Gone Rural Swaziland – The Story Behind the Products
A beautiful handmade basket featuring a traditional African zigzag design motif: the perfect centrepiece for your dining room table found in the Ethical Superstore Christmas catalogue. But delve deeper and you’ll discover the story of basket producers Gone Rural, members of the World Fair Trade Organisation, who have been working to change lives in Swaziland for over 20 years.
Most of Gone Rural’s producer groups live in the mountainous areas of Swaziland where the Lutindzi grass they use is found. Many generations live in one homestead and share the household responsibilities and although extremely poor by western standards, Gone Rural families often take in neighbours’ children who have been orphaned by HIV/AIDS.
Rural Swazi communities now find themselves under mounting financial pressure, having to pay for transport to clinics, school fees and support more children. As indicators of the importance of Gone Rural in the lives of impacted women:
- 80% of the women rely on Gone Rural as their sole income
- Each woman supports an average of 8 dependents
- 82% of their husbands and partners are unemployed
Product Development Process
Gone Rural products are handmade by our Swazi women who transform natural and sustainable materials into beautiful home accessories.
Swazi women living in mountainous regions harvest the Lutindzi grass once a year in February. The grass is plucked from the sheath leaving the root intact for next year’s growth. The women dry the grass outside before bundling it and selling it to Gone Rural.
At the Gone Rural workshop in Malkerns the bundles of grass are transformed into beautiful colours in fuel-efficient dye vats. Once dyed the grass is laid out to dry in rows under the African sun.
Travel to Producer Communities
Through rain or shine, Gone Rural makes the journey up the mountain roads or down though the African Bush of Swaziland to producer community meeting places. Here the women are grouped together waiting for Gone Rural with their beautiful products.
At Gone Rural market days, the women meet under a tree or in a shady place. Here they finish their work while networking amongst themselves sharing ideas and experiences.
Women entrepreneurs within the Gone Rural group and community have created a micro economy at these meeting days when they trade vegetables, bread or clothes amongst each other.
The meeting days have also created an access point for health and education programmes to be run within the communities including literacy programmes, scholarships funds, advocacy training, HIV/AIDS testing awareness and counselling.
The Gone Rural production team buy goods ordered from the women at the previous meeting, quality is checked and each woman is given tips on how to further develop her skills. Orders are placed with the women and they are given the dyed grass that they need to make the products.
Women Making Products
The women take their work home with them where they have the freedom to work at their convenience, producing Gone Rural products between their other household and parenting duties. The women sometimes work in groups weaving and coaxing the grasses into magical patterns.
At the Gone Rural workshop the stock is received into the store room where the quality is checked before the products are individually labelled and packed into sets using hand-made clay beads and woven grass rope.
Design and Production Techniques
Gone Rural seeks to design innovative and beautiful collections whilst respecting Swazi cultural heritage, tradition and the environment. When a new product has been created or a new technique used, training workshops are held to ensure high quality and to assist skill sharing among producers.
The Placemat Plaiting
The Swazi women traditionally use plaited grass to tie down thatching grass on the roofs of their homes. This traditional plait is the basis of Gone Rural plaited items. To make a placemat the women start by plaiting a long rope of Lutindzi grass. They sit on the ground with their legs straight out and sometimes hold the plait between their toes while they work.
When the rope is long enough (50 meters for a large place mat) they start to coil the rope into a small disc shape, they hold the rope in place by using the spokes from an umbrella. They then take sisal fibre and spin it into twine using their hand and thigh. With a long needle they thread this very strong twine through the coiled plait and stitch the placemat together.
The Stitching Technique
The artisans start with a small bundle of lukhazi reed; they wrap the dyed Lutindzi grass around the lukhazi and start to develop a coil-shaped item. As each circular row is added, it is stitched from the previous row to the next row using an overlapping technique. The basket shape is made free-hand without the use of a mould. It takes many hours to make one basket.
The basket-making women have unique hand-skills and are exceptionally talented in being able to add their own design input to our specific size, quality and colour way requirements.
The use of sustainable, local natural fibres is central to Gone Rural’s approach to product development.
“Lutindzi” is the Swazi name for the strong, wiry sedge grass coleochloa setifera (Comptons’ “Flora of Swaziland”, no 512.) It grows high up in the mountains on rocky outcrops, finding moisture in the cracks of rocks. Due to its wiry nature and inaccessibility, it is not eaten by cattle and for centuries has been harvested for the manufacture of rope to tie down roof thatching on traditional beehive huts.
After good rains, the Lutindzi will be plentiful and the women will spend days harvesting it. If the harvesting is planned correctly, there will be enough for the weaver to work with throughout the rest of the year. The harvesting of this grass also leaves the roots intact for the following year, hence there is a natural abundance of this very special resource.
The plaiting of the grass is a skill learned by virtually every Swazi girl, but making the plaits up into floor-mats, tableware and other items is a skill learned patiently under the guidance of a girl’s mother.
Sisal fibre is an invasive weed. Sisal is used in Swaziland to make cattle fences and grows throughout the country. Because it is a weed, it is ideal for craft production since harvesting does not threaten the country’s natural biodiversity. Gone Rural has developed unique knitted and woven textiles that are sensitive to the unique properties of the sisal fibre.
To learn more about Ethical Superstore’s fair trade merchandise producer Gone Rural, please visit http://www.goneruralswazi.com/ or to shop for beautiful Gone Rural products on Ethical Superstore, click here.