The coolness of the morning quickly fades as we approach a Nubian household in Luwero district. Our group quickly takes refuge under the shade of a musaali tree where armchairs are laid out for us. The journey took us off the beaten tourist track, past swamp, tiny villages and mud wattle homes into the heart of Uganda. An excitement comes over me as I realise I am about to witness the basket making process from dyeing to weaving. Our Nubian hosts, clad in brightly coloured traditional garments called lesus, welcome us with warm smiles and greetings.
Zena, Kalili, Sauda and their group of Nubian artisans produce some of the finest baskets in Uganda. The Nubian basket is distinct from the raffia Kiganda basket as it is made out of a coarser, tougher grass-like material known as dis. A number of techniques are used to create complex patterns including the chequered effect used on a single row. They use four or more colours. Red, black and gold dominate their designs though green, ginger, brown, maroon and cream also feature. These colours have cultural significance associated closely with Nubian identity. Nubian handicrafts rarely contain blue – unless specifically commissioned for export – as it is considered a “private” or “inner” colour that is only used in one craft – a beaded waste band worn by women at night.
Sauda boils water in a large pot over an open fire. The artisans have assembled to dye colours for new basket designs. They have had to adjust to the increasing market demand for new and diverse colours and patterns. Sitting, they decide the order in which they will dye each colour to get the most from one pot. A bundle of small parcels are opened to reveal glittering powders. We un-braid the dis. Kalili pinches one colour to mix it with another using no measurement – just instinct and a keen eye.
The dye is added to the water and three bundles of dis are curled into it like spaghetti. They prod, stir and turn it with long sticks until it is ready. It is then lifted onto the grass to dry out. More dye is added, changing orange water to green. The process is repeated until ten colours lie out under a blazing sun. We can now enjoy a well deserved lunch.
Technically once the dis is dry it is ready for weaving, but like raffia it has to be cooled, otherwise it will break or be difficult to work with. That is why you see women weaving in the early morning under a tree. Those using raffia leave it in the shade to cool before they go digging while those using dis cool and lubricate it with water.
Zena instructs me on how to weave a basket through demonstration. She is silent and I observe patiently until it is my turn to try. I struggle but I learn. When I make a mistake she shows me again. The craft has been passed down in this way for generations though some learned with no direct teaching. Those with talent learned quickly through experimentation, interest and necessity. Handicrafts provide a vital source of income for families, keeping them just above the breadline.
Zena has fingers like a guitar player – hard and cracked. The coiled rows of her basket consist of dis wrapped and sewn tightly around banana leaf stems. She works from the centre outwards. Stems and dis are added as she weaves, securely fastened with dis. She works on the protruding stems, spiking the row below with a needle to create a hole. She threads the wet dis from the back to the front over the stems and into the hole by hand. She moves with such agility and speed that I am convinced that it is all too easy. The design becomes more difficult, demanding a chequered effect. She continues to thread black dis around the stems but now she also lays cream dis flat on the row alternating whether it is above or below the black dis by folding. She produces two baskets per week – Baganda artisans produce four.
Through my own dismal efforts at weaving I realise how much effort and skill are required. It takes me three minutes to thread the first loop – that tiny hole caused me such grief! It needed strength and patience to mould its shape and design. I kept forgetting to add a colour at a particular place or fold the dis back and forth. Before, I had only seen the design in two dimensional terms, but now I appreciate its 3-D construction, artistry and intricacies. Take a closer look next time you see a basket to admire the culture and skill woven into one of Uganda’s most beautiful art pieces.