Arts and Crafts
Botswana's Rich Cultural Diversity
Botswana's arts and crafts mirror the country's rich cultural diversity which has been brought about by its many tribes. Most products can be purchased in curio, craft, gift shops and malls in major cities such as Gaborone, Francistown, Maun and Kasane and at safari camps in the Okavango and Chobe regions.
The decorations known as lekgapho on traditional homes are a very impressive art which has been passed through generations. Although the art is slowly dying because many citizens are now building concrete rather than mud houses, a few traditionally decorated houses can still be seen in some rural areas.
Botswana baskets are widely regarded as some of the finest in Africa. Their high quality, outstanding workmanship and originality have gained them international recognition, and they are now exported to many countries around the world. The baskets are made of the mokolwane palm (Hyphaene petersiana) which are cut and boiled in natural earth-tone colouring. The lemao (Setswana) is the main instrument used to make the baskets. This is a sharpened piece of thick wire set in a wooden handle, which is used to pierce the tight coil and insert and then wrap the palm. To obtain coloured fibre, the palm strings are pounded and then soaked in a boiling solution of natural dyes taken from the bark and roots of various plants. Reds are extracted from the bird plum (Berchemia discolor), browns from the magic guarri (Euclea divinorum), purples from the indigo dye plant (Indigofera tinctoria and arrecta) and yellows from the red star apple (Diospyros lyciodes). The traditional designs on baskets consisted of a few patterns that portrayed the natural world and were produced using few colours. They went by such poetic names as ‘Flight of the Swallows’, ‘Urine Trail of the Bull’, ‘Tears of the Giraffe’, ‘Knees of the Tortoise’ and ‘Forehead of the Zebra’.
Traditionally, baskets had many practical uses - to store seeds, grains, to transport food, etc. The shape of the basket varied according to its function. Tray-type and bowl baskets, which are carried by women on their heads, are for more general use. Slow and intricate work, a large basket can take up to two weeks to complete. Basketware, sold mostly through co-operatives, has become an important source of supplementary income for many rural families. Visitors to rural areas have the opportunity to purchase crafts directly from the producers.
Few households in Botswana still use traditional pots and there are only a small number of rural women who still make traditional pottery, mostly to sell. Clay pots are used for storing water and traditional beer, and also for cooking. Traditionally, the women within the community are responsible for collecting and moulding the clay. Once the form of the pot has been created, decorative patterns are added using natural oxides. The tradition is showing signs of recovery as the tourist market demands local pottery. Modern ceramics are produced at several small cottage industries such as those in Gabane, and Thamaga.
Unusual, good quality, hand-woven tapestries, carpets, bed covers, jackets and coats are all made from karakul wool. All utilize locally inspired designs and patterns. Oodi Weavers near Gaborone has gained an international reputation for their fine work.
Woodcarving has been used traditionally in the production of the traditional items such as tools, bowls or cups, spoons, all made out of grained wood of the mophane tree. Elsewhere, animal figures may be carved by individuals living in the rural areas, and then brought to the towns to be sold. Artists are now using mophane wood to produce jewellery as well as animal and people figurines.
This is a relatively new craft in Botswana, currently gaining in popularity. It was recently introduced and taught to ivory carvers who, with the worldwide ban on the sale of ivory products, were in danger of losing their livelihoods. Bonecarvers in Botswana produce elegant, finely crafted jewellery and small statuettes, which interestingly have the look and feel of real ivory.
Jewellery made of beads, ceramics, stones and malachite are produced in several local cottage industries, and sold in urban areas of the country.
Tourism and tourists' fascination with the Bushmen have brought a revival of sorts to traditional Bushmen crafts. Bushmen now produce and sell hunting sets, fire-making sticks, beaded jewellery and belts, leather items and musical instruments. Authentic ostrich eggshell beadwork is still made, and the contrast of the creamy white beads on the brown and black leather string makes for very attractive items.
The Mokoro, is the traditional dug-out canoe used by the fishermen of the Okavango Delta. This, typical African craft, was brought to the delta by the Bayei people in the 18th century. Hewn from a single tree, it is a narrow vessel with a rounded bottom and no keel. To the inexperienced these canoes appear extremely precarious, but they are actually surprisingly stable when properly loaded and they are especially suited to shallow delta waters. The vessel is propelled either by paddles or a pole. To protect trees in the delta, many mokoro these days are made of fibre glass.
There are many local artists - both citizens and expatriates. Paintings are sold in local curio shops, displayed in Gaborone and Francistown malls, but most artists prefer to stage exhibitions in the National Museum, or at their private homes. The National Museum in Gaborone has an annual art competition for all schools in the country. The museum also has an annual National Art Exhibition in which all artists living and working in Botswana are invited to participate. The Kuru Development Trust in Ghanzi District is encouraging the growth of Bushmen painting.