Traditional crafts from the Swahili coast

Here are some traditional crafts I came across in Zanzibar and Bagamoyo in Tanzania. Mostly made of coconut trees, befitting the Swahili culture of the East African coast…
Hamid the Makuti weaver at work
Hamid the Makuti weaver at work

In my journey I’m not specifically looking for traditional crafts, but am always happy to find them along the way.

Some crafts are disappearing and only practiced by few, mostly the old people of the village. Some, in an ironic twist, thrive thanks to the tourism industry, or more specifically, thanks to us. We come to Africa hoping to see African looking things. Traditional huts, for example, although local construction has long opted for tin roofs over thatched ones…

Mama Ally’s weaving

Mama Ally and me
Mama Ally and me

When I spent time at Mama Ally’s home in Bagamoyo, during the coming of age initiation of Maua and Zena, I often sat by her when she was weaving.

In her free time, usually after lunch when it’s too hot for anything else, she used to work on her new mat with peaceful pleasure.


 I tried to figure out which plant she was using, but I only have the Swahili name for you. In any case it’s called Ukindu tree. Some of the leaves are dyed naturally, I didn’t stay long enough to watch the coloring process, for creating patterns in the mat. 

Watch her technique in these videos I took…

Mat weaving

3 Videos

My special gift

When I returned to visit Bagamoyo just recently, Mama Ali gave me a special gift- the mat she was weaving a year before when I was sitting next to her relaxing after lunch…

Mama Ally's mat
Thank you Mama Ally!

Ropes from coconut hairs

Coconut ropes

On a walk in Jambiani village in Zanzibar, we came across a bibi- grandmother- sitting in the yard making ropes from the coconut hairs.

Nowadays when plastic ropes are available in the local shops, hardly anybody is making ropes naturally. It’s time consuming and hard work.

First she asked that we only take pictures of her hands and didn’t seem to be very happy with us, but slowly she softened and invited us the next day to see the next step of her work. But, the journey drew us in other directions…

Makuti weaving

Makuti weaving out of coconut leaves is still very much used to my delight. It’s used to create breathable walls and roofs suitable for the warm weather, fences, and also as a decorative element that looks very “African” to us tourists…

Makuti wall in my favourite food stand:

Makuti wall

I met Hamid at Orit’s hostel in the village of Kizimkazi in Zanzibar. She called him to cover the gate with makuti. Hamid is really a Makoti expert and works fast and beautifully. 

It was an amusing moment when Daudi, the hostel’s guard, tried to learn the weaving. The Swahili culture is as new for Daudi the Maasai as it is to people coming from far away countries.

Daudi learing how to weave

Hamid lost his patience pretty quick, and I got a cute, cross-cultural video… Daudi the Maasai warrior from inland Tanzania, Hamid the Swahili born into the Zanzibari culture, and me, the curious Western…

Coconut rice

Okay, this one is not exactly a craft, but really delicious, and requires a lot of work…

One of my most wonderful memories that stayed with me, aroma and all, is the first time I got off the bus in Bagamoyo. I was 27, about to have a life altering experience, and starving… 

I followed an intoxicating smell all the way to one of the food vendors in the market. The smell was of coconut rice in coconut. I remember every bite, and I remember thinking to myself with supreme happiness, that this is a dish worthy of a queen in her palace!

23 years later, I photographed these food mamas on the side of the road in Bagamoyo, preparing the coconut that will then be cooked with the rice, sending fragrances to a traveler from a different story maybe…

I even tried to scrape the coconut myself, on the wonder chair… Not as easy as I thought it would be!

This chair is called in Swahili kikuna mbuzi, meaning in very loose translation, the chair of the goat!

Me on the coconut chair:

These are just a tiny bit of the rich Swahili traditional crafts culture. I will continue to share as I go.

Read about more traditional crafts I ran across in my travels…



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About Me

Hi, I’m the Wandering Goddess.

My life in a nutshell – B.A. in anthropology, a life changing one year journey in East Africa at 26, followed by Shamanic initiation, tribal wisdom & femininity studies, then, giving in-depth workshops for women and girls, tribal storytelling to children… And at 50, coming back to my Mama Africa to bring you more inspiration on our original way of life.

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