The Story of LATTICE and the Zulu Basket
The mission of LATTICE has been to change teachers’ thinking in ways that bring global and international perspectives into their classrooms. Since 1995, LATTICE participants from 54 countries have worked together with K-12 teachers and administrators from 13 school districts in Michigan to heighten their awareness, sensitivity and understanding of global issues, including in particular ethnic, cultural and religious diversity.
In 1996, as the founder and director of LATTICE, I was fortunate to meet some South Africans who were willing to develop educational links between their communities and mine. After studying Zulu for a year, I visited Empangeni-Richards Bay in Kwazulu-Natal Province in 1997, where I met an elementary school principal, Thandi Mhlongo, who agreed to visit me and the LATTICE group in East Lansing.
During Thandi’s visit to the USA in 1998 she visited Chicago as well as East Lansing since our son Matthew the artist lives there. We happened to stop by the Chicago Art Institute one day when three artists from Senegal were demonstrating their weaving, carving and clay work to some Chicago 5th graders and we immediately knew that we were going to figure out a way to bring Zulu artists to Michigan.
In 1999 Kellogg foundation helped us do just that and a basketweaver and a bead artist came to Michigan for three weeks. They demonstrated their arts and told their stories in schools, museums and other centers in our community. And during that time we learned that most of the weavers are single parents who struggle to find the means to pay for their children’s school fees and uniforms. With unemployment as high as 70% up in the hills where they live, the poverty is overwhelming!
The LATTICE teachers then decided to have the weavers send baskets to Michigan so that more baskets could be sold and more of the artists’ children could go to school. It wasn’t long before we stopped asking galleries to sell the baskets and began instead to fund the education of additional children recommended by the local educators in KwaZulu Natal Province. To date, basket sales have funded over 200 k-12 scholarships and four college scholarships! College expenses can be up to $3000 a year. K-12 tuition, books, and uniforms including shoes can cost $300. LATTICE Scholarship Students in College are studying economics, mechanical engineering, public administration and education and accounting.
One time when I visited the artists in South Africa, they showed me how they dyed the ilala palm by placing it in the mud by the river, soaking it in a large tin can which was filled with water and more cans, boiling it with leaves from a bush which produced a mauve color or boiling it with berries which produced a brown color. It takes them from four days to four weeks to complete a basket depending on the size of the basket and the complexity of the design.
At one time, the baskets were used to carry and store the kernels of corn. Some people told me that the baskets were even used to hold the famous Zulu beer that is made from corn. One simply rubbed the inside of the basket with some of the corn porridge called Bop before putting in the liquid. Today there are many plastic containers available in South Africa just like there are here in the USA so the baskets are more ornamental than practical. Likewise, all Zulus used to live in round mud huts called rondavels but today many of them live in rectangular, concrete block homes. Some of these artists, however, still live in the thatched roof rondavels where they sit on the smooth, black, cow-dung floor and weave in the coolness of this ancient style of housing.
These artists all finished high school and studied English. Many of them could converse with me in English. Until my visit, they had only sold their baskets at the entrance to the famous wildlife reserve Hluhluwe-Umfolozi where the nearly extinct white rhino was saved. The women sent their baskets with one of their friends but none of them put her name on her basket. When I told them that their baskets would be exhibited at a gallery in Michigan where their names and photographs would be displayed along with their baskets, they wept with joy and amazement. I told them that LATTICE considered them to be artists and gave them each a medal showing a handshake that symbolized the LATTICE teachers congratulating them, the artists. All LATTICE basket sales include the names of the basket weavers.