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Grass Weavers of Swaziland

Grass Weavers of Swaziland

A great success story lies in a little Swazi business that has given contemporary designs to the ancient skill of basket weaving…

Words and Pictures: Sue Adams

Gone Rural Country Life - Sue Adams (16)It all started with the vision of Jenny Thorne, a Swaziland farmer’s wife. Jenny always loved to chat to the Swazi women and hear their life stories. Also, in Swazi culture women have very little control over their own lives and, in fact, until 2006 were considered minors under Swazi law. Jenny wanted to help them generate their own income and, in 1992, began selling their crafts at a small roadside stall in the farming area of the Malkerns in Swaziland.

It became so popular she started a business called Gone Rural, which makes beautiful handwoven baskets, bowls, decor items and placemats. It has become an African success story of note. From employing 30 women it now provides an income to more than 740 rural women and supplies more than 1 000 retail outlets in 32 countries worldwide.

As I wander around the Gone Rural workshops, the mix of ancient and modern is striking. Vats of imported German dye boil on open fires, dyed grass lies spread out on open-air drying racks while a thousand baskets are being packed for a huge South African retailer, to be sold filled with nuts and fruit. One of the directors in high heels greets a group of women from Mahlanya who have arrived with newly woven baskets on their heads to deliver their orders.

There’s an excellent system at Gone Rural, one that sees lutinzi grass harvested in the highlands by the rural women and bought in to collection points. Gone Rural head office buys this untreated grass, which animals don’t eat, and which is carefully harvested to keep the roots intact. It also absorbs dye very well and is particularly good for braiding, rolling and making finely woven products. At the collection point Gone Rural hands over dyed lutinzi grass at the same time, giving the women new orders with designs to be completed. Standards are high and the women are trained in specific designs. When the orders are finished, Gone Rural returns to the rural meeting points to buy back the finished products.

Gone Rural Country Life - Sue Adams (12)The products themselves are world class. Philippa Thorne, who is married to Sholto, one of Jenny’s sons, studied at a design school in the United Kingdom and is the creative director who has helped to move the traditional weaves into a contemporary context. Beautiful coloured dyes and additions such as sisal and fabric add another dimension to the traditionally woven products. Now the Gone Rural products are highly sought after in cities such as London, Tokyo and New York, and can be found in stores such as Selfridges and The Conran Shop, and the Smithsonian.

The baskets come in a variety of shapes and certainly have a practical use but also make great decor items. “We also collaborate with designers and companies to produce special products,” Philippa tells me. “For instance an Italian designer loved the style of weaving but wanted to use his own fabric to make special pieces. Nandos also worked with us to design a condiment basket where a separate small business makes the frame and we do the weaving.”

Philippa explains that Gone Rural also makes baskets out of rubbish. “We use old plastic bottles, sweet wrappers, supermarket bags and textile industry offcuts to add design, colour and texture to the woven products.” Talk about some seriously chic upstyling.

Gone Rural Country Life - Sue Adams (28)

Julie Nixon, who loved Jenny Thorne’s philosophy of helping the Swazi women regain their status in society, started with Gone Rural nine years ago and is now the managing director. When she first arrived in Swaziland she couldn’t believe that she had to get permission from her husband to join the library. “That’s when I fully realised what a battle the Swazi women have,” she says. Laws have changed since then but attitudes take much longer. “We try to help our women to put themselves in charge by helping them to become financially independent.”

Shelley Belohrad was born in Swaziland, trained in finance in France and returned to work at Gone Rural. Her first experience with the company convinced her that she was in the right place. “I arrived at one of the collection points to find a group of women in a huge field sitting under a tree chanting and singing. There was one old man who described himself as the ‘concierge’. He told me he was proud to be associated with Gone Rural as his wife could now afford to buy washing powder and softener and his clothes now smelled good.”

For Shelley and the other people who work at Gone Rural these are the stories that make their work worthwhile. Gone Rural also established Gone Rural boMake (boMake means ‘women’ in Swazi), a non-profit organisation to assist the rural women with education, health and social needs. It helps with school fees and providing clean water and health clinics, and trains women in basic financial skills.

Julie estimates that this project probably affects at least 20 000 people. “It has given dignity and status to so many Swazi women and has allowed them to manage their own lives without being at the beck and call of others.”

But this is not a project of handouts – the women can make their own decisions, choose how much they want to be involved and decide how to spend their own money. With Aids and poverty such huge issues in this tiny kingdom of Swaziland, Gone Rural and Gone Rural boMake are making an impact on the futures of many.

Gone Rural Country Life - Sue Adams (7)

Gone Rural boMake

  • It has helped provide clean water to 8 000 people.
  • It educates 300 children each year.
  • About 4 500 people attend the mobile health clinics each year.
  • A total of 2 400 women are part of the Micro Savings Scheme where they are encouraged to save, start other small enterprises such as raising chickens and selling second-hand clothes so that they do not depend entirely on Gone Rural.
  • At Gone Rural, 92 per cent of the women know their HIV status compared to the 38 per cent of Swazi people nationally.

Gone Rural Country Life - Sue Adams (22)

Gone Rural Country Life - Sue Adams (15)

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