The Wild Story Behind Our Tonga Baskets
Tonga baskets, also known as Binga baskets, have become a signature of Nomadik Market.
I first stumbled across them during my travels in Zambia earlier this year – my second visit to sub-Saharan Africa and the one that marked me the most.
I didn’t come to Zambia to search for baskets, but, in some way, they found me.
With the help of a new friend, I was able to travel to the smallest of villages in the southern region of the country, where only women reside in. Surrounded by savanna, these women dedicate their lives to farming and weaving baskets with the materials they find on the way – they have kept their traditions alive in the most charming way I could ever think of – through stories and patterns weaved into fascinatingly beautiful baskets.
I felt it was about time I told the story of how I met the most crucial of team members of this little shop of mine. After all, they are the ones who have given life and charm to Nomadik Market.
It was a crisp afternoon the Sunday when I inched my first steps into Monze. I had taken a bus from the Zambian capital into this town that no one would ever visit unless they had come to do something – anything at all that wasn’t touring around.
My work from back then was what lead me to this tiny town. At the time, I was working for an organization that worked with a school for disabled children. I had been sent there to depict the life and happenings of those involved in the project through words and images.
I asked the driver for my luggage, to which request he responded to with a confused face. “Madam, we are not in Livingstone yet. This is just a break,” “I know that, but this my stop”, I responded. Unable to articulate that a mzungu would go anywhere other than to see Victoria Falls during her time in Zambia, he hesitantly handed me my suitcase.
That’s where I met Lenah for the first time – she was in charge of the project I was visiting and she soon became my right hand during my time there. Lenah is the type of person you feel comfortable around. I couldn’t quite tell why, but something about her made me feel at ease. She was always sporting traditional fabrics – she’d wear long skirts tailored in the center of town and added a touch of uniqueness by wrapping kitenge around her head.
There is nothing better than knowing locals when you go somewhere. It opens up a new world of possibilities within a destination.
During the bus ride to Monze, I had spotted an elderly woman near the town of Kafue displaying her Tonga baskets on the highway for passer-bys to purchase. I felt my heart bursting with excitement and I vowed to return to that spot to find her.
But Lenah had other plans for me. One morning, I asked her if she knew a place closer to the town where I could find the baskets. “I happen to have a friend who weaves them,” she said.
Before I knew what was happening, we were hopping on a minibus to her friend’s village. After arriving in Chisekese, a small town, we hired a taxi driver to take us into the village.
Another half an hour on the road passed before we reached nothingness. Before my eyes, there were plains of maize. “Where exactly are we headed?”, I asked Lenah. “We are almost there.”, she replied.
The rusty car began driving over bushes. The road was nonexistent at this point, but a small path was created between the maize. The sky was out of view amidst the undiscernible labyrinths of corn.
The car continued until we finally reached a complex of six frazzled housed made out of adobe bricks. Next to them, a group of women were weaving baskets while gossiping the latest happenings in their tribal language.
Instantly, I knew this was it. The clock was ticking and I needed to begin my journey northward to Tanzania for my next project, but I told Lenah and the weavers that I would be back. I placed my first order of baskets with a promise to return to pick them up a few months later.
I dedicate this article to Leopoldo Negrete, my grandfather. He passed away last week. What I would have given to tell you these stories in person. I look forward to doing so in another life – until then!