A Zimbabwean social enterprise is teaching women the art of macramé. The women are also learning about sustainability and creative product development.
The afternoon sun is sifting through the tree canopy in a garden in the Msasa neighbourhood in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare. The sun hits the different coloured bags resting on the women’s laps, as they knot macramé.
Macramé is a form of textile, which is created using knotting, rather than weaving or knitting, techniques. Its history derives from the Babylonians and Assyrians, and Arab weavers used to knot excess thread along the edges of hand-loomed fabrics such as towels, shawls and veils, into decorative fringes.
As macramé is not a traditional Zimbabwean craft, the women knotting here have learnt the skill in recent years. They are now a crucial part of the process of creating luxury handbags for a Zimbabwean company called Vanhu Vamwe, meaning One People in the Shona language.
Learning as a community
At the core of it all is communal learning. The women get taught the technique of macramé – and with that they can teach each other and also be part of the creative development.
One of the women, Mai Anesu, learnt macramé in 2015. For the last few years, she has been working with Vanhu Vamwe, creating beautiful bags and teaching macramé to a group of local women. She used to do sewing, and loves using her hands to create.
Prior to the global COVID-19 pandemic, Vanhu Vamwe organised regular workshops where Mai Anesu would teach macramé in a workshop lasting a few weeks. After COVID closed society at large, the teaching and learning was moved to virtual spaces.
The founders of Vanhu Vamwe, Pam Samasuwo-Nyawiri and her husband Simba Nyawiri together with Samasuwo-Nyawiri’s sister Rutendo Samasuwo-Mbasera made sure that all the women had an internet connection in their mobile phones.
They then started using WhatsApp as a platform and made video calls for teaching and revising. Despite the art of macramé being very concrete, the teaching and learning succeeded well in the virtual environment.
Design develops in the group and through knowledge sharing.
“The process might have been a little bit easier if it had been in person, but the women adapted to learning virtually very well. The virtual learning started already in the sampling phase, so they learnt the majority of the process online,” Samasuwo-Mbasera says.
Each bag is different, so the women learn to master all the models. On top of learning the technique of macramé, the women get taught about sustainability such as the importance of using local materials, and about carbon footprint, the supply chain and the difference between craft and luxury.
“We have training days that are separate from making. It’s for them to understand what the full supply chain means,” Samasuwo-Nyawiri says.
Learning occurs both ways
The teaching and learning occur stage by stage. First the women learn the basic macramé technique, then they learn how to do different parts of the bags. They learn how to knot the sides, the strap and the tassels. Mai Anesu revises the development of the skills and corrects if there are errors in creating the bag.
Feedback and developing the work through revision is an essential part of making and learning at Vanhu Vamwe, but the feedback doesn’t just come from Samasuwo-Nyawiri and Mai Anesu; it also comes from the other women.
Samasuwo-Nyawiri and her husband design the bags, and each bag gets prototyped. The prototypes get changed multiple times based on the feedback of Mai Anesu and the artisans before the bag evolves to its final form.
“Design develops in the group and through knowledge sharing,” Samasuwo-Nyawiri says.
“They might tell us that you can’t close a bag in a specific way, because then it won’t be straight. They have the experience and they understand how the material behaves. We learn a lot from them,” says Samasuwo-Mbasera.
Fast learners teach others
Prior to the pandemic the women would work together to do the macramé bags.
But after COVID restrictions hit Zimbabwe and free movement was not allowed, the women started to work from home. The managing team does quality control on home visits. The women get feedback and, based on that and possible corrections, they finalise the bags.
Mai Anesu enjoys macramé teaching. She says it brings her great joy that other people have started to appreciate the skill.
“I’m also happy that the women here have learnt a new skill that can generate income for them and help them to survive,” Mai Anesu says.
Mai Anesu appreciates that different people learn the skill of macramé at different paces.
“When you teach a group of people, some will learn the skill of macramé faster. They then teach it to other people or support their learning. You don’t have to teach the same thing multiple times, as the other artisans will also partake in the teaching,” Mai Anesu says.
Even though the teaching of macramé occurs through Vanhu Vamwe, the company supports the women in using the skill in their own small businesses.
Samasuwo-Nyawiri emphasises that the learning and making is about empowering the community. She underlines that they want the women to develop clusters of little communities and to be able to generate income.
“It’s about knowledge-sharing and understanding the humanity and development part of it all,” Samasuwo-Nyawiri says.