*Published on April 19, 2012 in HandEye magazine
Like most African countries Ghana was divided into territories by colonial conquerors, which separated tribes and left modern nations with populations often speaking many languages. Although English is the official language of Ghana with Twii being spoken by the local majority, there are huge swaths up north, just outside of Tamale, where only Dagbani is spoken.
I spent two weeks in the village of Gushie with a wonderful passion project called Just Shea ( www.justshea.com ), here the population speaks Dagbani and stops for Muslim prayers five times each day. The purpose of the trip was to build a large storage barn with the women shea harvesters so they can store their harvest to take advantage of the vagaries of the market place and thus increase their income. The work was hot, exhausting and ultimately rewarding.
While in Gushie, we had a local translator, Zacharias, who was wise, young, fun, and hard working. Zacharias’ father is the village weaver and basket maker. So in between toting buckets and baskets of stones and searching the depleted local stores for cement, I visited Mohammed Zacharias and watched and learned.
In northern Ghana, in the town of Bolatanga, there is a renowned crafts market where finely woven baskets made from sweet grass and veta vera straw are piled high and the bags are adorned with well-crafted leather handles. But in Gushie, a village with no electricity, no flush toilets, poor access to transportation and difficult roads, a trip to Bolatanga is rarely undertaken and so all the baskets you see are made by Mohammed who at 75 is still hard at work every day.
Mohammed uses rush-like amterail stripped from the Mitragyna Inermis, the Latin name for a local wild tree. The branches and bark of this tree are wonderfully insect resistant, which provides an extra protective shield to crops or fruits stored in these baskets. Outside Mohammed’s hut, made from mud and straw, you see piles of the rushes cut into long strips or soaking in water.
Inside his cool, thatched hut Mohammed weaves quickly, with no patterns or plans. He is clothed in a loincloth and his still deft fingers wind in and out of the upright struts inserted to guide and hold the basket. He let me work on one basket that had been started and I clumsily wove nearly chanting to my self “now under, now over, now under” until I had finished a row. But Mohammed wove basket after basket as children peeked in to laugh or visit him. As the basket rose to the desired height he stopped his in and out weaving motion and began to literally wrap the top of the basket in cut reeds. This wrapping motion tied off the basket struts and made a tight, smooth edge for a basket that will be handled by women and children.
These are not beautiful baskets, nor perfect nor water tight, but they have a heft and purpose that comes from being needed. They are tools. The reeds themselves morph in color from purple to greens and ambers, and the random gradations give them a birdlike sheen. The baskets can be seen everywhere, collecting shea nuts; holding them by a fire waiting to be cooked and processed; containing utensils, or are carried on women’s heads as they head out to the bush to gather. On one occasion, as I waited in the relentless sun, I purchased a basket for one Ghanaian cedi, about 75 cents (the word cidi is taken from the Akan word for cowry shell, which was the original currency). I popped my basket on my head as a hat. As my head sunk in, I peeked out to the laughter of children and adults alike. But I was much cooler.
One of the unique uses I saw for the sturdy baskets, which most closely resemble a kind of hard wicker used in America for laundry baskets, was to create dovecotes. The local chief had commissioned the basket houses to encourage the doves to nest near his front door. And on one unbearably hot afternoon as we sat on a mat, also woven by Mohammed of thatching grass, I stopped sweating long enough to hear the soft coo of the doves as they settled back into their baskets at dusk. It was a wonderful. I understood why the chief had commissioned Mohammed to create homes for these soothing birds.
As I walked around the Gushie during my two week visit, I noticed Mohammed’s handiwork everywhere from the mats we sat on to the thick thatch that can be set up to create a barrier—a door for nighttime—to the baskets. I now have a strong purple-tinged basket sitting on the porch of my Hudson Valley home. I use it to catch my gardening tools when I return after a day of taming the weeds. The weather is still chilly and slightly damp 100 miles north of New York City, but Mohammed’s basket retains a kind of heat and utilitarian pride. I reserve the right to pop it in my head in the August heat to cool down.