Tonga Baskets

BaTonga women have been making baskets for hundreds of years. Through the centuries they have honed their skills to produce some of the most beautiful baskets in Africa. They use the leaves of the ilala palms and reeds that grow in flood plains of the Zambezi Valley in Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Map showing the territories carved out along the Zambezi River

The BaTonga people settled in the Zambezi River basin around 2000 years ago. With an egalitarian, matralinineal social structure, they are united by language and a riverine culture that includes a protective river god Nyaminyami, rather than by a chieftainship. 

Living in family groups of 20 to 50 people per household, the BaTonga raised cattle, hunted, fished and gathered, and cultivated the rich alluvial soils along the flood plains that they lived on. Their way of life was relatively undisturbed mostly because of the food security they enjoyed, living along a river. There were a few encounters with Portuguese traders from the 15th century onwards but this made little impact. Significant changes began to occur with the mapping out of borders and the creation of countries by Europeans towards the end of the 19th century. This ended BaTonga freedom of movement along the Zambezi River.

Kariba Dam at sunset, showing drowned trees
Steve Evans from Citizen of the World [CC BY 2.0 (]

The biggest challenge for the BaTonga came between 1958 and 1963 when Kariba Dam, one of the largest dams ever built, gradually filled, drowning the ancestral land of the BaTonga along the Zambezi on the Zimbabwean and Zambian border. The BaTonga of Zimbabwe were forced to move south to the dry, less fertile land of the Binga district. This move disrupted their ancient riverine socio-economic and cultural frameworks, and food security.

1. A woman making a basket
2. A woman carrying water

Food scarcity has become a daily reality for the BaTonga of Zimbabwe. Basket making is no longer just an intrinsically functional activity for winnowing and food gathering. It has increasingly turned into a money generating activity for food, clothes and school fees. The BaTonga still produce traditional baskets, but there is a growing demand for contemporary design items such as bowls, planters, waste paper baskets and sculptural forms. There is now pressure to plant more ilala palm trees to secure a sustainable income through basket making.

A large winnowing basket

Zienzele Baskets

Supporting women and children widowed or orphaned by HIV Aids.

Women and children are at the heart of Zienzele sisal baskets, made in Masvingo area of Zimbabwe. Women, working within organized women’s groups, make the baskets to raise money to pay the school fees for those children orphaned by HIV Aids in their community. 

A gorgeous selection of zienzele baskets

The word ‘zienzele’ means to be self-reliant. Rather than depending on handouts or 
allowing children to sink into destitution, widowed women and grandmothers work together to give the children a chance. 

By 2000, significant numbers of children in Zimbabwe had become heads of households, or were cared for by aging grandparents or struggling widows. Some women in the Masvingo area of Zimbabwe approached nutrionist, Prisca Nemapare, for help. Together with Nancy Clark from Vermont USA, Prisca worked with women to set up the Zienzele Foundation.

When people buy a Zienzele basket they are supporting women and children.

The Foundation now boasts 36 women’s groups, engaged in basket making, growing food gardens and sewing school and church group uniforms. The Zienzele basket sales have enabled more than 800 orphaned children to go to school. 

Zienzele baskets are made from the fibre extracted from sisal plants. Being very porous, sisal absorbs colour beautifully. The fibre is boiled with flowers, leaves or bark from local plants to give the black, brown and yellow colours. Blue is derived from ink. Synthetic dies are also used. The fibre is twisted into string and then woven onto local grasses to form baskets. The process, from start to finish, is very time consuming (it can take +40 hours to make a basket), but the result is a beautiful product and a child in school. 

Blessing Maturi is the fieldworker for the Zienzele Foundation. He collects and transports the baskets to Harare to sell. With his warm patient presence,he spreads the beautiful baskets on the ground and quietly allows customers to choose.

Blessing Maturi organises and records sales and channels money into school fees.

In Zimbabwe, giving a Zienzele basket has become a symbol of wishing a person a long and happy life.