Spend a few hours with the industrious ladies of the Rubona Basket Weavers Association (RUBAWA) and you will be amazed at how much work goes into these handcrafted items. They are truly a labour of love, from start to finish.
Set below the foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains, RUBAWA fabricates top quality bowls, table mats, lidded storage baskets and decorative wall hangings. Each basket is a unique and individual creation that has been skillfully woven by the 200 women of RUBAWA. They use naturally dyed raffia to make baskets of all sizes, which are then sold for export. The RUBAWA basket weaving project is completely self-sustaining. Women who are part of the association offer their baskets for sale, so proceeds go directly back to their families and the community.
There’s a lot more to dying than meets the eye, as our group found out when we visited Rubona. The process starts with growing the right flowering plants: did you know locally grown flowers can produce bright red, green, yellow, orange, maroon brown and even blue and black colour dyes?
Our tour started with a lovely Ugandan welcome and a tour of the small garden, the sole source of all these vibrant colours. Here members of the association named the flowering plants that we would be invited to pick to start the basket weaving process.
“Pick a favourite colour,” the lady invited us. One by one, she asked each member of our group which flower we would like to use to dye our personal batch of raffia.
Different flower combinations produce a variety of colour effects. Orange flowers produce orange and red dye, Nsororo creates blue and green dyes. Another gives maroon and brown colours. Cosmos (a flower familiar to me from my mum’s British garden) and Aldisia are two of the plants commonly used to dye raffia.
Anticipating our arrival, the ladies had picked fresh flowers – huge buckets of them. The flowers looked beautiful in the huge cooking pots. The colouring process was harder than it looked. The raffia must be boiled more than once and thick gloves worn to protect your hands from the strong (yet 100% natural) dyes.
The boiling and stirring of the raffia takes place over intensely hot fires. The kitchen was smoky beyond belief. We ventured to poke our heads around the door, but soon ran outside again. It struck me how lucky I am that I don’t have to light a fire every day of my life. These ladies have a constant cough. One of them commented how “the smoke makes us grow old so quickly.”
It was very satisfying to see our plain and boring looking raffia transformed thanks to the colourful flower petals. Everyone admired the brilliant colours as we helped the women squeeze out the excess dye and unravel the raffia from the pots.
After hanging the raffia to drip dry outside, we were invited into RUBAWA’s small shop decorated with beautifully woven baskets. There are few places in Uganda where you will find this kind of quality. What’s more, when you buy something from Rubona, you can be confident that the money is going directly to a local family.
How to find RUBAWA
Rubona Basket Weavers Association is located 22 km from Fort Portal and 50 km from Kasese towns along the main road. To book, contact: +256 (0)782 562 640.
Community tourism projects
Rubona is one of many enjoyable community tourism projects on offer to visitors of all ages and interests. Unlike a Safari game drive, where you are the passive spectator, community tourism projects are far more interactive: I’ve learnt how to dance like a local, I had a go at playing the big wooden xylophone, I even made myself a beeswax candle to take home. On the Agro-Tour in Kichwamba, I learned all about the medicinal uses of various plants and trees. Did you know you can wash your clothes with the flesh of a pawpaw (papaya)? And that the Neem tree can treat an astounding 135 diseases? We saw first-hand how precarious life can be for a farmer whose land touches the National Park, with the constant worry of hungry elephants invading your crops.
Uganda gets so much more interesting when you start to understand some of the issues of the people you’re meeting.
About the author
Based in Kampala, Charlotte Beauvoisin is writer of Diary of a Muzungu | Uganda travel blog www.diaryofamuzungu.com Experience Uganda with the muzungu: adventure, birding, conservation, cultural (mis)observations, expat advice, safaris, tourism, travel, volunteering and wildlife. Twitter @CharlieBeau