Families which used to benefit from the Binga Craft Centre as a major source of income and livelihoods during its peak, have fallen on hard times.
Established in 1989 following the crafting of a cultural resolution plan by the Binga Rural District Council, the craft centre aims to improve the standards of living as well as the economic status of women through the production of sustainable crafts using natural resources. The centre is renowned for its hand-woven basketry which has been in high demand throughout the world.
“Generally the Tonga basket or Tonga crafts have travelled far more than an average Tonga man or woman has travelled. The baskets and crafts are in some parts of Europe, Asia and Africa where the weavers have never been and might never be in their life time. This is enough evidence that the Tonga craft is par excellent because no one can place an order for a bad thing to fly all the away to America when it is substandard,” said Mr Matabbeki Mudenda, the centre’s manager.
With the assistance of the Danish Development Workers’ Voluntary Services, the Binga Craft Centre was set up with a membership of over 2 000 people.
Within a year after its formation, the community- based organisation grew from strength to strength with the centre generating tremendous sales.
“During its peak in the early 90s, the centre used to generate a lot of sales from original Tonga artifacts such as stools, chairs and doors. During this period, the centre also used to train weavers in producing good quality baskets so as to be competitive on the international market,” said Mr Mudenda.
During its peak, Mr Mudenda said, the centre managed to change for the better the lives of many weavers, particularly women who managed to buy various assets as well as send their children to school with the income they got from selling the craft work.
“A lot of women in this area now own cattle because of income realised from the centre. A lot of people including myself were educated through money generated by basket weaving. In fact, most of the people who have good jobs here were able to go to school through money accrued from artifacts selling,” said the manager.
On its formation, the centre had 34 active weaving clubs dotted around the district but due to the current economic hardships, a lot of weavers have abandoned the trade as it can no longer sustain their families.
According to Mr Mudenda, the centres’ woes started around 2000 when the tourism sector faced a downturn.
“The non-performance of the tourism sector has seriously affected the craft centre. We could go for two months without a single sale because tourists who used to be our major clients stopped coming. Right now, the centre owes service providers such as Zesa, Zinwa and TelOne more than $10 000 in unpaid bills. There is virtually no business taking place here,” he said.
Mr Mudenda revealed that the organisation’s predicament had been worsened by the current cash shortages which have resulted in desperate weavers being short-changed by middlemen who are exchanging the baskets with various goods including clothes at ridiculous exchange terms.
“The current cash shortages have really affected the weavers. Unscrupulous people are taking advantage of this situation by exploiting our hardworking weavers. Some of the middlemen are even demanding 12 baskets in exchange for a shirt which costs $3. Basically, what this means is that the weavers are selling their products for a song,” he said.
Mr Mudenda said most of the weavers, particularly the elderly do not have any bank accounts and are not conversant with mobile money transfer technologies such as EcoCash.
“Most of our weavers do not have bank accounts. Some of them are very old and they do not have cellphones. In instances which they have, they do not know how to operate the gadgets. As a result of these challenges, the centre has failed to procure baskets from the weavers,” said Mr Mudenda.
The centre manager said the departure of the Danish Development Workers Voluntary Services has also contributed significantly to the demise of the organisation. During the peak of the centre, the donor organisation provided the centre with four outreach vehicles but now the organisation no longer has any vehicle.
The organisation has also retrenched some of its staff members.
“We no longer have any vehicle to transport the palm tree to the weavers. Some weavers are now travelling a distance of more than 70 kilometres to seek ilala from the palm trees which they use for weaving the baskets. Because of the vehicle shortages, we are no longer able to carry out our routine quality control checks. This laxity has compromised the quality of the weavers’ products,” added Mr Mudenda.
Not only is the Binga Craft Centre organisationally dead but its structures have also become an eyesore.
“Our buildings are now dilapidated and need a major facelift. Under the building’s current state, no client will be attracted to pay us a visit,” he said.
Mr Mudenda called upon the government to support basket weaving and the Binga Craft Centre as it has the potential to regain its glory of past days as well as promote the development of the creative arts while providing a source of income to people in this underdeveloped Matabeleland region.