Hand holding a stack of baskets

The secret histories behind our traditional African baskets

When you treat yourself to one of our African fair trade baskets, you’ll get much more than just lovely new home décor or a storage solution. All of our hand-woven baskets have their own, secret stories – and we’ll share some of these with you today.

1. Handwoven ‘wishing’ baskets made by Bwindi Handmade Crafts

History

These grass-woven baskets are crafted by women living near the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Southwest Uganda. (Bwindi means “impenetrable” or “place of darkness”.) It’s home to exotic plants and endangered species, such as the mountain gorilla. For thousands of years, indigenous people called the “Batwa” – also known as “keepers of the forest” – lived here.

In the 1990s, it became a National Park and is now part of the World Heritage List. Unfortunately, this has meant that the Batwa people, who had lived sustainably from the forest’s resources for many generations, were forced to leave. Many now live in poverty at the border of the National Park, facing homelessness and discrimination. Denied an education, they have to do menial work for minimal income. Some families even had to make the heartbreaking decision to give up their children to orphanages, as they were not able to feed them.

This is why Bwindi Handmade Crafts is such an important initiative.

Our artisans in Bwindi

Eight ladies, who meet once a week to weave and catch up on local news, create all the goods Bwindi Handmade Crafts sell, including our beautiful storage baskets, coasters and place mats. 

One of these craftswomen is Topista, a lovely 74-year-old grandmother. Typically, it takes her about 4 days to weave a basket between other household tasks, such as cooking and looking after her grandchildren. The extra income she earns has helped cover medical bills for her and her family. She could even get extra paid help for her family’s vegetable garden!

So, you see that each purchase really does make life easier for the local families.

Traditional materials, techniques and patterns

But how are the baskets made? They are hand-woven using two different types of dried grass. The Batwa women have a vast traditional knowledge of local herbs, leaves, roots and berries. Only these natural ingredients go into the dyes that colour their beautiful products. The intricate patterns are shaded in earthy tones, inspired by the landscapes and plants of their homeland.

Use and traditional meaning

The Batwa call the smaller lidded baskets ‘wishing baskets’. They believe your wishes will come true if you make a wish upon an object and put it in the basket. Why not try this yourself?

2. Uduseke “peace” baskets from Rwanda

History

“Uduseke” are traditional Rwandese woven baskets with a flat circular base, a distinctive shape and fitted lid. (A single basket is known as “Agaseke”.) Interestingly, Rwandan women were traditionally taught how to weave these baskets by their mothers and grandmothers. 

Although the baskets were part of Rwandese culture for centuries, they took on a new meaning after the Rwandan civil war and genocide in 1994. Women from both ethnic groups worked together for the first time in years, and so the baskets became known as “peace” baskets.

Our artisans in Kigali

Our fair trade peace baskets are made by 12 ladies who tragically lost their spouses and families during the genocide. Fleeing their villages, they arrived in Kigali, where life continued to be extremely challenging.

Traumatised and without income, they realised their only chance of survival would be to put their basket weaving skills to good use. The women started selling their products locally. This is when they met Callum Henderson from Comfort International, who helped them by selling their baskets outside of Rwanda, including to the Western market.

So, if you buy Uduseke baskets, you don’t just get beautiful home decor, but you directly improve the lives of this community of women artisans!

Their lives have changed for the better. Some have even been able to buy homes and pay the school fees for their children.

Traditional materials, techniques and patterns

The women weave the baskets with natural raw materials, such as sweet grass, sisal fibres, banana leaves or raffia. The fibres are woven into concentric circles, which form the base of the baskets. A large basket takes around a week to weave.

There are many patterns, all with their own significance. The classic zigzag pattern is said to represent two women holding hands, signifying friendship, peace and Rwandese unity.

Use and meaning      

The Uduseke baskets were traditionally used to store jewellery and food. They were also a traditional wedding gift from the groom to the bride’s family, symbolising not only the ‘purity’ of his new wife, but also her promise to keep his and his family’s secrets from now on. The bride would usually keep the baskets in her room.

Today, peace baskets are still one of Rwanda’s finest and most well-known craft products. Use them for storage, or simply display them in your living room.

3. Hand-woven baskets by Gone Rural

History


Our special handcrafted baskets are made in poor rural areas of Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland). Traditionally, Swazi women plaited grass to make thatched roofs for their homes

However, their exceptional weaving skills have increasingly been used to craft beautiful baskets and other home decor products, which they sell to make a living. 

Again, their weaving skills are passed down from mother to daughter.

Our artisans in Eswatini


Our beautiful products are woven by 13 groups of women artisans in Eswatini, who live in the most remote rural areas. They can work from home, so they are able to look after their own and orphaned children in their local community. Their wonderful goods are commissioned by the fair trade company Gone Rural, which has been empowering women in rural Swazi communities since the 1970s.

Importantly, all women negotiate the prices Gone Rural pay, and they receive between 47 – 52% of the wholesale price of each item sold. Gone Rural has also introduced wide-ranging education, health and clean water programmes.

One local weaver, Siphiwe, had to support herself and her six children after her husband suddenly sold all their cattle and left her for four years: “With her income from Gone Rural, she was able to start her life again; building a new house and buying animals”.

Traditional materials, techniques and patterns

Our baskets are made from Lutindzi grass and Lukhasi reed. Lunditzi grass is harvested sustainably every year from the Eswatini mountains. Lukhasi is a stronger, thicker reed, which forms the core of our sturdier products.

The long grass is dyed in non-toxic colours and woven, using traditional Swazi plaiting techniques that have been passed down from generation to generation. 

The Lavumisa weaving technique is only used in the rural Lavumisa area of Eswatini and uses a tight, stitched weave that ensures the end product is very sturdy.

All Lutindzi grass products are water- and stain-resistant. 

Many of the patterns are inspired by the artisans’ personal lives.

Use and meaning       

Families in Eswatini traditionally use the baskets for food storage, but you can also hang them up as beautiful and unique wall decor, fill them to create fair trade gift hampers, or simply store treasured knick-knacks or toys in them.

We hope you enjoyed discovering the secrets behind a few of our beautiful baskets! Next time, we’ll give you more inspiration for how best to use and display your ethical homeware. 

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