells.
  • Working with an unfavorable exchange rate (a few years ago the exchange rate was approx. 12 plus Rand to the US dollar - today it is closer to 5 - 6 Rand for 1 dollar - thus baskets cost over twice as much as they did just a few years ago just based on the weakness of the dollar!)
  • Dealing with bureaucracy in exporting the baskets from South Africa.  
  • Arranging for packing of the baskets so they won't be damaged or mold on the long journey from Africa to the US.  Once the baskets arrive, they must go through a variety of checks, including by Fish and Wildlife, Dept. of Fish and Game, US Marshals, and clear Customs .  Organic material must go through fumigation and or cold storage prior to being allowed into the US.  Sometimes containers must be open and inspected, X-rayed or go through an MRI-like scan. 
  • Making sure we commission/source the correct number and size of baskets.  For shipping costs to be minimal, we must FILL the two containers a year the cooperative brings in - thus we MUST have our weavers follow through and give us the baskets we commission or there is empty space in the container and ALL the baskets must absorb this increased shipping cost. 
  • Alcoholism.  Sad, but true.  Even with only1% alcohol, Zulu beer does have a habit of robbing the productive lives of some of the most talented weavers. 
  • HIV/AIDS - roughly 66% (2 out of every 3) of our weavers are HIV positive and each year dozens die of AIDS or related illnesses. 
  • Government stipends/retirement.  Post Apartied, the South African government grants all Zulus over the age of 58 years a monthly stipend.  While this is a good thing, as many of the older generations had little or no education under Apartied and thus are not skilled workers, this small stipend is just enough to live off of (about $120 US a month) and it is enough incentive that many older weavers stop weaving and just relax - well, good for them but of course it takes some of the most skilled weavers out of the pool. 
  • Not selling enough baskets!  We'd LOVE to sell more.   The more baskets we sell the more people we can make a difference in their lives!  We currently collect baskets from about 15 villages - and there are many other weavers in other villages that would like to sell us baskets - however several factors are limiting us:  demand for more baskets, the ability of a master weaver to take charge and train other weavers so that their quality is of the caliber we require, access to these often remote villages and ability to help everyone that we'd like to.  How can you help?  Buy a basket!

...and after ALL the above (and more!) is it worth it?  Yes.  ...and you know why?  Because when it comes right down to it... selling these baskets HELPS the people (the Zulu) who weave them live better, more fulfilling lives. 

END

For information about our bi-annual Zulu Basket show, click here

For more information on ZULU TELEPHONE WIRE BASKETS, click here (coming soon)

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