Basket weaving preserving Tonga tradition, culture

By Thabisani Dube


Tonga women in Binga district in north-western Zimbabwe, gather in small groups to
weave baskets, a practice that has preserved their rich traditional and cultural
heritage for generations.
During the morning, the Tonga people work in their gardens and start weaving in the
afternoon when the weather is very hot. The sultry heat make it unbearable to
continue working in the gardens.
The Tonga’s unique weaving skills are inherited from their ancestors who crafted
baskets for gathering and serving food more than 150 years ago.
“Since our forefathers used to weave the baskets in a unique fashion only peculiar to
us, we are now using the basket weaving skills and knowledge to preserve our
traditions and culture as well as access income to improve our livelihoods, ‘’ said
Patience Mumpande a basket weaver from Saba area in this vast district plagued by
development challenges.
The Tonga people, a dominant population living near the Zambezi River, and on the
border with Zambia, are one of the country’s smallest ethnic groups, and are
classified by the United Nations as one of the genuine indigenous peoples of the
world. They lived largely without interference from the colonial rulers until 1957,
when tens of thousands from 15 chiefdoms who lived along the banks of the river,
were removed. The Zambezi River was then flooded to make way for a huge dam
and an electricity generating station at Kariba. The people were resettled in what is
now known as Binga and Kariba districts.
Binga district has a population of approximately 129,421 people. It endures some of
the harshest climatic and agricultural conditions in Zimbabwe. The district
experiences a low and often erratic annual rainfall of 400-600mm. Soils are generally
shallow and sandy. Natural vegetation includes Brachystegia woodlands at higher
altitudes, with Mopani woodland and Jesse thickets on the valley floor. Much of the

district falls within the Zimbabwean agro-ecological classification of Natural Region V
– described as being unsuited to any agricultural use except extensive grazing.

Main land uses in the district are permanent agricultural fields, fallow land, grazing,
forests and bush land.
The agricultural fields are used for crop production mostly, while the forests and
bush land are for wildlife management, timber production and non-timber forest
products. Some of the forest products include timber for construction, firewood and
‘’With the low agricultural potential, baskets weaving remains one of our viable
livelihood option,’’ says Margret Nyathi.
The baskets are not only used to earn an income to sustain the women’s livelihood,
improve their socioeconomic status but also to share and preserve their cultural
Today, these baskets are still being widely used in rural Zimbabwean homes and
skills are passed on from the Tonga mothers to their daughters.
Marketing the baskets means sharing their cultural heritage with the world, which is
also a source of pride for them.
According to the women, the baskets are not sacred or spiritual but resemble
themselves as genuine Tongas.
Another woman from Mlibizi area in the same district said: “It’s a rich cultural
heritage given to us by our ancestors who used to make baskets from reeds when
they lived by the Zambezi River before the Kariba Dam was built. We want to
preserve it for future generations.”
The women also depended on selling the baskets, enabling them to earn a living and
be self-reliant. These baskets are rustically woven in huge numbers by the local
They are then sold for beteween USD$30 to USD$500 depending with the market
and annually, some get more than USD$1,000

As Sifiso Chuma, from Sianyanga, explained, “With the money l get from baskets l
have bought six cows worth USD900 and l now have more than 30 cattle and sent
my four children to school and paid USD600 per year. I have gained financial
autonomy and literacy and I am able to direct money for family needs such as
education, purchase of clothes and food.”
However, it is not all rosy for the women as this pastime often clashes with other
important household chores especially during the rainy season.
‘’During the rainy season, the work becomes too much for us as we have to plough
the fields. It is difficult to do everything–daily household chores, work in the fields
and make baskets at the same time,” said Memory Mudenda.
To maintain an excellent artistic appeal, the women use palm trees, the creeping
vine, twigs and other fibres to make the tough materials that ensure that the baskets
are durable. The tree used to make the dye for the patterns of the baskets is a
complex process that involves water from the well and grinding the bark of the trees.
In some instances, cow dung is added to seal the baskets. These basket types are
sold but the majority are reserved for the women themselves.
The women interviewed used the same patterns and with slight variations.
Collaboration helps the women develop new patterns. They consider themselves to
be in competition but in cooperation. They do not have patterns that are unique to
themselves, but inspirations of the collective cultural environment and they
considered their knowledge and creations as belonging to the Tonga community.
Some of the baskets have new designs to suit aesthetic customer preferences while
retaining the traditional methods, indicating an attachment to their cultural heritage.
The women balance preserving the traditional styles baskets, while also creating
innovative designs.
Natural dyes are a key feature of this very special Zimbabwean basketry, and the
weavers make beautiful, earthly colours from blending rust, leaves and bark from
specific indigenous trees in vats of boiling water. For example, natural materials like
palm leaves and wild twigs, their baskets have a distinctive design with a flat square

Tonga baskets and their artistic values
The palm leaf strips that are used to weave these baskets can be dyed to produce
vibrant final products. In addition, weavers have excellent art knowledge that enables
them to produce a variety of motifs.
They also vary. Some are colourfully painted while some are plain without dyes. It all
depends on how one wishes to use them. They can be either used for decorating a
wall, placed on kitchen countertop, dining table or shelf. Another way to use these
baskets for home decoration is to store fruits in them. They can also be used to
display anything such as kids’ toys, pens, among others.
The Tonga baskets demonstrate that traditional cultural expressions are static, but
rather, dynamic and evolve over time with constant innovation as each generation
adds its impression and adapts to its unique needs and context to maintain
relevance and move with the times.

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