Sisal baskets and plants need a lot more than tender love

Sisal baskets and plants need a lot more than tender love

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I would not be writing this story if I had not been so gullible to the facades of social media. Scrolling through my Instagram timeline, seeing interior decor hacks I fancied and blindly imitating them. I’m desperate to separate myself from my sins, but I’m reminded of them at every turn — from the words on this page and to Instagram, mostly by my unusable sisal basket. It is spineless now.

Collapses in a damp misshapen pile on my balcony. I can smell it from where I sit in the dining room writing this. It reeks of the gullibility of an inexperienced fool.

I bought that and a handful of other baskets from a grandmotherly woman at Kariokor Market, Nairobi. I saved her number in my phone as Mama Mbete. Mama Mbete told me she weaves the baskets herself. She and other women from her hometown in Kitui use locally grown sisal and a traditional skill I imagine is elegant, exemplary and ethereal.

I saved Mama Mbete’s number because I wanted to order later more baskets in a custom size and custom colours. I had seen folk on Instagram sitting their houseplants in similar baskets. Others were using them to hold their toddlers’ toys in the living room. A handful stuffed them with accent throw pillows and placed the basket in an abandoned corner. Different strokes for different folks. My plan was to imitate all those strokes.

Mama Mbete did not share care instructions for her baskets. I did not bother to ask either. Surely, how difficult would it be to care for it? The problem, though, was not that I did not know how to care for a handwoven sisal basket. It is that I did not know how to care for a potted houseplant sitting in a handwoven sisal basket.


Houseplants are my newfound passion. I have several on my balcony. The only plant I sat in a basket was a fern. Everything I could do wrong with caring for houseplants, I did: I watered them too much (bucketfuls every other day instead of a cupful twice a week); I gave them too much time, too much attention, as if they were newborn babies (sometimes, in the mornings, I would sit with them for five minutes talking to them and monitoring new shoots for maturity. I once considered playing them classical music).

I also did not understand the variety of the plants and the soil they were planted in. Hell, I did not understand why their clay pots were made the way they were. Did I mention I watered them too much? I was drowning the plants, smothering them to death with my inexperience. For the fern, especially, the muddy water leaked through the draining holes of its pot, flooded the stand and spilt over to the basket. Nobody on Instagram had warned me about this.

Sisal is the most popular material for weaving these baskets. The sisal thread is from a fibre of the sisal leaf. It is naturally a dull brown, the colour of tea.

The threads are dyed to create a rainbow of colours. Sisal in Kenya is grown on a large scale in Kitui, Machakos and Taita-Taveta counties. There are pockets of small-scale plantations in Homa Bay and Migori. I have not encountered any baskets woven from there, though.

Iringa is another weaving material. It is a special type of grass grown in Tanzania. Baskets made from iringa feel stiffer than those made from sisal. They also appear artificial. Then there is recycled plastic. It is the least visually appealing but the most versatile of the materials. Baskets made from recycled plastic seem immortal to the elements of nature.

Brown leather jazzes up these simple-looking bare baskets. Artisans optionally line the rims with leather and affix handles. There’s a section in Kariokor Market where all this jazzing up is done, at an extra cost.

What Mama Mbete should have told me about care is, “Sisal is a hardy material but the basket will fade if you expose it to lengthy periods of sunlight. Be careful when leaving it on your balcony or in the outdoor.

“A little water won’t ruin the basket, just dry it in the sun. If it remains wet or damp for too long, though, the sisal will weaken and the basket will mould. It will be permanently ruined. Line its insides with something waterproof if you intend to sit your potted plants in them.”


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