Visiting Bolgatanga—Where the Baskets Come From

In Spring 2013, I attended American University’s Semester in Washington program, with a concentration in International Environment and Development (now called Sustainable Development). My semester included an internship with a DC nonprofit, plenty of field trips for my class to tour agencies and learn best practices, and a two and a half week practicum in Ghana to see what works—and what doesn’t—on the ground. We had the amazing opportunity to visit projects like the Trashy Bags upcycling workshop in Accra, the Fair Trade Global Mamas sewing and batiking centers in Cape Coast, the Tafe Atome monkey sanctuary, and Mole National Park. But as I looked over my class’s itinerary, I was most excited to see our day-long excursion to Bolgatanga, a town in the Upper East region of Ghana that is the source of the elephantgrass “Bolga Baskets” I was familiar with from Plowshare.

Artisans around Bolgatanga carry their baskets to market. (source: Citizens in Waukesha carry them the last block or so!

On March 28, we set off for Bolgatanga from our hotel in the city of Tamale. The cool breezes and flashes of lightning we’d seen the night before had got our hopes up for rain, and those hopes were answered. The dry season was almost over, and our guides and our professor, who had built relationships in Tamale and surrounding villages over previous trips, were especially glad at the evidence that it wouldn’t be another year of drought.

Bolgatanga is about 100 miles north of Tamale, a ride which took us over two hours. The cool weather continued—it was only in the low nineties rather one hundred-plus! Our professor had warned us that yes, in the north it was a dry heat, “But so is an oven.” Just twenty miles farther north was the border of Burkina Faso, where you could find the beginning of the Sahel, the semi-arid grasslands on the southern border of the Sahara Desert.

Bolga is known as the crafts center of the Upper East region, known for its baskets, clothing, and leather work. Many of these crafts are sold at its large central market, open every third day, although unfortunately our visit wasn’t at the right time to see it. Still, I was delighted to spot plenty of colorful baskets being transported along the busy streets.

The organization we came to see, the Centre for Sustainable Development Initiatives (CENSUDI), invited us to meet two groups of their artisans. One gathered at a resource center for persons with disabilities. The people there told us their stories of self-advocacy and how they developed accommodations for each other. One woman translated our questions into ASL for her friend, and they told us how they had learned it from a previous visitor some years before (which is why they used American sign language, one of the more than a hundred sign languages throughout the world). Weaving baskets offered the members of the group an assessable source of income. Some of the artisans showed us their work and let us take pictures of the process. Others brought out the baskets they had already completed. We were amazed not only at the skill that went into making the baskets, but also the creative patterns created with dyed grasses and the diversity of shapes and sizes, including some I hadn’t yet seen in the U.S. I bought the biggest one I could find, with bands of a beautiful purple dye, as a gift for a friend.

The second artisan group we went to see was a cooperative of rural women. On our ride, our Ghanaian guide shared one of his disappointments: although craftspeople still make lots of traditional baskets for export, far fewer people use the baskets in daily life than they did even a generation ago. Instead most shoppers carry their purchases in small, inexpensive plastic bags. I still remember passing groves of trees with branches thick with scraps of discarded black plastic, and in Accra on trash-burning day the particles of burning plastic had caused coughing fits.

However, one group still used baskets: the women who sold snacks and other small items from large, flat baskets balanced on their heads. They walked between rows of traffic to reach their customers, drivers and passengers. My professor was excited to see her first ripe mangoes of the year and our guide called the vendor over. When our red traffic light turned green before they could complete the transaction, he invited the young woman on board to ride with us for a few blocks as we carefully—and a bit chaotically—transferred her entire stock, nine bowls of five small mangoes each, into our own bags. Each bowlful was one cedi, or about 50 cents. When my professor gave her a 10 cedi bill and encouraged her to keep the change, the vendor walked off with a huge smile. Still, afterwards we couldn’t help considering that the windfall she clearly appreciated was only $5 US. The basket I had bought was 15 cedis, which to me still seemed startlingly inexpensive but was half again the earnings of her day’s work.

The women we visited had gathered on a farm about fifteen minutes out of town. The ground was bare and brown at the end of months without rain, with patches of dry grass and a rare handful of green-leaved trees offering shade. Every so often we’d spot a pair of black and white guinea fowl, a common poultry bird that tastes like chicken and was especially delicious in groundnut (peanut) soup. The women themselves sat under a shaded roof beside their homes with their woven baskets waiting for us. Their husbands were at work in the fields or doing other business in town. The baskets these women made supplemented their families’ income from farming. They showed us another new handicraft I hadn’t seen before—toy rattles made of tiny woven baskets filled with seeds. Although my luggage was already full with the basket I purchased in town, I made sure to buy a rattle as a thank-you gift for one of the donors who had sponsored our fundraising efforts for the trip, and as part of the purchases my entire class made as a thank-you to the women for meeting with us.

The women told us about how the extra money they made from weaving baskets helped them buy food and school supplies for their children. We asked what was one thing visitors like us could do to help. They wanted to connect with larger markets and customers in America and elsewhere, so they could be able to sell more and earn a better living. They knew that given our travelling and studies in sustainable development, we could do a lot to help spread the word about their work.

Back in Tamale after another two-hour ride, I spent the evening in my room alone, writing in my journal and, I have to admit, feeling a bit homesick. Buying presents for my friends had reminded me of how long it would be until I could see them again and how far away we were. Still, I’m glad I had the chance to take the trip and learn so much about the work people do to lift themselves and others out of poverty, including the story behind the baskets at Plowshares. Now I sometimes feel nostalgic for Ghana, and the baskets here in Wisconsin remind me of the people who welcomed me and created them.