A Thing of Beauty: Trade as One: Feature Story (Pro Bono)

Zulu artisan displaying her creation

Fair Trade Basket

This story is fantastic! Thanks so much for the obvious hard work and thought you put into this. This will be a huge asset on our site and any time we are telling the AITA story. Kevin Madsen, VP, Sales & Marketing

A Thing of Beauty

In the Heart of Zululand, Women Use Wire to Connect in a Wireless World

As the world is going wireless at a dizzying speed, one Zulu province in South Africa is going backwards—using discarded telephone wire to bring prosperity to its beleaguered people, while still weaving in the communal traditions of the past.

Finishing reading below or read posted story on Trade as One site.

In most circumstances, old, plastic-coated telephone wire looks like an unsightly mess—good for only one thing: disposal. Yet for the men and women living in the Zulu province of KwaZulu–Natal, a proud community of people who once felt “disposed of” themselves during the racially divisive years of apartheid, discarded telephone wire has evolved into “a thing of beauty and a joy forever” in a way that would surprise even the poet who penned those words.

As the story goes, on a muggy mid-1960s night, a lone Zulu migrant night watchman—perhaps bored with counting the plentiful African ant-mugging flies crawling along the walls of the buildings—spied something that immediately fired up his imagination: multicolored plastic telephone wire. Creative inspiration gave way to action as the former basket-weaver-turned-watchman ripped out the wiring from the walls and passed the rest of the night happily weaving colorful decorations for his traditional Zulu knobkerries (night-sticks) and izimbenges (beer pot lids).

Monday Morning Mishap

Needless to say, when employees came to work on Monday, phone service was noticeably absent. As fate would have it, a temporary loss of contact with the outside world was a small price to pay for the discovery of a new artistic medium—one that would soon supplant the more traditional and arduous form of basket weaving for which the Zulu people were known. Soon, other basket makers in the region caught on to the commercial prospects of wire basket weaving, making the practice of “precycling” copper telephone wire the new national pastime for starving artists everywhere.

From Beer to Bowls: Hops Off to Progress

Today, Zulu night sticks and beer pot lids have been replaced by far more profitable bowls and platters. Each piece is a unique work of art and a vibrant new take on the once labor-intensive practice of grass-weaving baskets, which were challenging to produce because of the difficulty in coloring native plants, grasses, and other natural fibers.

In contrast, the Zulu artisans of African Investments & Trade in Africa (AITA) eagerly embrace using plastic-coated copper telephone wire (now legally acquired by the artisans through custom manufacturers) because the vivid colors of these manufactured materials can never be replicated in nature. Called mbenge in their native language, these colorful and celebrated stunning works of functional art are as beautiful as they are practical. Besides being tightly woven and very durable, each bowl is crafted in an explosion of color and intricate design. There’s a spiritual component as well—each basket’s whirls and circles are considered culturally significant, indicating a new baby, needed rains, a plentiful harvest or other welcome news

Good news is just what the mbenges have brought to communities of Zulu families in KwaZulu–Nata, a province rife with unemployment. Many of the AITA weavers there are widows, their husbands often the victims of AIDS, malaria, or intertribal warfare.  Even those who still have husbands often lose them to long commutes to the big cities where most of the work is found.

Smiles All Around, Learning Abounds

Despite their enormous challenges, women weavers like Jaheni Mkhize and Zeni Sabeth are a happy, openly demonstrative and empathetic people. You’d be hard-pressed to find one who won’t easily lend you a smile—and understanding. One reason for their buoyant spirit is their resilient character, forged in adversity, that enables them to turn suffering into strength.  But these days, they have even more reason to smile: their tight-knit community has one of the few stable sources of employment in the entire province.

Wire basket-weaving has evolved into both a rewarding art form and a marketable trade—a critical source of income that allows the Zulu people to preserve the family unit by living and working at home. By eliminating long commutes, parents can raise their family properly, keeping customs and culture intact while giving their children and grandchildren one critical benefit of prosperity their own parents were never able to give them: an education.

Bowling over the Art World

Prosperity has conferred another unexpected Western “benefit” for the Zulu artisans: celebrity status. A few of the artisans have become international celebrities in the art world, their baskets being proudly displayed in collections and exhibitions worldwide.  Clearly, they love what they do—and it shows.

Telephone wire—once a conduit used to connect human voices across thousands of miles—has become a conveyance for a new form of human expression that extends across the globe. Through the unique and beautiful art form of mbenge making, discovered during one of the darkest periods of their history, AITA’s Zulu artisans are skillfully weaving the important symbols of a proud and colorful past with the geometric expressions of a bold and hopeful future, then joyfully sharing their story with the rest of the world.  As one basket weaver trainer and mentor to Zulu women said so well, “This little thing you’re making, it will carry your heart with it, and it will see the places that you won’t.”

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About seekandfind

I'm a strategic storyteller/copywriter who is divinely wired to be idea-driven, strategic minded & cause motivated.

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