Having a basket ball.

March 16, 2006

Rueben Ndwandwe weaving a basket at his home.I am really taken with African crafts. Soyan and I both particularly like baskets. Throughout our travels in South America we bought almost no souvenirs, something that we did intentionally, but regretted slightly. Here in Africa we wanted to buy a few things for the house that we don’t have. We had looked in many of the small craft markets that dot tourist sites like the dimples on a golf ball, but we had not found any baskets that we really liked.

In Eshowe, a small town in the heart of Zululand, we went to see the Vukani Collection Museum, home to the world’s best collection of Zulu crafts and baskets, hoping to learn a little more and see if we could find some baskets.

Frommer’s South Africa writes:
“While Westerners head for cultural villages, many urban Zulu parents bring their children [to the Vukani Collection Museum] to gain insights into the rituals, codes, and crafts of the past.”

We learned a lot about the purpose of baskets. A large number of baskets were made specifically to hold beer, which was traditionally the woman’s job to brew and serve. Traditionally the baskets were beautifully woven, but without color or pattern. In 1972 the Swedish missionary, Rev. Kjell Lofroth, under the auspices of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, founded the Vukani Association, a cooperative to train and provide income to the Zulu people. He took Zulu baskets to Europe to sell. While he was successful in his initial sales effort he was consistently asked if he could provide Zulu baskets with color and pattern. He returned to Africa and began a major renaissance in Zulu baskets.

Soyan examines the baskets
The museum has many beautiful baskets, but one modern weaver’s work stood out. Reuben Ndwandwe. The baskets had intricate designs and a unique style of overlaying a second level to increase the complexity of the designs. Soyan and I were both immediately taken with his work. Unfortunately the museum didn’t have any for sale. Most of what they can get their hands on they keep, and everything else sells out almost right away.

We explained that we were heading to Durban, and asked if there any place there that we might find some of his work. The curator thought it was possible but suggested that we call him directly.

Call him?

I have never been to a museum where I could admire the artist’s work and when I inquired about it, I could call him.

Yeah sure, let’s call him!

Two minutes later Reuben verified that there was no place to find his work in Duran, but he did have a few baskets at home, if we wanted to come and see them.

Home was three hours in to the hills of Zululand, but what the hell, when will I next be in Zululand? We agreed to meet him by the side of the road in a small town near his home. We’d be the white people driving the Camry.

We stopped at an ATM before leaving any semblance of civilization to get some money in case we found any thing we liked, and I kept repeating “This is so cool!”. When I go to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, I see things I like there too, but I never get invited to the artists house to check out his latest work.

As I suspected we had no trouble finding Reuben on the side of the road, and a few minutes later we were in the little compound that was home to him and 3 of his 4 wives. (He kicked out the one that tried to poison him, but that is another story).

Our Reuben Ndwandwe baskets
He was warm and gracious and asked us to wait while he got the baskets. He returned with large tacky plastic bags and unceremoniously dumped his latest baskets out on to a straw mat. I particularly enjoyed this, because just three hours before I had been prohibited from using a flash, much less touching these sacred museum objects. Now here was the Artist treating them like so many potatoes.

After some haggling we bought four of the five larger baskets that he had. I took a few photos and we headed back out to start our long drive to Durban.

I can think of little else that I have enjoyed purchasing as much as these, too bad I shipped them to the States and I won’t see them again for a year.


  1. [...] I won’t go into the details as Jonathan has written up a wonderful account of this story of discovering these gorgeous baskets. [...]

    Pingback by Soyan Says… » Basketcases — March 19, 2006 @ 7:25 am

  2. Hi Soyan & Jonathan,

    I came across your blog while I looking for information about zulu baskets online. I moved to South Africa (Joburg) a couple of years ago, but I’ve only just discovered zulu baskets.

    I hope you are enjoying your holiday in South Africa. I’ve been reading through your blog archives, and I think you must be having a wonderful experience.

    I hope to travel to Durban within the next few months. Please send me the telephone number for Reuben Ndwandwe if you still have it – I would love the opportunity to meet such a talented person. The possibility of purchasing some of his baskets would be a big plus.

    Thanks, Morayo

    Comment by Morayo — March 31, 2006 @ 5:34 am

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