New Internationalist

Going it alone in Botswana

Issue 082

STEVE SEABORN reports on a Botswana weaving coop­erative aimed at building self-reliance.

Photo: CUSO
One of the women of the Oodi Weaving Co-operative carefully examines strands of wool after they have been dyed. Photo: CUSO

In 1973 a cooperative weavingventure was launched in Oodi, a small village of 800 people that spreads over the rocky side of twin hills on the edge of the arid Kalahari basin in south-east Botswana, 20 miles from the South African border. Loans from the Botswana Christian Council, the Botswana Development Corporation and the Canadian develop­ment agency CUSO provided the initial funds. Since then the venture has gained international recognition for its tapestries. The loans were paid off within three years and the cooperative turns a yearly profit.

There are currently 53 people employed at the weaving centre, eight of them men. Major decisions about running the factory are made by all workers at regular meetings. Five share the management of the factory - buying, marketing, accounting, wages and personnel affairs. Those handling the management port­folios take on the duties in addition to their other work.

The weaving centre acts as an incentive for people to gain skills in literacy, arith­metic and book-keeping. But, more importantly, it creates an opportunity to examine the economic and social forces around them. The themes or stories portrayed in the tapestries reflect the villagers’ understanding of their history. The ideas are discussed at work-meetings. Through this process there’s group analysis of the current problems facing Oodi villagers. This Freirian-type ‘conscientiza­tion’ is then translated by the weavers into an art form. Two weavers work on each tapestry. The education is then linked to their work and so has importance in their day-to-day lives.

Oodi tapestries already completed portray the people’s move from their homes in South Africa and how 11 Oodi men joined the army in 1941 to fight in World War II and what happened to them; others tell of life in colonial days, about independence, the drought and the rains, about why the men keep returning to the mines, of attacks by the Rhodesians, the burdens of women’s work, the local soccer team and how the wealthy Oodi villagers refused to help build a bridge across the flooded river.

The tapestries are often displayed in the village meeting-place before they are sold, where the weavers discuss the themes with their fellow-villagers under the shade of the thorn trees.

Photo: CUSO
Two weavers begin to fill in one of the tapestry designs which they have worked out together. Photo: CUSO

Forced to leave

The people of Oodi once lived in what is now northern South Africa. They were forced to leave when white settlers arrived late last century, took over the land and stole thousands of cattle. As one Oodi woman explains, `Our people just walked until they found water and a place where there were no whites.’

In Oodi they tried to settle down to live as they always had: by subsistence farming, using what good land they could find in their new ‘home’. They grew sorghum (their staple food) and some began again to raise cattle. When missionaries and traders reached Botswana and threatened outright annexation to the white-ruled Transvaal, village leaders petitioned Queen Victoria to make the country a British protectorate.

With colonialism came taxes. To pay these, the men went off to the new mines of South Africa. The women, children and elders were left behind to cope with the farming. Often there was so little money that women too would have to leave their families, put their children in the care of the old people, and take jobs as domestics in the towns of South Africa.

By the time Botswana gained inde­pendence in 1966, this pattern was firmly set. Taxes were eliminated by the new government, but the men and women still looked to the south (to the mines, farms and kitchens of South Africa for wage labour. The per capita annual income is only 390 - and this is a figure inflated by diamond discoveries. Nearly 55 percent of working-age males in southern Botswana still work out of the country, most as miners.

Despite the increased employment and the use of the weaving centre’s profits for local development schemes, villagers still have an ambivalent attitude towards the small factory. For one thing, it is relatively isolated from the other economic processes in the village. The factory does not utilize any resources from the village and the village has no way to relate to or to utilize the product which comes from the factory. The blankets and tapestries are sold to town people and foreigners.

Photo: CUSO
The tapestry on the left tells how young people are lured to the towns by modern conveniences, but eventually have to return to the village when the promise of a better life turns out to-be illusory. On the right the first whites arrive in Botswana riding on oxen and seeking gold. Photo: CUSO

The extent of the Oodi Weavers project’s impact on the village is a complex and sensitive area. At their co­operative meetings the weavers discuss the problems. The factory has been regarded with a mixture of jealousy and suspicion by some villagers for a number of reasons.

  • The village has a high proportion of migrant workers and the weaving centre has done nothing to reduce their numbers.
  • The cooperative and the idea of cooperative organisation have not been welcomed with open arms by all the people and interest groups in the village, although most people are willing to talk about the co­operative and its ideals.

  • In a number of ways the factory has proved to be a focal point for village tensions and in some ways has heightened these. For example, the women workers, despite the fact that they are earning wages well above the national average, are expected to do traditional ‘women’s work’ when they return after a day at the factory - collecting water and firewood, cooking and so on.

Since the initial loan to the factory was repaid, the centre has operated as an entirely independent unit - and the workers prize that independence. In 1977 an aid organisation offered $70,000 for a new display room (something that was badly needed) but the offer was turned down because the people felt they would lose their self-reliance and inde­pendence.

Two years ago the original two advisers to the cooperative returned to Sweden. The people had never really believed they would be without an expatriate to assist them.

We thought that when they left, someone else would come here to be our boss’, explains one worker. ’ But when they left, we wanted them to go because we saw that we could run the factory on our own.’

Before this started, we didn’t know such a thing could exist ‘, says one. "We just thought that to get money you had to go to Gaborone or South Africa for a job. Now we can see that any activity can be cooperative. We had learned that cooperating makes progress.’

Steve Seaborn is a CUSO volunteer recently returned from Botswana.

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