Vumbura Plains

The Weavers of Vumbura Plains

Cultures & Communities

Melissa Siebert


Upon arrival at Wilderness Vumbura Plains, deep in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, your eyes land on the classic Delta landscape fronting the camp: beautiful seasonal floodplains, waterlilies, and all sorts of creatures. Then your gaze retracts, into the open main lounge and bar area, recently refurbished in shades of the wetlands’ blue and green. Highlighted by a wall of shelves holding cultural treasures in an array of hues and patterns, also featured in a stunning chandelier over the bar – the basketry of Vumbura’s weavers.





Mostly women, the weavers work at camp, primarily in housekeeping, and hail from the five villages comprising Wilderness’ local community partner, the Okavango Community Trust (OCT). They make the baskets and mats in their spare time; one mat can take a month to finish. All are for sale, and guests can catch a glimpse of the women weaving during afternoon high tea. Or if one invites them for a conversation or demonstration, as we did recently.




First two arrive, then another two, all bringing their weaving with them; we sit on Vumbura’s expansive deck, overlooking the water. Introductions ensue. Maikaelelo ‘Pinkie’ Boitsang, working for Wilderness for nine years in housekeeping and as a Bush Buddy (trained child-minder), learned to weave from her grandmother in Sepupa. The Diamond is her favourite basketry pattern; she’s partial to brown, blue, green, and white. Today she’s making a bracelet with those colours.





Omphile Moabi – a Wilderness employee for 12 years, also in housekeeping, and from Seronga like the other two women – loves the Waterlily pattern, and favours black and white. Also taught by her grandmother, she’s just begun another basket, a tiny core which grows and grows as she threads the large needle through the dried, dyed palm fronds. It boggles the mind, actually, how this tiny spiral, fronds extended and more continually incorporated, becomes an intricately designed basket. The women demonstrate patiently but it remains a mystery.





Nakaze Phaladi, employed by Wilderness in housekeeping for nine years so far, says she most loves the Forehead of the Zebra pattern, but today she’s halfway through a lovely Diamond weave, in purple, black, brown, tan, and turquoise. Her mother taught her to weave in her girlhood.




Waterlily is also Malebogo ‘Lebo’ Kambase’s favourite pattern; no wonder, as countless numbers of them float in the local waterways, white and purple, and day and night blooms, offering sustenance to elephants and humans. (A popular local stew, tswii, is made from them.) She’s worked for Wilderness for ten years, also in housekeeping, where she learned to weave from her colleagues.





It’s a mission to gather and prepare the materials for the basket weaving. Camp guides drive the weavers on a mini-safari, travelling several hours out of camp, to groves of palms where the leaves are collected. Later they are boiled to remove the green colour, dried, then boiled again with the dye of choice. Dyes are all natural: the jade-turquoise range, for instance, comes from the leaves of the feverberry tree; tan from the roots of the zebra alloy tree; black from magic guarrie roots; dark brown from the bark of a burnt plum tree; purple from recycled carbon paper.



The patterns, evolving over time and drawn from nature and village life, are highly imaginative; metal cutouts of them are placed around camp’s main areas. Aside from those already mentioned, others include: Forehead of the Kudu; Roof of the Rondavel; Flight of the Swallow; Shield; Knees of the Tortoise; Palm Leaf; Running Ostrich; Tears of the Giraffe; and Urine Trail of the Bull (perhaps referencing a male elephant in musth?) – and others.





The women and I check out the patterns, baskets, and bios and photos of each of them (and others) on the lounge shelves; laughter erupts as I try to match them up with their photos. We all try to discern the patterns of certain baskets. Water Lily predominates.



Their English is limited; my Setswana is practically nil. All I can say is ‘Dumela’, i.e. hello, and ‘Kealeboga’, thank you. I thank them for sharing their time, their craft.





Pinkie gives me the bracelet she’s been working on – not quite finished, but enough to remind me of this brief encounter and the joy it brought all of us.



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