I could have written about my compost heaps, and repurposing of fallen foliage into leaf mould, but I’ve already done that HERE and written the poem. Instead, I’ve chosen an example of some traditional Africa repurposing – far more interesting and pleasing to look at.
Kenya is famous for its string bags or kiondo. These days they are usually woven from sisal string, the sisal grown on vast plantations. But in the past the twine was much finer and fabricated from baobab and wild fig bark. One of my treasures from our Kenya days then (and as far as the Team Leader is concerned, I have rather too many such treasures) is this more traditional bag made from baobab fibre. I bought it from a curio seller at the annual Nairobi Agricultural Show in 1997. I think I paid 500 shillings for it, around five pounds at the time.
Baobab trees may appear impenetrable entities with iron-like skins, but their trunks are deceptively fibrous, and especially so in old age and after elephants have done some determined shredding work on them. Even so, the twine to make a bag like this would have taken much preparation. The main process involved chewing the fibre until it could be rolled out to the required thinness. Two strands would be worked one after another, and then twisted together to produce the final cord. This was then dyed using natural pigments, the cords cut to suitable lengths to create the warp threads, and work begun from base of the bag, moving outwards as the weft thread spirals round.
Whether or not the materials have changed, methods of construction remain much the same. I have seen women striding out along the Mombasa highway, their work in progress flowing from their arms like some giant deconstructed spider’s web. You will see what I mean in the next photo. It was taken in the early 1900s and shows a young Kikuyu woman at work:
Both images are from what I feel is the inappropriately titled 1910 monograph With A Prehistoric People by W Scoresby Routledge and Katherine Routledge.
And there you have it – a beautiful, but eminently useful bag, painstakingly constructed from baobab parts. I consider it a work of most artful repurposing and, as with many traditionally crafted everyday artefacts, it also strikes me how people untouched by western mass-production, daily and routinely made art out of necessity and utility. There is an intrinsic aesthetic here, which is why I take issue with the term ‘prehistoric’ used in this early twentieth century context. People who work with their hands in this way continuously nurture and exercise their creative intelligence and powers of discretion and visualization. This also makes me think that one day we technophiles might wake up and regret the loss of such facilities and skills; we might recognize, for instance, that their passing signals a lack of general competency?
copyright 2017 Tish Farrell