DURBAN – An age-old traditional craft is getting the exposure it deserves, writes Liz Clarke
How often do we see crafters struggling through the traffic desperate to sell their wares, hoping and praying that someone, somewhere will stop and buy what they have to offer?
More often than not the daily takings are not enough to buy the basics. It’s a harsh hand-to-mouth existence that affects thousands of people living below the breadline.
Stanley Mabhengere faced the same bleak scenario as he trundled his collection of baskets through the congested streets of Pinetown, for weeks and months on end, with little to show for his efforts.
“You cannot understand how frightened you get when nobody buys ” he says. “At the end of the day when there is no money for food you get really desperate. I make beautiful things, but that doesn’t help unless you have a market for what you make. Also people don’t like stopping at the side of the road as it’s not safe. I don’t blame people for not stopping.”
The basket-maker realised that unless he did something different, he would no longer be able to afford to buy raw materials and therefore his basket making dream would have to come to an end.
“Sometimes, when things are really bad, you must take a chance and that’s what I decided I had to do.”
The chance he took, one very hot Monday morning just after Christmas, was to take his baskets to a small shopping complex in Ashley, near Pinetown.
“I had seen a shop there called Homeset, and I thought just maybe they would look at my baskets.”
It was a turning point, he says.
“I was a bit shy to go in, but then I thought Stanley what have you got to lose? If they don’t like them I can try somewhere else.”
Donna Muldery , owner of Homeset takes up Stanley’s story.
“I could see immediately this was quality workmanship. The finish and detail were excellent. Often baskets flop because they are not properly spined . These were done with mathematical skill. I decided there and then to offer Stanley space in my store so he could display his collection in a safe environment.”
It’s an empowerment idea, she says, that she hopes other stores will follow.
“A small amount of space to showcase skills like Stanley’s should not be a hardship. In fact it is a marketing benefit.”
Stanley’s positive move to expand his entrepreneurial crafting business has had a number of spin offs since that day when he walked into Donna Muldery’s shop off the streets. It not only includes the exposure he needed to get better known, but has opened up his talents to a wider audience.
“Within a week many of his baskets had been sold ” says Muldery . “Fortunately I had taken photographs and put them on my shop’s October facebook page.”
While the orders have been coming in Mabhengere is already designing a new range for this season.
His weaving skills, he says were honed as a small child living in the rural areas outside Harare.
“The other children weren’t interested but I loved the feel and smell of the Ilala grass that my family and friends were using to weave baskets for the local market. I would watch them for many hours first soaking the grass to soften it and then separating it into different strands. I could see how their hands and fingers moved, so fast. They were able to divide the strands into different widths just with feeling them with their fingers.”
Stanley made his first basket when he was ten years old.
“I think they got sick of me watching them and asking lots of questions ” he says with a broad smile. “So they said you do it and handed me the grass.”
He believes his love of “line and design” even when he was a young boy at school, makes his baskets different from the norm.
“I was always looking at magazines for new ideas for my baskets. Even at the shops I would quickly page through the magazines, hoping no one would stop me. Sometimes I was able to get old magazines and always imagined my baskets being in those beautiful homes. What I made had to be something that would look nice in smart homes. I think it is often a problem when people make the same things over and over again, whether it’s necklaces or baskets and they don’t sell. What sold last year maybe won’t sell this year. If something doesn’t work you have to try something new.”
He says that not having to sell on the streets has enabled him to create new designs and to buy the raw materials he needs to carry on with his weaving and basketry. It has also given him the opportunity to teach others how to do quality basketry.
“If we can create a market then it means job opportunities and that’s what I really like.”
It is initiatives like this that many believe will keep age old traditional skills, perfected over centuries, alive and relevant in the market place.