“Mma Kushanya, this pattern is beautiful!”, I say as I pick up a striking basket amidst the organized chaos of beautiful artefacts in her shop. Mma Kushanya smiles fondly at the item in my hands, “yes, those are the tears of the Giraffe. It is said that the Giraffe is very sensitive, it would rather cry than fight. That is why their tears are in this basket.”
it hit her that her skill could earn her a place in life
I smile back at her, her enthusiasm and love for what she does emanate from her as she proudly shows me around her shop. Mma Kushanya, the respectful title of Thithaku Kushanya, grew up in Etsha, a remote village on the western side of the Okavango Delta. Her mother a master weaver, it was natural that Mma Kushanya would take up the ancient trade and carry it into the modern day. In a village that supported no employment, when a young, 8 year old Thithaku sold her first basket for P1.50 ($10c), it hit her that her skill could earn her a place in life. At 19, she opened her first tiny shop next to a small Guesthouse in the village, encouraging her to go bigger.
Mma Kushanya did go bigger, winning 1st prize in a national basket weaving competition that saw her travel to the United States, representing Botswana and her beautiful people at the Summer Olympics of 1996, Atlanta. This opportunity provided her with a springboard as, on her return to Botswana, a contact involved her in helping open cultural basket shops to travellers in 3 remote villages with Conservation International.
Mma Kushanya’s next achievement is her most special. “I started with a sign post next to the road”, she says seriously about the start of her own business, Matlapaneng Baskets, in 2000. She shows me a picture of the first sign and tells me how on that very day a lady from Ghanzi was her first visitor; she knew from that day that it was going to be a success. Loans and expansions followed and Matlapaneng Baskets, now a shop often frequented by Maun tourists, supports many basket weavers in the area. Mma Kushanya buys the baskets directly from the weavers, giving them cash in hand and creating a link between them and the wider world.
It is not an easy process, making a basket. The weaver goes through a process of collecting and “cooking” the Palm Leaves, preparing natural dyes, washing and drying the leaves and finally, hours of weaving the dyed Palm Leaves into a beautiful creation.
“Botswana Baskets are both beautiful and practical, they are used to decorate, eat out of, and carry or store basically anything. Once dried, the material is soft but tough, it can be washed and cleaned and will last a very long time.”
Mma Kushanya’s business is about assisting skilled artisans in making a living and encouraging the youth to get involved by proving it to be a sustainable livelihood. This has been accelerated by her prominence, leading her to sell her baskets to the hospitality industry. Mma Kushanya believes that “the whole world should be encouraged to buy Botswana baskets”, “they are giving hope to women in rural areas”. A woman that otherwise has no source of income now has the power to take care of her family independently. It is also a sustainable solution to your plastic container – “no doubt something worth owning!”
Her aspirations do not stop here; Mma Kushanya has opened a Cultural Village to visitors next to her shop, with registration on the way, she aims to turn it into a real Cultural School. The other weavers present at her shop echo Mma Kushanyas enthusiasm for these plans. Their unique skill is not a traditional dead-end, it is a vibrant and relevant art form that can be turned into a viable businesses. Most importantly they believe in the power of traditional baskets and the creativity of the women that make them.
Written by Daniel Crous