Artisans have been weaving the raffia cloth into the ‘Kuba Square’ or ‘Kasai Velvet’ for 400 years. To the Bakuba people, a cluster of about 16 Bantu-speaking groups in southeastern Congo, it is a precious item, used as a currency or gift for visiting tribal chiefs, newly-married couples at a wedding, or grieving families at a funeral. As tradition goes, only pregnant women can weave the square, while men take on embroidering duties. The indigenous tribe was the first to use geometric patterns for decoration.
The cloth is made of raffia palm leaves, which have both flexibility and strength. They are usually collected from the forests by men, then cut and dried. Women colour and process them; the end product is durable and versatile. Raffia cloth is an ideal material for spinning baskets, carpets, furniture and hats.
When she was 15 years old, Shumba learnt the spinning skills that would allow her to weave raffia cloth from her mother. Now older than 50, she is a master of her art.
Shumba is among those who make these beautiful handmade treasures, and at the heart of her motivation are her children. She gave birth to 10 children, one of whom has died. Her craft still enables her to send her sons and daughters to school, but she says that demand is dwindling compared with previous times.
The raffia cloth’s demise would be a real shame. For many, there are family stories encoded in the geometric patterns. By the 20th century, the cloth’s majesty inspired artists such as Mattisse and Picasso.
Shumba’s story is one of heritage and hope in a country that is plagued by war, famine and abuse.
And this gift - a fine handmade product, is a symbol of that hope. Yours might be around 100 years old, and we recommend you handle it carefully and frame it under glass.
We hope you enjoy its beauty, from the Al Jazeera Media Network and Qatar Charity.