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The Basketry of the Bigodi and Rubona Weaver’s Groups in Western Uganda

The product:  woven basketry
Basketry is integral to the traditional and modern everyday and ceremonial lives of western Uganda.  Traditional small steepled baskets called akaibo filled with coffee beans and presented to guests as they enter the home.  Others, used to serve the steamed millet that is a staple of the traditional cuisine, are called kanwani. The coiled weaving techniques are used in everyday household baskets, used to store household items, food, to shell peas, beans and other produce, as well as mats for sitting and sleeping, granaries, stools and furniture.  As is often the case, the traditional ways have been supplanted to some extent by imported bowls, chairs and storage containers, particularly in urban areas.  However, the traditions survive in smaller towns and rural areas.

The artisans: women both rural and town
The Bigodi and Rubona Weaver’s Associations were both formed under the auspices of the Uganda Community Tourism Association (UCOTA). Established in 1998, the mission of UCOTA was “...to empower local communities in sustainable development through small-scale tourism and handcraft enterprises, also known as Community Tourism. Community Tourism aims at involving the local people in the planning, decision-making and implementation of tourism development activities. This form of tourism assures that the benefits stay as much as possible in the local community.”

Basketry, a traditional handicraft and one that was appropriate for local community production, was identified as a principal potential source of local income for the Fort Portal region, where both Bigodi and Rubona villages are located.

The Bigodi group has about 40 regular members, each with 2-3 associates who have been trained and mentored, and who help the member with large orders.  Rubona has about 120 members.  The groups are made entirely of women, who are trained in the techniques of basket making and dying using natural dyes by UCOTA. The women work independently, but come together regularly to sort and dye the materials for their baskets. UCOTA assists in quality control and marketing the products.

The conservation resource involved: national parks
My particular interest was to find how the sale of these baskets would contribute to the conservation of local natural resources.  The baskets in this area are made primarily from millet stalks and dyed raphia leaf fibers wrapped around banana stem or papyrus leaf and stalk fibers.  Of those components, the raphia leaves are native, but are mostly sourced from around Lake Victoria, some of the plants used for dyes are native, but grow as weeds or are cultivated, and the papyrus is native, occurring across western Uganda in wetland areas at lower elevations, including the Magombe wetlands that are part of the Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary. The millet, banana and some of the plant dyes are domesticated crops. Apart from the raphia and papyrus none come in any significant amount from natural ecosystems.

The community of Bigodi is located almost within the Kibale Forest National Park, one of Uganda’s oldest gazetted rainforest conservation areas.  Although its borders were significantly compromised during the turmoil of Idi Amin’s reign in power during the 1970s, Kibale Forest National Park is a significant forest reserve, particularly attractive to tourists for its accessibility, rich primate populations (13 primate species), and for its habituated chimpanzee communities. It is also very popular for birders, with 335 species recorded including a number of endemics.

Impact of product production on conservation resource:
The principal raphia used, Raphia farinifera is quite plentiful and women working with UCOTA across Uganda have been trained in appropriate harvesting techniques, so as to neither over harvest nor damage the plant during harvest.  However, there are threats to the resource in that they occur in wetlands and low forested areas that are themselves threatened by drainage, conversion to farmland or development. Also, as demand increases for raphia fibers, less scrupulous harvesters and the lure of short-term profit may lead to unsustainable harvest practices.

Papyrus (Cyperus papyrus) grows wild in immense swamp and wetlands across western Uganda, and is not immediately under threat.  Nevertheless, particularly around urban areas such as Masaka or Kampala, the wetlands are threatened by agriculture, development and pollution as well as competition for water. 

It is important to work with the weaver’s associations (of which, UCOTA reports, 90% of members are women) to ensure that their raphia is sourced from harvesters who respect the appropriate harvesting techniques, and to work with UCOTA and other groups and individuals to help inform farmers, developers, city planners and others of the ecological and economic importance of the wetlands where these products grow. 

Implications of increased production of product
The re-emphasis on basketry that the development of the handicraft industry has brought to the Bigodi and Rubona communities has had both expected and unintended consequences.

The artisans of both Weaver’s Associations benefit immensely by the growing ecotourism market for western Uganda.  Situated at the feet of the Rwenzori Mountains and with easy access to numerous national parks and reserves, Bigodi and Rubona both rely on tourism to support their trade.  Other customers include local populations and visitors from larger cities such as Kampala.

The weavers have quickly come to understand that it is the national resources of the parks that attract the tourists, and they pressure their communities in return to respect the park boundaries and restrictions.

The sale of the baskets represents a significant livelihood opportunity for the women involved.  For each basket, 90% of the sale is paid directly to the artisan, while 10% is paid into the Association coffers.  While there are about 40 official members of the Association in Bigodi, each woman may train 2-3 others to make the baskets, and she then may present those baskets for sale by the Association, further bolstering both income and the livelihood opportunities afforded by weaving.

With the 10% contributions, the Association identifies social development activities it can support.  For example, funds have been used to build a new secondary school in Bigodi, and a nursery school has been started to take care of the children while women weavers are busy working on basketry.

An unintended consequence to the basket weaving is increased food security. The women use waste products from millet and banana production in the baskets. Now, however, women are growing more millet, not just for more food, but because they need the waste product, the stalks, to weave their baskets! 

The weavers each have small gardens for growing vegetables and dye plants. The domestication of the dye plants means that they do not need to go into the forest or swamplands to source their materials, leaving the native populations intact.  However, the weaver’s primary contribution to conservation of the local forest and swamplands is their understanding of the importance of those ecosystems to the tourists who come to visit, and who then purchase their baskets.

The Association in Rubona is larger and more spread out.  Some of the women live very close to a main road leading to Fort Portal, while others live miles away up in the foothills of the Ruwenzori’s. This Association has a long tradition of weaving, and an additional benefit from the marketing of their baskets is the support of that tradition. Additionally, the Rubona Weaver’s Association uses only plant dyes in their weaving.