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November 8, 2010 / Dan Whipple

Karibu, Wazungu!

Sisal plants, some with <i>panga</i> marks

Sisal plants, some with panga marks

As we approached the little settlement after visiting the wetlands, four or five small boys bounced out of the schoolhouse chanting, “Ka-ri-bu! Wa-zun-gu!. This is Swahili for “Welcome, white folks.”

We were a collection of (mostly) white folks in five four-wheel-drive vehicles, looking at places wazungu don’t usually see. We were there at the invitation of the local game warden and conservation director, William, who is demonstrating to the local people that their relatively unspoiled ecosystem is one that outsiders will come see. He was not only showing us some nice places, but building local support for environmental protection.

Bundling the sisal

Bundling the sisal

The town—which I think was called Lomolo, but can’t swear to it—produces sisal for rope and sacks. I’d never given much thought to rope before. But here it was in all its naked beauty.

There are many thousands of acres of yucca-like sisal growing around the town, all of which is harvested by hand with pangas—machetes. The women carry it in bundles on their heads from the fields to the side of the road, where it’s collected in trucks.

The leaves are crushed in a mechanical crusher that spews white water from its innards. Several workers sort the leaves, making sure it gets into the crusher with the proper orientation. It comes out the other side as a white fiber which is gathered in bundles and tied by hand. How it goes in green and comes out white remains one of life’s unexplained mysteries. There’s never a chemistry major around when you need one. Then it’s laid out to dry on racks in a vast field.

Bales of sisal

Bales of sisal

Some women collect these fibers and weave them, again by hand, on the spot. Most of it however, was bundled into big bales to be sent to machines elsewhere. One of the women—who declined to have her picture taken, except for money—showed us the difference in her hand-woven rope versus the machine weave. The hand-woven was tighter and thinner.

Kids in the village

Kids in the village


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