Making Botswana: Baskets

This series of posts is inspired by objects from Botswana in RPMT’s collections which have been researched as part of the Making African Connections project. Many of these were collected by Reverend William Charles Willoughby, a missionary who lived and worked in what was then Bechuanaland in the 1890s.

You can read more about the significance of the collections in the first blog in the series. Each blog will explore connections between the objects in RPMT’s collection and the history and contemporary culture of Botswana. 

Like many of the crafts featured in the Making Botswana series, basket-making has a long tradition in Botswana. The craft has developed over time from a practical domestic one to an artisanal culture where intricate baskets are created for display in the home, for sale to tourists and for exhibition in galleries.

three flat round baskets woven from grass
From left: R4007/14 Winnowing basket, c 1890; E3/1/70 basket, date unknown; WAENT000146/1 Totwana basket made in Maun, Northern Botswana, purchased from Khama III Memorial Museum shop, 2019

The objects collected by Willoughby include a plain winnowing basket (used to remove the chaff from the grain) which would have been woven by a Tswana man as a way to pass time while away from home at the Moraka (cattle post). In contrast, more decorative baskets were woven by women, a trend that continues today as basket-making can provide women with an independent income.

How are baskets used?

a bottle shaped basket with a lid, woven from yellow grass
R4007/63

The original use for baskets was as practical domestic utensils. This is reflected in the items Willoughby collected, which included storage baskets. Although basket-making has diversified into an art form, there are still practical uses for baskets today, as maker Nchadinyana Teseletso explained to Khama III Memorial Museum curator Scobie Lekhutile.

 

Decoration and Designs

While most of the baskets that Willoughby collected are plain and practical, other baskets made in Botswana are known for their distinctive designs. These may not be represented in Willoughby’s collection because he was stationed in the central district of Botswana. The most famous baskets come from the north and north west of the country, but the designs are widely recognised across Botswana. In Willoughby’s time there was less understanding about the diversity of cultures, and cross-cultural influences, within African countries. Collectors, and museums, at this time preferred to present objects as ‘typical’ of a single culture. We do not know Willoughby’s motivation for collecting, but like other colonial-era collectors, his collection reflects a particular place and time, and there were many kinds of object that were not available to him or that he chose not to collect. 

The striking designs are inspired by local myths as well as by Botswana’s wildlife, and are named accordingly, as Scobie Lekhutile explains:

 

Another design is inspired by the zebra’s distinctive stripes, as described by Norman Selelo of Botswanacraft.

 

Today, these designs make baskets desirable as decorative items. Botswanacraft, based in the capital Gaborone, is an example of an enterprise set up to develop and market crafts as artisanal products.

‘As basketry evolves in Botswana, some unique one-of-a-kind designs are being created by true artists, merging the craft of basketry with the world of abstract art. Knowledgeable basket collectors are aware of this and regard some Botswana baskets as a serious investment to rival artworks from around the world. As the art form evolves, more and more unique and collectable baskets are being created.’  

Botswana Baskets; A Living Art, Ed. Alexander von Rudloff, Botswanacraft Marketing 2010.

Enduring Materials

One of the enduring aspects of basket-making is the materials used. Baskets are made from different grasses, barks or reeds depending on what is available in the region. This way of working is sustainable thanks to traditional methods of conservation. In this clip Nchadinyana Teseletso describes how she collects material from wild plants, and how she cuts these to ensure they will grow back (Scobie Lekhutile translates):

Adopting and Adapting Styles

woven hat in the shape of a boater
R4007/61

While traditional basket-making materials and techniques have endured, the ways in which they have been used, and the items created with them, has been ever changing and innovative. 

Willoughby’s collection includes a hat in a noticeably European style, shaped like a boater, which is made from the same plant materials as a traditional Tswana basket. This object is interesting because it reveals how Tswana society was changing in the late 19th century. Photographs from the time show the influence of missionaries such as Willoughby on the way people dressed, with men and women wearing Victorian-style hats and clothing.

 

Black and white photo of a crowd outside a brick building, listening to a woman speak from a balcony
A crowd of people gathered outside the Mission House in Palapye, 1896. Most people are wearing Victorian style clothes and hats. Photograph taken by Rev. Willoughby. Image courtesy of Neil Parsons.

Rather than directly adopting the clothes and accessories of the missionaries, local makers created hybrid styles using their own craft traditions. While the shape of the hat is European, the materials are unmistakably Tswana, as Scobie Lekhutile explains:

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Interweaving Cultures

A cone shaped hat
r4007_12_d05.jpg

Another hat in Willoughby’s collection also uses basket-weaving techniques, but is strikingly different in shape. Many of the people the project team spoke to in Botswana did not recognise it as a local style. The hat is, in fact, part of a shared Tswana and Sotho culture but is now seen as synonymous with Sotho cultural heritage. Tshupo Ntono, an elder who was interviewed for the project, recognised the style of hat from his childhood. He recalled how he and his friends would describe someone wearing this style as a ‘basket head’!

The difference in the way people of different ages viewed the hat may be because styles have changed in the decades since it was collected, with population movement and intermixing within different cultures in southern Africa, as well as the influence of European colonists and missionaries. 

stone monument with a plaque of a Tswana man and text that reads 'Botshabelo, refuge'

Botswana has a long history as a place of refuge for people from neighbouring countries. This has included people fleeing colonial genocide in what is now Namibia, and escaping the Apartheid regime in South Africa. The concepts of Botshabelo (refuge) and Tshireletso (protection) are celebrated as part of the national story of Botswana at the Three DiKgosi Monument in Gaborone.

A man and a woman in conversation in front of a stone monument
Tshepo Skwambane explains the meaning of the Tshireletso plaque to Rachel Heminway Hurst. The plaque forms part of the Three Dikgosi Monument, Gaborone, Botswana, 2019.

In the following clip project curator Tshepo Skwambane talks about his experience moving to Botswana as a young person.

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Contemporary Basket-making

Today basket-making is one of the ways that resettled refugee women can make an income. While in Botswana in 2019, the RPMT team visited Botswanacraft, which sells baskets woven by Hambukushu women from Northern Botswana and the Okavango Delta. The team purchased contemporary baskets which complement the historic ones in the collection. 

round flat basket with zigzag design woven in brown and black
WAENT000150/10 Running Ostrich basket by Maria Thenu Thomas

When collecting contemporary pieces it is important for the museum to record details about the makers of objects and to acknowledge them as artists. This is because, in the past, colonial-era collectors like Willoughby did not record who made the objects they collected. Almost all of the museum’s historic African collections have no maker recorded. This basket (WAENT000150.10) was made by Maria Thenu Thomas, who was born in Angola and came to Botswana as a refugee in the 1960s. The name of the design is ‘running ostrich’.

a globe shaped basket with a lid, with brown interwoven striped design
WAENT000147/11 Basket by Nchadinyana Teseletso

The team also purchased a basket (WAENT000147) made by Nchadinyana Teseletso, who is featured in the Meeting Makers film.

 

Rachel Heminway Hurst, Kathleen Lawther and Tshepo Skwambane, Making African Connections Project

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