Five Minutes With Munchkins, A Batonga Basket, Then A Bit Of A Yarn ~ Regular Random

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Here we have two of my passions-distractions for the price of one: growing stuff and an enduring yen for baskets. I’ll tell you about the latter in a moment. Here it is though – a personal treasure – bought when we were living in Zambia – a basket made by the Batonga people.

 

The Batonga, these days, live either side Lake Kariba (it forms the border between Southern Zambia and Northern Zimbabwe, but once they lived in the upland valleys along the Zambezi River.  This was back in the days when their traditional homeland was not flooded by nearly two hundred miles of Lake Kariba. In the late 1950s the Zambezi was dammed in order to provide hydro-electricity for what were then the British colonies of Northern and Southern Rhodesia and Nyasaland.

Prior to their expulsion from their homeland, they lived by fishing, hunting, stock rearing and agriculture, and in fact had a subtle farming system which embraced both risk and caution. In other words, they exploited different ecological niches from the valley tops to the river flood plains. In the marginal upland areas they grew cow peas, ground nuts and different strains of millet and sorghum, reliable drought-resistant crops that ensured a living. On the flood plains they took a risk with water-hungry maize. If the river did not flood too badly and wash their crop away, then they would be in for a  bumper harvest with surplus to sell. They also made use of the damp clefts of tributary streams in order to grow squashes. Doubtless their varieties produced much bigger specimens than my fist-sized munchkins.

So: they were a resourceful people, but deemed primitive by the colonial administrators because their possessions were few and made mostly  from handy natural materials. Yet this paucity of paraphernalia had survival advantages too. When disaster struck – tempest, drought, raiders or epidemic, they could up sticks and start out afresh in a safer spot. They could not, however, escape the will of the colonial administration, or the rising flood waters that came with the building of Kariba Dam. They were moved from their ancestral lands against their will, and somehow, by all accounts, the British administration with little money set aside for the task, overlooked the need to make more than token restitution for the huge physical and spiritual loss of a displaced people. In effect they had become refugees in their own land. Meanwhile, the game department took great pains to rescue the wildlife that had become trapped on islands as the flood water backed up.

Back then, in 1959, the Batonga said the lake (by then the size of Wales) would take its revenge.  At the time this seemed unlikely. The dam’s engineers had purposely built it on a bed of black basalt. But  some fifty years on, it was discovered that the force of water down the spillways had undermined the dam, creating a huge crater. Repairs were badly needed to avoid collapse and a tsunami in Mozambique.

The BBC reported on this catastrophe-waiting-to-happen in 2014. And at last the repair work appears to be underway, scheduled to start last month at an estimated cost of nearly $300 million – funds courtesy of the EU, World Bank, African Development Bank and the Swedish government, and one key objective being to avoid a humanitarian disaster.  In the meantime one can only wonder how the Batonga people have been getting along all these years, and whether their communities actually have access to the electricity supply for which they were uprooted. I’m guessing they may not. But if you want to lend them some support you can buy their baskets on-line HERE

Regular Random  Please visit Desley Jane for the challenge rules. and see her own five minute photo-shoot.

Basket case? Tales of bravery and betrayal

 

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These glorious Nubian mats adorn my kitchen. They decorate our every day, their colours radiating like mini-suns however dull the weather. It is hard to imagine, then, that there is a dark tale behind their creation, a tale of statelessness and discrimination.

The makers of the mats are women from the Nubian community of Kibera, in Nairobi (Kenya). They, their parents and grandparents before them, were born in this quarter of the city suburbs. This has been the case since the early 1900s, when British colonial authorities gazetted an area of land for settlement by Sudanese Nubian soldiers of the British Army, men who had first been recruited during the 1890s when Britain was trying to establish control over the peoples and territories of East Africa.

This next photo thus shows another form of decoration – a Nubian KAR officer’s chest adorned with medals that attest to years of brave service in the cause of the British Empire.

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Copyright Kenya Nubian Council of Elders

This photo was taken in 1956, during the British colonial era. The officer is showing his invitation to a garden party at Nairobi’s Government House. The gathering was in honour of the visit to Kenya by HRH Princess Margaret of England (Kenya’s Nubians: Then and Now, Open Society Foundations).

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The Nubian people (also known in the distant past as Kushites) have a long, long history, their homeland once stretching along the upper reaches of the River Nile in North Sudan and into southern Egypt. Much of their territory was taken in the 1960s for the building of the Aswan Dam by the Egyptians, and this was another cause of displacement. But way back in time, the Nubians were a people to be reckoned with. The earliest evidence of a metropolitan culture  (the Kingdom of Kerma) has a date contemporary with neighbouring Ancient Egypt.  Nubia was the gateway to the African hinterland, and a great trading nexus.

Dr Stuart Tyson Smith (University of California, Santa Barbara) says the Kerma culture evolved out of the Neolithic around 2400 BC. The Kushite rulers of Kerma profited from the trading such luxury goods as gold, ivory, ebony, incense, and even live animals to the Egyptian Pharaohs. By 1650 BC, Kerma had become a densely occupied urban center overseeing a centralized state stretching from at least the 1st Cataract to the 4th, rivaling ancient Egypt. Kerma was sacked in c. 1500 BC, when the entire region was incorporated into the Egyptian New Kingdom empire.” 

The Nubians and Egyptians traded, intermarried and warred with one another over many centuries, the Nubians finally ruling Egypt for half a century during the 25th dynasty (c. 750–655 B.C.E.) And though it may be a big surprise for some people to know this, there were Nubian, black African pharaohs, Nubian pyramids, and a Nubian form of hieroglyphics that were later developed into a 23-letter alphabet (yet to be deciphered). Clearly as time went on, Nubian culture was influenced by Ancient Egypt (though why not the other way around?), yet it also evolved in its own very characteristic ways.

The strikingly tall Nubian pyramids below were built at the time when Britain was a land of Iron Age farmers who lived in thatched round houses and constructed hill forts of earthen banks and ditches.

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Fabrizio Demartis Creative Commons

The Nubian Meriotic kingdom developed from the 25th Dynasty when Nubia ruled Ancient Egypt. It is named after its capital Meroë (begun c 800 BCE). Over 255 pyramids belonging to the Meroitic period have so far been discovered.

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But back to more recent times, and the story behind my lovely mats. In World War 1, Sudanese Nubian forces were deployed in  defence of British-ruled Kenya along the border with  German controlled Tanganyika. This East African campaign was a brutal affair, fought over waterless, disease-ridden bush, as British forces attempted to thwart Count Von Lettow-Vorbeck’s ingenious guerrilla tactics, carried out by other Africans – the Count’s highly trained  askaris from German East Africa (now Tanzania).

The British Army, with a few exceptions late in the war, did not allow the native peoples of Kenya to carry arms at this time, so it was the Nubians who were the main combatants. Kenyans were instead conscripted into the Carrier Corps to transport army provisions since mules and horses could not survive in tsetse infested bush country.  Tens of thousands of young men died of starvation and disease in the British cause, their families often never hearing what had happened to their sons. They simply never returned from the war with Jerimani.

(For a vivid fictional version of this conflict see William Boyd’s An Ice-cream War).

In 1912 the British colonial administration in Nairobi gazetted 4,197 acres near the city for the settlement of Nubian soldiers and their families who could not be repatriated to Sudan. The Nubians called this place Kibra, the forest land.

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Nubian Family c1940s, photographer unknown. Copyright Kenya Nubian Council of Elders. For more wonderful photos see Kenya’s Nubians: Then and Now, Open Society Foundations

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By this time, all British East African (Kenyan) tribes had been categorized, and the land they occupied, at the point of British incursion, designated as native reserves. Africans were not allowed to have title deeds to their own and and, in theory, European settlers (who did have title to vast acreages) were not allowed to encroach on the reserves.

The Nubians, however,  were specifically categorized by colonial authorities as ‘Detribalized Natives’, and non-natives of British East Africa. This meant they could not claim any rights to have their land made into a reserve, nor could they build permanent structures on the land.  The community, however, continued to provide further generations of soldiers who would serve in the King’s African Rifles. 

During WW2  Nubian soldiers fought for Britain, alongside other black Kenyan recruits, in Somalia, Abyssinia and in the terrifying war against the Japanese in the jungles of Burma. It is another little remembered  fact that the African troops of the King’s African Rifles played a determining role in the winning of the Burma campaign.

By 1955 the Nubian community of Kibra numbered 3,000. Back then it was an attractive rural village, the houses surrounded by large gardens. But in successive decades as Nairobi grew into a city, hundreds of thousands of rural Kenyans, seeking work, invaded Kibra, putting up  shanty dwellings. Kibera, as it is currently known, is now one of the biggest slums in Africa.

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A cropped image of Kibera, Nairobi. Photo CC 2014 Schreibkraft

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Photo: CC Blazej Mikula

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During colonial times, Kibra land remained the property of the British Crown. At Independence in 1963, ownership of Crown Land passed to the new government, and so became state-owned land. The new state also inherited an administration that was still largely operating under State of Emergency regulations from the 1950s Mau Mau uprising. Being able to prove  who your tribe was and the associated right to domicile were essential proofs of citizenship. The Nubians’ former colonial categorization denied them on both fronts.

From 1963 until 2009, when the Nubian community in Kenya was finally accorded official existence as a Kenyan tribe, the Nubians of Kibera and elsewhere in Kenya had been stateless. While the colonial generation did have identity cards, the post-independence generations could only acquire them, if at all, with great difficulty, and after many years of persistence.

This meant they could not be formally employed, open bank accounts, acquire title deeds, participate in the affairs of their country of birth, vote, or even leave their own homes safely, since to be caught without an identity card is a criminal offence.  The only opportunities to earn a living were in the informal sector, and for women, this included/still includes making baskets for sale through non-governmental trading operations, and Nairobi’s tourist curio shops. Hopefully now, with official recognition, the fortunes of the Nubian people will change  for the better, but there is still much ground to make up, and in all senses. For more of these people’s story see the excellent short videos below, and also the full length BBC programme about Ancient Nubia at the end.

In the meantime, back to the beautiful baskets, and a Nubian woman at work. The method of construction involves coiling lengths of papyrus stems or dried grasses then wrapping them round with coloured and natural palm leaf strips. Truly great works of decorative art, and not only that, but life-enhancingly useful too. Expressions of spirit undaunted despite lives of grave hardship unimaginable to most of us?

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Photo: http://in2eastafrica.net/home-stays-growing-ugandas-tourism/

 

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Article on Nubians of Uganda: Flavia Lanyero 2011 Daily Monitor

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text copyright 2014 Tish Farrell

Greg Constanine’s video explains the Kenyan Nubian dilemma

 

This brief film explains the history of Nubian statelessness in Kenya

 

Recent archaeological discoveries of the ‘lost’ Nubian civilization

 

Ailsa’s Challenge: Decoration – Go here for more bloggers’ decorative posts

Silhouettes and symbols

A Word A Week: Silhouette

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I was forced to raid the Team Leader’s overland photo files for this shot. It is one of my favourites and was taken in Mali, just south of Timbuktu on the banks of the mighty Niger River.  In West and Central Africa, rivers are super-highways, the means by which most business and travel are done. They are also an essential source for the watering of humans, livestock and farm fields. Many people also make their living from fishing, pot and brick-making, and then there is the making of bogolanfini, the famous mudcloth of the Bamana people; this is a craft that  requires both mud and copious amounts of water.

It struck me too, that the traditional patterns that are used to decorate bogolanfini are also silhouettes of sorts: the dark background used as a foil to the recurring signifiers and abstract imagery that make up the design.

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This piece of mudcloth usually drapes over the back of  our kitchen sofa. The fabric is made from Malian cotton, woven by men into narrow strips 15cm by 1.5 metres. These are then sown together to make a wrap about 1 metre wide.

In the past, the dyeing and the design were women’s work, but these days bogolanfini is made by both men and women, much of it simplified versions of traditional designs and made specifically for the tourist and export market. The piece above is typical of tourist mudcloth.

The central motif, the joined up ‘EEEs’ is called crocodile fingers. The >>>> pattern on the borders is called wosoko and said to relate to a specific event, that of a farmer who had a sickle he especially liked and thought should have its own pattern. The circles with dots inside represent love of family and community: the large circle is the home, and the dot inside the family.

In the past, too, the messages drawn on the cloth were not only more intricate, but also held more complex meanings that related to Bamana history and custom. The obvious motif references to streams, hills, animals, might have many layers of meaning. The wearing of the wraps had sacred significance too, some made to be worn by girls undergoing initiation into womanhood, others for women who had just given birth, or who had died in childbirth. These were usually black and white, and believed to have protective qualities.

Cloth dyed with ochre- and red-coloured mud was favoured by hunters since it provided good camouflage in the bush.The fabric below is part of a waistcoat. Again, I imagine that this piece was made for the tourist market, or possibly commissioned especially by the Kenyan fashion house Kiko Romeo where I bought the waistcoat. To my eye, though, this is a pleasing abstraction of a giraffe’s lovely hide.

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The processes for making mudcloth have also been simplified to cater for mass market demands. This means that anyone can pick up the basics of the craft in a fairly short time. Traditionally, the apprenticeship might take years, daughters learning from mothers and grandmothers. But all is not lost. Artists like Nakunté Diarra are still maintaining authentic methods, which she has passed on to her son and granddaughter.

The process begins by soaking the plain undyed cotton in a decoction of crushed leaves and bark from the Anogeissus leiocarpa tree and the woody shrub Combretum glutinosum. This turns the cloth yellow and acts as a mordant to fix the mud dye. Once the cloth has dried, river mud that has been fermented in pots for up to a year, is applied to it. The designs are painted on using a stylus-like instrument. The cloth is again dried and washed, and the mud re-applied, then washed and dried once more. Finally, the remaining yellow areas are treated by painting over them with caustic soda to whiten them and make them stand out against the dark background. It takes two to three weeks to make a cloth.

If you want to see mudcloth making in action go to the video link below for a tour of the Coulibaly workshop in Burkina Faso where techniques were learned from a Malian grandmother.

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A traditionally made wrap by Kouraba Diarra. Photo: Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, Brown University.

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tumblr_m5r7haSBuZ1rwcwkxo1_1280New-wave bogolanfini at Djenne, Mali. Photo: Art of Afrika

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Related:

Dr. Y’s  African Heritage blog at: http://afrolegends.com/2009/09/11/bogolan-the-art-of-making-mudcloth/

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More a-word-a-week silhouettes:

http://ileanapartenie.wordpress.com/2013/10/08/a-word-a-week-challenge-silhouette/

http://tvortravels.wordpress.com/2013/10/08/a-word-a-week-challenge-silhouettes/

http://sillarit.wordpress.com/2013/10/08/a-word-a-week-challenge-silhouette/

http://tehicho.wordpress.com/2013/10/09/a-word-a-week-challenge-silhouette/

http://shyraven23.wordpress.com/2013/10/09/a-word-a-week-silhouette/

http://booksmusicandmovies.wordpress.com/2013/10/10/a-word-a-week-challenge-silhouette/

© 2013 Tish Farrell