Digna Kinyaiya is a Chagga tribe woman from Shimbwe village on the slopes of mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
She is a traditional healer, a bar owner, and a weaver.
Her grandmother passed Digna her knowledge and position as the village’s traditional doctor. The knowledge can only passed forward to her daughters and granddaughters, and so on down her feminine lineage.
Digna knows the herb for any discomfort or disease, and the village people come to her with variety of conditions to be treated locally and naturally, curtesy of the plentiful and giving land of the Kilimanjaro.
Her reputation reaches far beyond her village, and people travel to see her from all around the neighboring villages and even from far away tribes.
She also learned how to weave from her healer grandmother.
Her father was the one to teach her how to brew the Mbege- the traditional Chagga beer made of bananas and millet and fermented with quinine.
The old people’s bar
I first knew Digna as the owner of “the old people’s bar” as I like to call it. Sunday evenings are the most cheerful. The village’s Wazee, the old people (an honorary term in any African culture), the grandmothers and grandfathers come for the Mbege, listen to old dancing music called Katitu, and if the vibe is right, dance a little. When ever I danced along, spirits were high, and all around the old people’s bar is a happy place.
When I asked around where can I learn weaving the banana fibers, I was told to go talk to Digna.
A few days later… I’m in my Chagga dance wear and Ansalimu joins in.
The sound of banana leaves
At first I didn’t pay much attention to the banana trees that were all around me. And then, the more I stayed, I started hearing the beautiful sound they make when the wind blows through their leaves. It sounds like it’s raining… I’ve watched the colorful birds that were so happy around the wide green leaves providing them shelter from the rain and predators. I’ve seen the heavy banana clusters hanging from the trees, promising nourishment to the village families. And the brown banana fibers that were peeling off the stems woke up memories deep inside me. I knew I could collect these dried up fibers and weave!
I could see it in my mind, but didn’t exactly know how to actually do it. A soft distant memory from another life, but I still needed to find myself a teacher.
Weaving class in a bar
Digna gladly agreed to be my teacher, and we made plans to meet the next day at four in the afternoon, the time she opens the bar every day. As I made my way to the bar, there she was coming up the red soil road gracefully carrying the bundle of banana fibers on her head, ready for our first class.
Digna is 49. One year younger than me and she’s a grandmother. The children call her Bibi (grandmother) as a term of respect. She is always warm and loving to all the children of the village and knows all of them by name. They come with me to my weaving lessons, and actually anywhere else as well…
Here are 3 videos of the Chagga weaving technique up close, in case you want to try it. Better yet, of course, would be to come see Digna…
Chagga land lays on the eastern and southern slopes of the plentiful and generous Kilimanjaro mountain. The red lava soil is fertile and giving, and the banana trees are the most precious treasure for the Chagga people.
Bananas are life. Green bananas, also called plantain, provide year round nutritious meals, usually cooked with beans or meat. Even if food is scarce, they will always have a full stomach. They will always have bananas. It’s definitely Banana Land!
Banana fibers, the dried fiber stripped off the stem, are used to weave mats, baskets, bowls, sifters, and in the old times were also used for weaving sleeping mats, headdress and skirts for dancing in tribal celebrations, and much more.
A forgotten craft brought to life
I started off with learning how to weave a basket. At the same time Digna was already effortlessly half way into weaving simultaneously a mat and a skirt, so she can show me how it used to be in the old times.
The next few days at Digna’s bar were a real celebration for everyone.
The wazee coming for their daily Mbege beer time were deeply touched to see the old craft coming back to life. The grandfathers were full of stories on how life used to be. The grandmothers with shiny eyes and happy smiles were telling me how they used to weave all they needed for their house hold.
The children were trying to learn the craft exchanging knowledgeable remarks among themselves.
And Digna was being praised by her elders for her abilities both as a weaver and as my teacher.
When I finished my first basket I too was receiving praises from the wazee, both for my work and for bringing back happy memories from their past.
And so, I reconnected with my love for banana trees that was forgotten deep inside me. I hope that this beautiful experience that came out of my weaving lessons, will grow on for the new generation that was born into an age in which cheap market housewares replaced the traditional craft that takes time and effort.
Now it’s Victor and Digna’s turn…
Digna became one of my favorite people in the village, and a delicate friendship was starting to form, trying to override the language barrier. She is a gentle good hearted woman, curious about me just as much as I am about her. Every day I came to “class” in her bar she had another weaved ornament or houseware ready to show me.
Digna is an artist.
She definitely has both passion and talent.
After my first basket I started practicing on my own and we enjoyed sharing our designs with each other.
I do hope to see her again in her wonderful bar on the side of the mountain…
And if you come to Chagga land on the slopes of the Kilimanjaro, to the village of Shimbwe, I hope you will be asking for Digna, for weaving lessons or just for a drink in her old people’s bar. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.
For a visit to Shimbwe village and all it’s hidden treasures- please contact Shimboni Africa Tours.
Victor who runs the company was born in Shimbwe and he was the one who introduced me to his village’s good and gentle people. More about Shimbwe village in my travel tips.
Shimbwe village, Kilimanjaro, Tanzania.
The story about Digna and the needle- read it here!