Posts Tagged ‘AaWambo’

Traditionally, the AaWambo were renowned basket makers and used a wide variety of baskets and other woven articles. Before the start of promotion campaigns some thirty years ago, whereby baskets are produced and bought up on a large scale to be sold in the tourist industry, traditionally-made baskets were still of utmost importance for utilitarian purposes. Unfortunately, many of the old baskets are longer made today and can only be viewed in museum collections.

The raw material used for most basketry consists of the young leaves of the fan palm (Hyphaene petersiana). Other materials include grass, as well as wood and bark of various trees and shrubs.

Fruit basket of the AaWambo. Photo: Antje Otto, Collection National Museum

The present-day dominant weaving technique is the coil. The spine of the palm leaf is used for the coil, while the split leaf fiber is used for wrapping. In contrast to all other basket makers, who use an awl to sew the coils together, the AaWambo use an iron needle. Women make all baskets, which formerly ranged from winnowing trays, flour and millet baskets, lidded baskets for dry food or personal belongings, fish baskets, chicken baskets, small powder baskets, etc. Men are responsible for making mats, fishing traps, beer strainers, modern-style hats and grain storage bins.

Formerly the coiling technique was used when manufacturing flat winnowing trays (elilo), truncated cone shaped baskets, referred to as oshimbale, and lidded half-spherical baskets. Apart from these, there were the so-called oshimbaba baskets, which were produced according to the ordinary chequer weave technique. This type of basket was very strong and often used for transporting salt or iron. Men carried two or more of these baskets on a pole over the shoulder. In addition, there were large roughly made twined baskets for temporary use.

Of particular beauty were the former fruit baskets, which were made from thin peeled saplings of Combretum engleri and palm leaf fiber. The walls consisted of some unusual wickerwork with a plaited horizontal element, while the base was sometimes coiled. The baskets had a handle of palm leaf fiber and their height ranged from 13 to 20 cm. René Dickman collected the depicted basket together with another similar basket when he worked as assistant for Major Cocky Hahn in Ovamboland between 1916 and 1921. Later the National Museum of Namibia acquired both baskets. A very similar basket, which is kept by the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, was collected in Angola in 1930. Lidded rectangular storage baskets of similar design were apparently made through the influence of the Finnish missionaries.

Fruit basket, Kwanyama, issued in 1997, artist: Johan van Niekerk

Fruit basket, Kwanyama, issued in 1997, artist: Johan van Niekerk

Other woven objects included twined funnel-shaped fishing traps (ondiva), which are still made from Grewia twigs and palm leaf fiber and beer strainers (omhako) made from grass and the saplings and bark of Colophospermum mopane. Crudely woven mats (oyinda) are made according to the chequer weave technique, whereby the palm leaf strands are simply floated one over the other. Hats were not originally known, but became increasingly popular later. Grain storage bins, known as omaanda or omashisha, are made of flexible saplings and bark of Colophospermum mopane. Their inside is plastered with clay and they are provided with a tight-fitting lid. They are generally placed under grass roofs and rest on poles to protect the grain from termites.

Palm leaves, serving as binding material are sometimes treated with dyes to produce colours. Dark brown is obtained by boiling the finely crushed bark of omuve (Berchemia discolor) together with the palm leaves. Orange can be procured either from the fruit of Berchemia discolor or from the root of the so-called ompindi bush. Black is gained from the finely crushed roots of the omudhime bush (Euclea divinorum), while a purple dye is obtained from its fruit. Palm leaves can also be dyed deep red by boiling them together with the finely pounded bark of the omuve tree (Pterocarpus angolensis). Today many colours are obtained from commercial ink diluted in water.


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A large variety of basketry has always formed part of the material culture of the sedentary Bantu-speaking people of Namibia, e.g. the AaWambo, VaKavango and inhabitants of the East Caprivi. Nomadic hunter-gatherers and herders, who had to limit their material possessions to what they could transport, could not afford to have such a wide variety of basketry. With the exception of the Khwe, who manufactured their own baskets, most San groups traded their baskets from Bantu-speaking neighbours.

Collecting Bag, Kxoe [Khwe], 50 Cent, issued in 1997, artist: Johan van Niekerk

The Khwe, who live in the eastern section of the Hambukushu area of Kavango, in the West-Caprivi and areas bordering the Kwando River, are generally classified as San, although their language, their physical appearance (they were sometimes referred to as ‘black Bushmen’) and their history differ distinctly from e.g. the !Xun, who live further south. Long before the Khwe moved to their present area, they lived in close contact with Bantu-speaking neighbours, e.g. the Luyi-Balozi in a region east of the Zambezi River, which resulted in their dark complexion and their stronger body structure. More recently, they mixed by marriage with the Nyemba and HaMbukushu in southeast Angola and the Kavango area and until the early 20th century they often acted as their servants. As a result of the historical contact with Bantu-speaking tribes some objects of the material culture and agricultural practices, as well as the acquaintance with stock penetrated the life sphere of the hunter-gathering Khwe.

In former times, the Khwe made flat winnowing trays, cone-shaped pópò-baskets and bag-shaped /oámà-baskets. They were made according to the coiled technique and a type of vertical coil. During the process of manufacture the makers, who were women, used bundles of strong Aristida grass stalks, which formed the core of the coil, and the middle leaf of the makalani palm (Hyphaene petersiana). If these were not obtainable, the leaf of the Phoenix reclinata palm was used instead. In order to make the palm leaves soft and flexible, they were soaked in warm water before the basket making process commenced. Sometimes the palm leaves were also coloured in different shades of brown by boiling them with the pounded bark of Berchemia discolor. Women made /oámà-baskets until the early 1960s. They were also regarded as their owners. Their height varied between 12 and 30 cm and they always had a handle of skin or fiber. They were primarily used as collecting baskets and for storing berries and other bush crops. When wild fruits were collected these were first collected into smaller pópò-baskets and poured from there into the /oámà-baskets. Popo-baskets were also used for winnowing grain.

Basket of the Khwe (Collection National Museum). Photo: Antje Otto

The ethnological collection of the National Museum of Namibia is in possession of several /oámà-baskets, as well as a pópò-basket, which were collected in 1932 in the West-Caprivi and finally made their way into the museum’s collection in 1948. According to Professor Dr Oswin Köhler, who started with the documentation of the culture and language of the Khwe as from the early 1960s, the making of /oámà-baskets had died out during those years although he still found some examples, which were used. He was able to photograph them and record some interesting information on basket making from his informants. Older people still had the knowledge to make /oámà-baskets although they did no longer produce them. Pópò-baskets were still made.

In 1996, Khwe basket making was revived with the support of a national craft promoter looking for marketable crafts to advance income generation. Since then, the Khwe again make /oámà-baskets not only for their own use, but primarily for the tourist market. Modern /oámà-baskets are sold at a local craft outlet at Kongola and various other Craft Centres in the country. The manufacturing technique and shape of the baskets are similar to the traditional ones although they are generally smaller and have more elaborate designs and more robust handles.

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