Traditions of handmade, woven basketry is alive and well in communities around the world. After attending the launch of the Alliance for African Partnerships organized by Michigan State University with African partners in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in July 2017, we decided to journey to the island of Zanzibar where we stayed in Stone Town. Stone Town (the old portion of what is also known as Zanzibar City) was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010. It takes its name from the coral stone buildings of the 19th century that were constructed on the site of an old fishing village.
Immediately after disembarking from the ferry from Dar es Salaam, we found ourselves in a truly mesmerizing environment. Stone Town, perhaps best known for its contested colonial past and a legacy of being a major site for the slave trade in East Africa, is replete with tall houses of Arabic and Victorian-era architecture, women garbed in beautiful kanga textiles, and maze-like thoroughfares so narrow that pedestrians, bicyclists, and moped riders all work hard to avoid collisions. The sounds of muezzin making calls to prayer five times daily from the over fifty mosques in Stone Town create a memorable soundscape. The sounds and visuals create a unique cultural space where the convergence of historical influences of Arab, Persian, Indian, and European cultures can be readily glimpsed.
We found ourselves exploring alleyways filled with small stalls and stores catering to the tourist trade that carries the Stone Town economy today. As folklorists with a passion for seeking out locally made material culture and with a deep interest in basket traditions, we found ourselves drawn to the presence of new and old baskets that were being used functionally for a variety of purposes as well as being sold along with other crafts, paintings, and clothing. In many displays of items for sale, baskets were often carefully arranged to aesthetically appeal to customers.
We were pleased to find traditional Zanzibar baskets being sold in several tourist-oriented shops, and were especially pleased to find one shop–Moto Cooperative–that represented many examples of baskets made by women in a craft cooperative. The stated goal of the Moto (Swahili for “heat”) Cooperative is to support the development of the rural economy. The project aims to recover and sustain high quality traditional weaving and to seek out new markets locally and internationally to support the weavers and weaving families. The cooperative stresses that they are “empowering women, reviving a cultural heritage, and building sustainability.” Currently Moto has nine villages and 19 cooperatives with over 200 women (and some men) engaged in this effort.
The baskets made in this cooperative are produced in the centuries-old ukili weaving tradition. Relying on soft palm fibers from mkindu and mvumo palm trees, the weavers seek to revive the tradition in the face of the growing replacement of traditional baskets by plastic bags and mass produced forms. They do this not only through weaving in traditional techniques and patterns but also by planting palm trees for future materials for their baskets. They use mostly natural dyes and, in a quest for sustainable resources, incorporate solar cookers to prepare the dyes.
It was wonderful to see the prevalence of large, open-weave bamboo working baskets being used by vendors in the fruit, spice, vegetable, and fish markets. In fact, we saw these rough-hewn, large, durable baskets in many sizes and shapes being used by individuals to carry almost any item – by hand, bike, or truck. We had seen similar kinds of working baskets in China, but made there primarily of bamboo. These baskets seem to have been made by flexible wooden fibers from local trees and they were woven and then tied off with strands of wood fiber. We learned that there was a place on the edge of Stone Town where most of these baskets were made and sold for local vendors or workers. We look forward to investigating that on a future trip We came away inspired to learn more and share our experience in the hopes that we might connect with others who know much more about the basket making traditions of Zanzibar.