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The Bootstrap Project Welcomes Tonga Weavers

Christine Mitchell Adams

The Tonga people are of the Southern Provence of Zambia and number up to 500,000. In the late 1950’s, their fertile homeland along the Zambezi river was permanently flooded when Kariba Dam and Lake Kariba were built. The Tonga people were then displaced to their current land north of Zimbabwe, an area prone to drought and poverty. A lake of water or fishing put an end to the former life of the Tonga people who were forced to adapt, leaving them increasingly them dependent on the government. They also experienced depressive isolation as a result of the dam, which made cross traffic difficult. Consequently, no new roads were built to their new community. Very few schools were built which has made lack of education an issue for members seeking employment in nearby towns or cities. Despite the social-economic and environmental challenges since the resettlement, the Tonga tribe still holds on to its ancient cultural beliefs, lifestyle, customs, and crafts.

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The Tonga people of Zambia

Because of the hardship of farming the dry, poor, and rocky soil of their region, Tonga women became renowned for their basket weaving skills. The weavers are subsistence farmers, working the fields for ilala palm, small vines, and wild grasses in the cool mornings and weaving baskets in the afternoons and evenings. They then use natural dyes or utilize the natural variations in the materials to create beautiful subtle designs. The Tonga basket’s distinctive square bottom is a design unique to the region, and ideal for carrying maize and sorghum from the fields. Traditional designs include a spider web inspired pattern, a lightening pattern, and stripes.

In 1989 the Danish government opened the Binga Craft Center in Binga village, Zimbabwe. It serves as a training, selling, and exhibition center for more than 4,000 Tonga women weavers. Utilizing the center as an entrepreneurial platform the Tonga women are able to rely on their craftsmanship to feed their families, pay for healthcare, and continue their traditional craft. Due to the present day politics in Zimbabwe, the Tonga baskets are becoming increasingly difficult to source. Knock-off products are also being produced in other parts of the world where it easier to produce and source. Consequently, providing Fair Trade support and income for the Tonga people is even more important than ever.

The Bootstrap Project, Zady’s partner non-profit organization, will continue this nature of support by welcoming Tonga artist artisans to the organization’s existing 100 artisans who represent five countries. By providing a sustainable platform for artisans to sell their valued cultural crafts, The Bootstrap Project helps artisans become entrepreneurs and provide for themselves and their families. Look out for the exquisitely made, and incredibly versatile, Tonga baskets this spring.

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