Women basket weavers from Zimbabwe enhance their skills in a livelihood project under NID

“Earlier we, as women, were only supposed to plough the earth or give birth to babies. But after receiving the training, we now think of ourselves as something more,” says Tracy, a basket weaver from Zimbabwe who has been part of a project to enhance livelihoods of women in Africa.

The design intervention project executed by the National Institute of Design under the India-Africa Summit and supported by Department of Industrial Policy & Promotion has come a long way. Women basketry artisans from rural Zimbabwe now have a host of products that they can take to the market as well as explore the possibilities of exporting.

Showcasing the journey of the artisans was an exhibition, ‘Basketry Dialogues: Connecting Cultures’, recently in the Capital.

Mashvingo and Honde Valley in the interiors of Zimbabwe have an abundant growth of sisal and bamboo. While bamboo from the area was mostly used as packaging material, with sisal fibre flat crude trays were made for local consumption.

The NID team of four, under Shimul Mehta Vyas, has managed to change all that. Through a set of three workshops in India and the villages of Zimbabwe, the team trained 25 women to use their basketry skills to develop products such as hanging lamps, specialised baskets, exotic artefacts and useful containers that could easily make their way to the market with tremendous export potential, even as they helped to break the poverty cycle that engulfed women in the region.

Following the pattern of training the trainers, the project rooted in the motto, “Crafting a Better World through Design” essentially used all available local materials to help the women enhance their income generation skills. “We dipped into the bounties of nature – fruits, barks, roots – that were used as natural dyes to create a palette of colours for sisal fibre baskets,” explains Palash Singh, designer at NID who was hands-on through the design intervention journey, a practical capability building exercise. “They were used to weaving flat structures, but learnt fast as we designed structures with height, length and breath,” he explains.

Palash recalls how after their initial recce of the places they were to work at in interior Zimbabwe and with the help of voluntary organisations, they zeroed in on 25 women basketry weavers who showed leadership potential and could train hundreds of others in the future. The women then came to India for 21 days to learn the fresh possibilities that design can create for them. They visited organisations such as Sewa and Fab India to get a feel of co-operative efforts and entrepreneurship. The training was an experience that changed their lives forever, something they will never forget, something that is expected to enhance their livelihood and their lives.

Says Jennifer, a sisal basket weaver, “While working in the fields, we used to look in wonder as aircraft swooped overhead, in the skies. We did not dare imagine sitting in them. And now, we fly to that far off land, India.”

For the NID designers too it was an experience of a lifetime. Apart from creating designs out of bamboo and sisal fibre that could enhance incomes, Palash acquired a deep understanding of the life lead by simple women in Africa. On probing for details, Palash who worked closely with the women, all the time watching their progress, revealed that the most satisfying aspect of the project was the sense of empowerment the women communicated. “In their society women have almost no say in personal and sexual life as the bride that comes home is paid for, almost as if they are then owned by the family. When the woman starts to earn and earn well, her status changes within the family and society.”

Palash’s verse on Tracy in training speaks more than a thousand documentations:

....It started long before We saw it.

Strand by strand,

Twist by twist.

Some were beautiful,

some were ugly,

some broke in between,

she rejoined some too,

and kept weaving.

Its a big one now,

and in making it so,

She learned so much,

taught so many,

encompassing so many universes.

The basket of her laughs and tears,

the basket of that beautiful smile,

with two teeth missing in front,

the basket of her never ending

struggle of life.

Tracy's never ending basket.

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