Potting Past and Present

Anne Griffiths
Anne Griffiths

In the course of going to potters to find out where they source their clays to target sources for artefacts made thousands of years ago it became apparent that this was a field in which women were very much present. It was an activity in which women participated and which contributed towards their economic empowerment.  This was an interesting observation because many of these women were female heads of households representing unmarried women with children and grandchildren. This is because the government of Botswana acknowledges that in Botswana female-headed households feature disproportionately among the poor and vulnerable. Indeed this is something which is more generally acknowledged, with the growing body of research on gender and access to resources that lies at the heart of international and transnational organizations, like the United Nations (UN), World Bank and the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) that have poverty reduction at the heart of their global initiatives (UN 2008; World Bank 2006; UNDP 2005; DFID 2004, 2008; SIDA 2002).

In recent years they have expanded the concept of poverty to include not only material deprivation but powerlessness and vulnerability in order to uphold principles of good governance and accountability that underpin development. Within this context it is globally acknowledged that women and children feature disproportionately among the poor. The Botswana government notes that “studies worldwide have shown that the impact of population growth on poverty is strongest at the micro-level, that is, at the level of households and communities” acknowledging that “poverty remains one of the major development challenges for Botswana” (NDP9:24). Indeed in recognition of this, I believe the government here has now shifted from talking about the alleviation to the eradication of poverty.

So our preliminary observation, that women who were potters were managing to negotiate their way out of poverty through informal sector activities and support their families, suggested a pertinent area for study. All the more so because our initial study found that contrary to published sources a significant number of women in Botswana continue to work as full or part time potters, making wares by traditional hand built methods.

These women range in age from their mid-30s to late-60s. Many have grown up in, and are now heads of, female-headed households; the majority have never married but almost all have children. Unlike most such households that rank among the poorest in Botswana today, these households are relatively well resourced enabling the women to build modern cement block houses, to fund education for their children and grandchildren, and often to support other members of their family. This runs counter to the experience of most female heads of households who are unable to escape the net of poverty

This raised a series of questions that we wanted to pursue in our research. These included:-

  • who are the women who make pots and what age range/generational status do they cover?
  • how did they learn to make pots? i.e. is their knowledge and expertise a form of human capital that is handed down from generation to generation
  • the socio-geographic extent of a potter’s procurement needs (the process of hand firing on the  ground does not need extensive investment in equipment like furnaces); access to sources of clay from communal lands does not require money for acquisition, but not all women have such access (women also may have to invest time and money in buying a wheel barrow, or paying a lorry owner, to transport clay from depositional locations to the family home where it will be made into pots).
  • who buys their pots (given that the Government of Botswana maintains that there is no market in pots with reference to exports and crafts )?  – the range and distribution of their market and how they acquire their customers – by word of mouth, etc.
  • how their households are constituted and the range of family members who live there and are supported by these women.

This information would enable us to analyse those factors that have enabled these potters to operate as successful entrepreneurs and to overcome the constraints that are normally faced by women in  both social and economic terms.

In addressing these questions we decided to look at the different types of potting that exists in 3 areas. In Tswapong at Pilikwe and Manaledi, in Kweneng where I am studying land distribution, and to acquire contrasting data about potters who are men at Tsodilo among Hambukushu.

Pilikwe - Anne Griffiths discussing with potters
Pilikwe – Anne Griffiths discussing with potters

For more than half a century pottery-making by traditional hand-made methods was thought to be a dying craft in Botswana. And it is true that many fewer potters are at work today than were active as late as the 1920s and 30s. Rra Boy Motonto, born in Pilikwe in 1927, told us that in his youth every household in the village had at least one potter who kept her family well supplied with cooking pots, water jars, and storage vessels. A hundred years ago the same was true in the majority of villages throughout the country. For many generations these potters had learned their craft from mothers and grandmothers and passed the skill to daughters. Although in a few places around Botswana potting continued, and continues, to be learned and practiced in the old way, this time-honoured custom came to an end fairly rapidly in Pilikwe.

Gobotsamang Motonto, Rra Boy’s 69 year old wife, is a key person in the organisation of potting and its production, began to learn potting from her grandmother when she was a young girl but did not continue her apprenticeship because clay pots went out of fashion in the village, replaced by enamelware basins and pails and three-legged iron cooking pots. Rra Boy and other men of the village were the agents of this transformation: they went to work on the South African mines. Their absence compelled the women to take on a far larger share of farming tasks, leaving little time for potting. So they turned to the easily available store-bought wares, paying for them with the wages sent home by their men. Enamel and iron have now been largely replaced by aluminium and plastic, but there is also a revived interest in clay.
Gobotsamang took up potting again in 2002, learning at the development training centre for women, Kgetse ya Tsie, in Larala. Five other Pilikwe women have also taken up the craft as a means to increase their incomes; they have similar stories to tell. Otsetswe Senonki remembers that ‘her grandmother used to cook pots in the fire and she wanted to learn how to make them’, so in 1996, at the age of 47, she learned from Mma Lekoto Semathane, a skilled potter who is now in Molepolole nearing 90. Of the potters we have met, Otsetswe was the first to revive the craft. Her sister, Moipone Oatametse, who is 39 and began learning only last year, is the youngest to do so; Moipone also has a sculptor’s interest in clay and fashioned a figurine of a bull for Ed. Dineo Batsalelwang, age 65, and Omphile Kakwanda, 47, also learned from Mma Lekoto because, as Omphile said, ‘my mother used to pot but I did not learn from her because I was too young’ when potting went into decline. Batlhalefi Gaobatlelwe, 45, whose grandmother was a potter, started in 2006 and ‘had to learn from the women in the village here’, that is from Gobotsamang and Otsetswe. Batlhalefi ‘learned pots because they are a very good way of Tswana life that people make money from’. These sentiments are echoed by Dineo who is potting ‘to earn a living out of it and I love it’.
These women have come to potting as mature women who have developed this skill in order to improve their livelihoods and supplement their incomes. Potting is a good way for them to do so because compared to other activities (including decorative paper maché) its production costs are relatively low. It is worth noting that the younger women in this group have attained a higher level of education compared with the older women and in all cases their children and grandchildren have attended secondary school with a few of them going on to University.

Pilikwe - potters looking at brochure
Pilikwe – potters looking at brochure

Potting provides an important additional source of income for women who have relatively basic educational qualifications (none have a tertiary education), and only a few of whom have had any experience of formal employment, generally as shop assistants. Most of them cannot make a living from potting full time or potting alone. The organisation Kgetse Ya Tsie (KyT), based in Lerala, has played a major role in bringing women together and equipping them with skills that not only involve potting but encompass record keeping, finance, and business management. KyT began in 1997 as an initiative to assist Tswapong women, both socially and economically, by more effectively organising their entrepreneurial activities. Starting with small, five person resource user groups in nine villages, they moved on to federate their groups into local Village Centres. These Centres then formed an Association, registering as a grassroots Community Trust in 1999. Their most tangible achievement so far is that the members of KyT have increased their cash income by over 500%, from an average P440 in 1996 to over P3000 in 2003. As well, members have gained new confidence in themselves, many of whom have been appointed to serve on their respective Village Development Committees and other such bodies. What these women aspire to now is more exposure so that they can develop a broader marketing base. In some cases relatives have taken pots to nearby villages to advertise their existence, and interaction with the Botswana College of Agriculture has led to pots being transported as far as Gaborone when space in their trucks permits but there is a need for a more concrete and regularised form of exposure. To help promote their activities the women have applied for land in Pilikwe to create a centre which will not only act as a base for making pots but which can also serve as a centre for advertising their wares.


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