30 Travel Zambia May 2007 South Luangwa National Park’s international safari reputation has long brought tourism revenue to its local community. But the park has its hinterland: an area where wildlife numbers are too marginal for tourism and the human population is rising. With a finite number of jobs on offer, and large families to support, many people resort to subsistence farming. Unfortunately this lifestyle is often fraught with hazards, from devastating floods to large, crop-raiding beasts. Today, happily, there is an alternative: one that draws its inspiration from nature and harnesses the skills of local artisans. Tribal Textiles, a textiles company located in the middle of South Luangwa’s safari hub of Mfuwe, now provides work for over 150 local people. Turn off the airport road, past three pillars emblazoned with colourful dancing ladies, and you can see this miracle for yourself. A riot of colour and industry streams from a long, open-sided shed, all to the frenetic backbeat of rhumba Congolese, and the tic-tac and whirr of half a dozen Singer sewing machines. Washing lines are hung with fabrics of every imaginable hue and design. People bustle back and forth with bundles of material. In a sunlit courtyard, a Zambian girl displays a dazzling tablecloth to a khaki-clad European family. She plays them like a matador: the wife lunges for the piece and adds it to a pile on the counter. Material benefits Life can be tough for people living around a national park, and the tourist dollar can stretch only so far. But local enterprise offers a solution. Jake da Motta reports from South Luangwa on one innovative local business that is making a difference. Bedspreads fit for a riverbed? Heritage
May 2007 Travel Zambia 31 Tribal Textiles was born 15 years ago in a remote hunting camp just outside the park, when a young English woman called Gillie Lightfoot, bored with ballistics, dusted off her art school design books and paint-box. Inspired by the local wildlife, the ochre-tinted designs on the village huts and the sitenje-swaddled women weaving up from the river, she began to design textiles. With Moses Mussa, still her manager and right-hand man, she perfected the technique of starch resist fabric painting. Together they dug termite mound mud to make clay bricks, built a wood-fired oven to fix the paints, and employed the painters’ wives to scrape the starch from the finished pieces. Local safari lodges soon began to sport new bedspreads and tablecloths, and before long even the most backcountry bush camp had a battered tin trunk of gorgeous fabrics for sale to clients. Before she knew it, Gillie’s hobby had become a passion and her cottage industry, in the parlance of the hunter, went ‘rogue’. Today Tribal textiles sells not only to souvenir-hunting tourists, but also exports to Europe, USA and Japan, as well as supplying a thriving regional market in South Africa, Kenya, Malawi and Tanzania. Local know-how has been boosted by international systems, and overseas experts – from management consultants to art school graduates – have come over to share their skills. A visit to the workshop is a feast for the eyes and soul. A constant happy banter flows between the tables where the artists are at work: the ‘starchers’ deftly draw the intricate designs freehand with a flour paste mixture; the ‘mixers’, using an uncanny eye and wooden spoons, mix fabric paints to match the swatches on their sample boards; and the ‘painters’ apply the colours to starched and dried pieces with precision and panache. It’s hectic, busy and, most importantly, seems like fun. What might be a sweatshop anywhere else seems instead to exude an indomitable African joie de vivre. Tribal Textiles looks set to get bigger, which means more jobs – and more incentives and bonuses for those who excel. Anyone who knows anything of rural African culture understands the difference that just one regular wage makes in a household full of extended family. You can multiply the number of staff at Tribal Textiles by about ten to get a measure of how many people directly benefit from jobs there: that’s ten people who would otherwise lack the school uniform required by law to gain a free education, the money needed to reach the clinic and receive free drugs, or the cash to buy seed maize for planting. And because this is a private business supporting the families of everyone employed there, including Gillie, it has to work. It has to run efficiently, it has to get better every year and pay better wages. There are no donor handouts to balance the books. And with Tribal Textiles having now gained the Fair Trade seal of approval, you can eat off one of their tablecloths with a clearer conscience than you can wear many of your clothes. Ultimately Gillie’s dream is to orchestrate a staff buyout, thus placing the company firmly in the hands of the people who have painted it to success. This is the Holy Grail so seldom achieved in the multi-billion dollar world of development aid. Don’t put it past her. Tribal Textiles is located close to Mfuwe International Airport, about 25km from the main entrance to South Luangwa National Park. Most camps and lodges in the park offer visits and workshop tours. Visitors can watch the textiles being made and purchase a wide range of hand-painted products. To learn more about Tribal Textiles, and browse their catalogue, visit: www.tribaltextiles.com “You can eat off one of their tablecloths with a clearer conscience than you can wear many of your clothes.” ALL PHOTOS TRIBAL TEXTILES Artists at Tribal Textiles (above, top) use flair and precision to create garments that are both gorgeous and practical (left).