With hand-woven Bolga, or Bolgatanga baskets gaining in popularity, I wanted to share a few tips with buyers to ensure you get the basket you want.
First, is the basket new, or used? If the seller doesn't state the condition, I would ask. Often a new basket will have a rustic hang-tag that was attached before the basket left Africa.
Is it really a "Bolga basket"? Traditional Bolga baskets, made in Bolgatanga, Ghana, have several identifying characteristics. They have one handle, never two. They are round in shape. The circular bottom portion of the basket, which is where the weaving is begun, is always created using natural, undyed grass. A variation on the round basket is the two-handled marketing basket, which has a more rectangular shape. This basket is also made in Bolgatanga, but is a different basket entirely.
Can you see the color and the pattern clearly? The uniqueness and beauty of a traditional Bolga basket is very much about the colors chosen by the weaver, and the patterning she has applied. There are countless color combinations and patterns available. If you are having difficulty clearly SEEING either the pattern or color due to the quality or scarcity of the sellers photographs, I would email for additional pictures.
Is a thorough description of the basket's size provided? Bolga baskets vary from very small to extremely large. Just looking at a photograph in an attempt to gauge size can be deceptive. It is very easy for a seller to claim that the basket is "huge", "monstrous" or "jumbo" is no measurements are provided to back up those claims. The seller should provide you with the following measurements: circumference, which is the distance all the way around the rim, diameter, which is the distance from edge to edge, height of the body of the basket, without the handles, and height of the handle. An average-sized Bolga basket will run around 45" in circumference, 15" in diameter, and have a height of 8", with the handles adding another 6".
Does the basket have leather handle wrapping? This is a nice touch, and makes the basket much more comfortable to carry. Inside the leather wrap are multiple strands of the grass the basket was woven from. The leather protects them, while softening the handle against your skin.
Are any flaws disclosed? Sometimes even the finest baskets arrive in the USA with some sort of minor flaw, such a discoloration on the leather handle, or loose surface wrapping. These may not matter a bit to you if you love the basket, but it is nice to know about them before you buy.
Has the basket been shaped for you, or will that be YOUR job? Shaping a Bolga basket is not difficult, but perhaps it is something you don't have the time or desire to do. If the basket in the picture appears lop-sided or lumpy, or doesn't appear to stand well on its own, odds are it has NOT been shaped. I recently noticed a seller that way disclosing in her "fine print" that the basket will be flattened into a box for shipping. This means you WILL be shaping it upon arrival.
What about Fair Trade? The decision about whether to support Fair Trade sellers is a personal one. Often, the Fair Trade seller's basket will cost more, because the seller PAID more for the basket. This is because the spirit of Fair Trade demands, especially when purchasing from poorer or Third World countries, that the crafts-person who created the basket be paid a "fair" price, and that does not mean the lowest price. Fair Trade also guarantees that no child labor will be employed. So essentially, a Fair Trade seller is shopping in a marketplace where they could choose to pay LESS, and instead are choosing to pay MORE. This is a personal ethical issue. The upside of purchasing Fair Trade for you, the buyer, is that often the weavers give their best work to their Fair Trade buyers. In addition, the concept of Fair Trade may make sense to, or appeal to you. Creating a traditional Bolga Basket takes 3 days of work, which seems a lot to me. I feel good about the fact that the women who created the baskets I sell were fairly compensated for all that work.
Bolga baskets provide an opportunity to buy a traditional piece of African craft-work at a reasonable price and by doing so, enable the tradition to continue. They make wonderful gifts. Bolga baskets will carry or store anything. They are incredibly strong, virtually indestructible and may be sprayed off with water if soiled. The grass fibers are soft and densely woven, so they won't snag your yarns or scratch your children's hands. Bolgas are great for shopping, as well as yarn or other craftwork, toys, gardening, magazines, etc. and are as distinctively beautiful as they are utilitarian. Bolgatanga, Ghana is an area where the soil does not support much farming and many families depend upon the income their women earn creating these baskets. I take great joy in selling them, and my buyers seem to very much enjoy them, as well.