Mathira elders carry on dying art, trade of bamboo basket weaving

Richard Ngatia, an elder at Ihwagi Village in Mathira, Nyeri, weaving a basket using bamboo shoots.  [Kibata Kihu, Standard]

Basket weaving is an art traditionally practised by women as a hobby and a source of income.

However, elderly men from the Ihwagi area in Mathira, Nyeri County, have taken on bamboo basket weaving as an income-generating project.

Joseph Wachira, 52, from Ihwagi Village said he makes bamboo baskets for tea farmers in the tea-growing zone. But some people use the baskets for other purposes including carrying farm produce and storage.

Wachira explained he started weaving baskets more than 30 years ago and has so far perfected the art.

“On a good day, I can weave three to four baskets of various sizes,” Wachira added.

The elderly entrepreneur said that after sourcing the bamboo tree from the farm, he cuts and peels the green bark to make long strings that can be used in weaving.

He added that there is a strong green thread sourced from second-hand clothes (mitumba) used in finishing the basket, including beading and for making a rope. However, he warned that when peeling the string, there is a risk of getting cut as the bamboo is a sharp tree.

“I was taught weaving during art and craft lessons at Gatondo primary school but I became passionate about it later in life and turned it into an income-generating project. It has helped me and my family,” he said.

He explained that he makes baskets customised to fit the customer's needs and sells them at different prices. A small eight-kilogram basket is sold for Sh250 while a medium-sized that has a capacity of 20kg to 25kg sells at Sh400. The largest 30kg to 40kg sells at Sh600.

“Bamboo trees are sold in feet since they are long. 15-foot trees sell at Sh100 and a small basket may require one, while the large one may require three,” he said.

Wachira appealed to the youth in the area to join the business since it does not require a lot of capital or high skills as it is based on interest and observation.

He noted he is ageing and would wish to pass the knowledge to the youth, so as not to leave a gap when he will be gone. However, the entrepreneur observed that the young generation is not embracing manual jobs as most of them prefer soft jobs.

“Many youth do not like basket weaving job; they say it is dirty and tiresome so they don’t want to learn about it. When I get old and I can’t weave, who will continue with the art?” he asked.

Wachira added that lack of shelter where he and other men can shield themselves when weaving is the greatest challenge they face, especially during the rainy season.

David Maina, 50, said that he joined his colleague Wachira in basket weaving after his efforts to secure a job failed.

“I looked for a job but I was not lucky so I decided to join Wachira. I admired how he made the basket, he trained me and now I can do it on my own. I have worked with him for seven years now,” Maina said.

He added that basket weaving can feed his family and other needs. He said that when he had prepared the bamboo strings he could make three baskets in a day.

Assistant Regional Director and Senior Research Scientist from  Kenya Forestry Research Institute (Kefri) Nyeri County Stephen Ndung’u explained that by the year 2000, an estimated 25 million bamboo poles were harvested annually mainly from gazetted forests in Kenya.

“These poles were used for fencing, scaffolding, and construction of houses especially in rural areas. The bamboo splits are used for producing tea picking baskets, farm and household baskets,” Ndung’u added.

He said some communities living around Mount Elgon eat bamboo shoots as a delicacy. Bamboo poles, furniture, handicrafts, and seedlings are the current top products from bamboo in the local market.

Kefri Assistant Regional Director noted that bamboo has continued to gain recognition in Kenya as a multipurpose plant with many uses.

These include as a timber substitute, bioenergy source, a sustainable raw material source for micro, small, and medium scale enterprises, and ecosystem services protecting water towers.