From time immemorial, grass weaving has been a tradition in Iringa, a city located in the Tanzanian Southern Highlands. Women from the Hehe and Bena tribes have learnt to use ancient techniques passed down from generation to generation to create baskets and bags using Milulu grass, a reed-like swamp grass widely available in the region.
Vikapu Bomba, meaning fantastic baskets in Swahili, is the name of the enterprise founded by Catherine Shembilu to empower female artisans in rural Tanzania and reach premium markets in Tanzania and abroad.
“Poverty in Iringa is very high among rural women artisans. Despite being very skilled, they are unable to sell their handmade products locally at fair prices. That is why I decided to create Vikapu Bomba with a group of 6 artisans. Our primary objective was to export our products to premium markets, some of them outside of Tanzania. Today Vikapu Bomba works with more than 150 rural woman artisans and together we are selling our traditional art in multiple countries around the world”
Milulu Grass: It is a natural reed abundantly available in swamp areas and river banks in the Highlands of Southern Tanzania. Milulu grass presents a greenish hue when first weaved. It then changes to a beautiful natural colour, as it ages over time.
Kitenge is a traditional, 100% cotton fabric commonly used and produced in East Africa. It is often worn by women and wrapped around the body or over the head. Kitenges are colourful and usually display Swahili writings. Vikapu Bomba uses pieces of kitenge to make the handles of their tote bags.
Vikapu Bomba also produces tote bags with leather handles. Catherine sources it ethically from the Maasai tribes in Arusha, Tanzania. For more than 400 years, the Maasai have built a pastoral way of life around their cattle and an economy of exchange. Maasai women milk the cows. Warriors protect the cattle. Once the Maasai consume their cattle’s meat, they then retrieve and naturally treat the skin with lime, papaya and a solution extracted from Acacia trees. The Maasai do not use toxic nor industrial solutions in the tanning process.
How are they made?
The artisans collect Milulu grass by the river banks. After harvesting, the grass dries in the sun for approximately one day before the women bundle and prepare the leaves for weaving.
Traditionally, the weave is very tight. That is why it takes an artisan about one week to finish weaving the smaller Iringa baskets and about three weeks for the largest ones. The weaving is so tight that in the past, the tribes would drink water in custom made Iringa baskets!
Catherine collects the final products in the village. It is a very exciting day for the artisans. On this day women meet each other, share success stories, challenges and discuss solutions.
Packing and Shipping:
The women then tag each basket or bag they made with their name, photo and a brief introduction. The tag also mentions the number of days it took them to finalise the piece. After that, the product is ready for shipment.