How language barrier led him to weaving

Sunday September 29 2019

Due to its history of various occupants and the

Due to its history of various occupants and the focus on trade, Zanzibar has a rich and diverse cultural heritage. This is evident in the range of traditional crafts that are still being produced today, which are now popular tourist souvenirs. Tourism is an important source of revenue for the locals. 

By Salome Gregory

It was during this year’s Zanzibar International Film Festival when I met Majaliwa Kahela, a Kikoi weaver in Stone Town.

As always, during this time Zanzibar is filled with both tourists and locals who frequent the Old Fort in Stone Town for the festival.

On a sunny Friday afternoon, inside the Old Fort, people were walking around shops and tents selling traditional souvenirs. Some were enjoying food and drinks at a small hotel inside the Old Fort.

On the left handside, just after the first two shops from the entrance is an open space where a lot of scarves, wrappers, shoes, laptop bags and school bags were on display, next to a handmade fly shuttle weaving machine.

A group of about seven people stood in front of the machine, admiring Majaliwa Kahela, 27, who was weaving using both hands and legs. His weaving style and skills attracted the attention of almost everyone who passed by his stall.

While he used his legs to arrange the threads on the machine, he used his hands to ensure everything was in it’s right place to avoid messing with the measurement of the scarf that he was working on.

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Majaliwa’s journey into weaving started way back in 2014 at the Vocational Educational Training Authority (VETA) centre in Tabora, where he did two years training in handloom weaving.

He chose weaving after wasting a whole two years studying auto electric and auto body repair at the same college without gaining any skills. The training was too theoretical than practical, he says.

“I used to dodge classes as I did not understand English, which was the language of instruction. I would join my uncle who was working as a bus conductor for a bus plying Mutukula, Mwanza, Musoma, Rusumo and Tabora routes.”

His uncle advised him to make sure he did his exams so he would obtain a certificate at the end of the training programme. He promised to attach him to a garage for practical once he got his certificate.

Things did not work out according to plan for Majaliwa never got the certificate as he failed the exams. He had to find another course that was more practical and this is how he ended up training in weaving.

After completing the year-long-course, Majaliwa wanted to start his own business. However, he could not afford buying a weaving machine.

He instead volunteered at VETA for eight months, which helped him gain more experience. He also learnt more about weaving machine maintenance and how to balance the measurements to get well weaved scarves.

On his ninth month at VETA in 2015, his teacher connected him with a man in Zanzibar who owned a looming machine and wanted to employ someone. This was good news given that he earned little money as a volunteer.

When he arrived in Zanzibar, he found that the machine he was to work with was too old. When it rained, the machine was never covered, something that made Majaliwa’s work difficult. Also, his employer was not ready to repair the machine. All he wanted was money.

“I was paid per production and rainy days meant there was no money for me since I could not weave in the rain. I had to look for another job,” says Majaliwa.

In 2016, he started working at some furniture centre where he learnt how to make furniture. He saved money with which he bought wood to make his own looming machine.

Majaliwa decided to call it quits after his employer failed to pay him his Sh500,000 he owed him. Seven months later, one of his weaving clients asked him if they could start a weaving business together.

This was a good idea because Majaliwa already had the wood needed to make a weaving machine. He made a weaving machine and sold it to his new partner.

Their business took off in August 2016. However, their partnership lasted for only six moths after which they split following a loss.

“My partner was mad at me due to the loss and since he knew nothing about weaving, he decided to sell me the machine. That is how I started my own business in January 2017,” says Majaliwa.

Getting clients was a challenge, which necessitated Majaliwa to move from Jozani National Reserve to Stone Town where there are a lot of tourists. This was a good decision as he started getting new customers. He started with 12 kilogrammes of thread in two months, which he used to buy for Sh13,200 a kilo. Currently he buys up to 50 kilogrammes for two months.

Since he operates in an open space, his work normally stalls during the rains. He also depends on the mercy of a fellow trader, where he keeps his machines and other property in the evening after work.

“Keeping my things in my neighbour’s shop means I can not start working until they open their shop. This is a challenge.”

Getting thread is also a challenge since he now orders from Arusha directly, which is costly. It was much easier when he used to buy from an agent in Dar es Salaam.

“Ordering from Arusha means you can not order less than 12 kilogrammes, even if you need less,” says Majaliwa. In a day he weaves between three to five Kikois, and sells one at Sh30,000.

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