Basket Case ~ How To Make A Bag From A Baobab

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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.

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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.

South Luangwa - mighty poachers' baobab

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:

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Both images are from what I feel is the inappropriately titled 1910 monograph With A Prehistoric People  by W Scoresby Routledge and Katherine Routledge.

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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

Daily Post Photo Challenge: repurpose

45 thoughts on “Basket Case ~ How To Make A Bag From A Baobab

  1. Super post as usual, Tish. I knew the bark was fibrous, but I had no idea it was the basis for those lovely Kenyan bags.
    Is the baobab in your photo in leaf, or is a parasitic creeper providing the greenery? We used to prescribe a preparation made from the seeds within the baobab fruit as oral rehydration solution for infants with diarrhoea. I seem to remember that it was packed with vitamin C.
    In Zambia, I saw images that people had carved into the bark. In Botswana, I saw footholds hacked into the bark to allow swift ascent into the branches by bushmen (to get to water held within the trunk or just for a better view of the surroundings?).

    1. Baobabs are all round wonders aren’t they. All that cream of tartar type stuff round the seeds is used in traditional medicine for fevers, and for brewing I think. The baobab in the pic does seem to be in leaf – a rare event I know. The photo was taken in South Luangwa – easter time – also with footholds, though unfortunately for elephant poachers to use as a look-out post..

    1. Oh yes, I would. Having seen all your lovely table settings, Lulu, I would definitely put you down as a basket lover too. And much else besides, I wouldn’t wonder 🙂

  2. An all round fascinating post….your last paragraph was most powerful in content. The early photographs of the bag in progress hanging from the young woman’s neck is really amazing. I had no idea whatsoever that these bags were made in this manner. Thank you.

  3. I agree very much with you on what you said at the end of the post about nurturing and exercising the creative intelligence and powers of visualisation.
    Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    1. Thanks, Eleazar. I think we truly need the hand, eye, brain, raw material connection in our lives. I think it was a key part of our evolution as humans.Also the aesthetic qualities lift the spirits – living creatively any way we can.

  4. So very interesting Trish, glad you shared that knowledge and photos. All handmade items made from natural materials are just so lovely to have, use and treasure.

  5. As always, I’ve learned something new from you Tish. The bag is beautiful, and all the more so for being crafted within a tradition that works with nature and involves meaningful labour. The Big T and I are both pretty practical, and prefer to make and re-purpose what we need; skills we learned from our parents. But despite our best efforts, the boy-child seems reluctant to learn practical skills (beyond cooking … but he does love food). BTW: have you seen this article http://proof.nationalgeographic.com/2016/03/24/these-ancient-trees-have-stories-to-tell/? I was sent the link yesterday, and having scarcely ever thought about baobab trees, my attention is drawn to them twice in 24 hours. The other photos are magnificent too.

    1. What superb images at the link, Su. Thanks a lot. It is sad, though, that so many young people don’t see the point of making things. I can see why they would feel that way, but all the same, it seems a big loss. Boy-child may see the light though. He’s very young yet, and it’s excellent that he cooks. Mending cars comes to mind as a way in, if kids still do this 🙂

      1. Glad you liked the tree images. I feel very sad about the lack of interest (not just in the young) in making things. It’s not just the loss of skills, but the waste entailed when things are thrown out and replaced rather than being repaired. The Big T has just put new elements in our 20 year old toaster. He had to order them from Northern Ireland (which turned out to be cheaper than buying them through a NZ supplier … who orders them from Northern Ireland) but it means we have a fully functioning toaster again. No-one I’ve told quite believes that we could use something that old. It seems the life expectancy of toasters sold now is about 12 1/2 months, or two weeks longer than the warranty period. Not sure about the boy-child and cars … his dad is a petrol-head and there’s way too much testosterone happening there. He’s more likely to be of the beer-crates as interior design school of making things. 🙂

      2. We like to mend things too, and if it can be combined with repurposing even better. Graham has been teaching himself book binding (via You Tube), and he’s made his book presses out of recycled pallets. Also he’s been turning tatty, broken down old books into beautiful items, often re-using leather from charity shop jackets and bags. Our neighbour is making the most fantastic banjoleles out of junk. They are precision works of art, and you can play them. But I can also go with re-purposed beer crates 🙂

      3. That’s brilliant!!! I love that he is preserving and enhancing books which in my mind are objects of inherent beauty. I have a friend who actually manages to eke a living out of hand-made books (making and teaching the skills), and another whose partner has restored a couple of old printing presses which they use to print her books and prints of her drawings.

  6. Baobabs are such wonderful trees. I love bags like that. Down here in Devon there’s a lovely man, The African Chef, who makes baobab jam, a really unusual flavour. He’s here on my blog somewhere!

  7. I am always in awe of this kind of work. And in awe that someone, or a group of people, ever figured out it’s possible to make string from the bark of a baobab tree, and then to weave the string into useful articles. Loved this post Tish.

    1. Hello Alison. Thanks for your interest in this. Besides string, and before colonial imports of cotton, many cultures in Africa, and doubtless elsewhere, made the most amazing bark cloth for clothing, mostly from wild fig trees I think. It was then painted with natural dyes. The cloth was made by hammering and hammering the bark fibres. I know that colonial authorities eg in Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, banned its production – so as not compete with cotton imports. All sorts of ironies in that given the historical origins of mass produced cotton and the earlier slave trade.

  8. Profound comments: those beautiful baskets would be beyond the capacity of all of us, because there is no longer the necessity or the tradition. Reclaiming the tradition isn’t quite the same as needing it.

    1. You’re right. Reclaiming doesn’t really fit – and for all sorts of reasons. Of course Kenyan mamas mostly use sisal now to make their bags. They presumably buy the string ready processed. Besides, you can see very well why no one would want to chew all that tree fibre if there was something easier to use.

    1. I think baobabs can provide just about most things people used to need – though maybe not a square meal, at least not directly. Goats and game of course like to eat the seeds from the pods. The trees store water too, and when they die away in the middle, you’ve got a ready made tree-house 🙂

  9. How am I just seeing this today?
    Great post, Tish.
    My mum had so many kiondos then we discovered paper bags and we have been competing to litter everywhere

  10. I had no idea! Super share and interpretation, Tish. 🙂 I’d better get the crochet hook out and see if the withering brain can remember some old skills.

  11. I know about Baobab from Little Prince, and have never seen it in person. I’ve heard that knitting is very relaxing, but watch that arm Tish. 🙂

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