Botswana’s arts and crafts originated out of necessity, crafts were functional as well as appealing to the eye. Since then, artists, painters and sculptors in the country take inspiration from their heritage and culture while giving these traditional crafts a modern twist with a style of their own. Over the past few months, we have been looking at some of the traditional crafts and art forms that have followed Botswana into the modern age. Baskets are integral in Botswana’s history and are undoubtedly the most renowned and most useful of all the craft products made in Botswana.
Traditionally, closed baskets with lids are used as storage containers for grains and seeds or baljalwa, a sorghum beer. The tray-type or bowl baskets are the ones you normally see women carrying on their heads, used for a wide variety of purposes.
Basket designs are passed down from generation to generation and are associated with the nation’s traditional lifestyle. The construction is slow and complex work, a large basket can take more than two weeks to complete. All traditional baskets are made from leaf fibers of the young real fan palm, or mokolwane in Setswana. The leaves are stripped into strings before being woven into intricate patterns by master Weavers.
Nearly all baskets are made with a unique design and pattern. To make cultured strands for this purpose, the palm strands are pounded and boiled in a solution of natural dyes taken from the bark and roots of different plants. The traditional designs on the baskets portray the natural world and go by colourful and poetic names such as Flight of the Swallows, Tears of the Giraffe, Knees of the Tortoise, Forehead of the Zebra and Urine Trail of the Bull.
Every year, The National Museum and Art Gallery in Gaborone hosts the National Basket Show, showcasing the handiwork of crafters including basket weaving, tapestries and pottery where you can watch the elaborate process of basket weaving. If natural and cultural history fascinates you, the National Museum is a must-see. The museum is a showcase of the diversity of life in Botswana as well as the talents of many local artists.
Many of the basket designs seen in museums and galleries are still used in rural areas. Baskets are now also produced for the commercial market and a number of new sizes, shapes and patterns have emerged featuring modern designs, taking the craft of basket weaving to a new level of artistic design.
Not only are the baskets of Botswana crucial in traditional rural life and can be traced through Botswana’s history, the commercialization of this craft has resulted in a supplementary income for rural families, making the woven basket more valuable than ever.