Traveling in Eastern Africa, encounters with weavers

by Estelle Carlson

Estelle Carlson is a dyer and hand weaver who creates beautiful garments with fabrics from around the world. Here she shares some recollections and photographs of a trip she took to Eastern Africa, with her usual attentive eye for weavers of all kinds.

Several years ago a group of friends and I decided to explore several of the countries in East Africa. All of us were excited about the prospect of visiting villages and towns, meeting people and seeing animals, climbing mountains and hiking in rain forests -- we wanted to become immersed in the cultures and attitudes of this area in Africa. In order to make this "dream" trip affordable we decided camping was the way to go. So we hired a "camping" truck, a driver and guide -- and off we went.

"The Weaver Bird" studio

Now my interest is textiles, so part of my itinerary included meeting weavers and spinners. In the beginning of our trip I decided to visit a weaving studio called "The Weaver Bird" which is owned by Jackie Resley. I stayed with Jackie while several others decided to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro (you can see that I am not the athlete of our group). "Weaver Bird" studio is located outside of Nairobi in a beautiful, lush valley. Not only did I have this chance to see a beautiful, well-equipped studio but I also met a wonderful spinner named George Boro Nguci. George not only spins and weaves but built his own loom and spinning wheel.

In the city of Nairobi is an area of town called the Pumwani and Sharuimoyo Slums. It is here that the Mariadadi cloth is made. This cloth is sold in high-end shops throughout the city. I was looking forward to meeting the ladies who create this cloth -- but sadly several days before I arrived the factory had been burglarized -- all the sewing machines, screen printing equipment and supplies had been stolen. The ladies had nothing to do -- and, of course, no money for their families.

bead weaver creating with beads

Our group met up in Arusha, Tanzania; and off we went to several game parks. We visited a Maasai village where the ladies created exotic jewelry with beads.

We traveled to Zanzibar where I saw young men scurrying up palm trees to obtain fronds for weaving baskets and roofs for their homes. We saw fisherman in Malawi weaving their nets while others wove toys out of raffia for their children. In Zimbabwe we saw many women crocheting beautiful cloths as well as potato printers designing lovely wall hangings -- the potato printers carve designs on yams and use these carved yams as stamps. We also spent several days at the Great Zimbabwe Stone Palace -- a breathtaking monument of design and art. We met the Shona people who showed us their amazing stone carvings. And in Zambia we stopped at a lovely museum where hand-woven artifacts decorated the museum walls.

Our trip concluded in South Africa -- Krueger Park to be exact. Here we saw a wide variety of animals, as well as ladies creating beaded dolls. Our trip was a success not only in seeing a wide variety of scenery, but we all discovered the joy of being surrounded by creative and vital groups of people -- the people of East Africa.

young man climbing palm tree for weaving materials

preparing the palm fronds for weaving

weaving a basket

Photo Credits:
all photographs by Estelle Carlson

(click any photo to enlarge)

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