Traditional and innovative, the malawi style of basket weaving is a dynamic and growing trade that has grown to be one of the most recognizable symbols of Malawi. With roots deep in tribal history, this art form is still evolving as we speak with modern styles and materials beginning to emerge alongside traditional ones.
To fully understand just how rich this tradition actually is, some historical context is necessary. It's important to note that all aspects of traditional Malawian culture have had a strong influence from their neighbors-the Tonga people in particular. Indeed there are so many similarities between the two it can be difficult to tell them apart! When exploring traditional life throughout southern Africa it becomes clear that no community entirely owns a specific craft, but rather learned it from their neighbors after in many cases being forced into isolation by British colonizers. This is visible throughout Malawi in the form of Tonga-inspired religious practices, naming conventions, and even traditional meals!
As it turns out, basketry has a similarly complex history that only gets more interesting when digging deeper. The unique variation seen within this region wasn't developed independently but rather through centuries of cultural exchange with people near and far. Some of these influences are quite obvious while others are much more subtle to the untrained eye. While most examples can be attributed to either the Tumbuka or Nsenga peoples (relatives who share much in common), some have been exchanged from outside this area altogether including Portuguese traders along the coast and German colonists to the west.
While baskets were traditionally made from several different materials including grass and raffia, which could be found in abundance throughout the country, the introduction of European fabrics has revolutionized this craft and quickly become one of its most popular styles. Pieces that incorporate these new fibers frequently feature bright colors and flashy designs to take full advantage of their unique properties. However these are not always welcome in more traditional settings where they can clash with natural tones used in the construction process.
As this long-standing tradition continues to evolve and modernize, it's important for weavers to adapt their skill set while still paying respect to the past. Already there are some who incorporate other fibers such as plastic string in an effort to add a distinctive touch of their own. While others seek out new patterns and techniques that can't be found in any book or reference material, instead evolving organically over time through dedicated practice and experimentation with different combinations.
One thing is certain: no matter how drastically the Malawi style might change in years to come, its roots will always hold strong and provide a glimpse into the rich history of one particular region of Africa!
ADDITIONAL: SHOP RWANDA BASKETS