The word Ubugenegene means art and craft in Kirundi, the language of Burundi. In recent decades though, the word has taken on a new meaning – ubugenegene now means joker, a joke, or something that isn’t serious. So if you were to say a person works as an artisan in Kirundi, it’s the same as saying that person’s work is a joke; they’re just joking around.
However, at Kaz’O’zah Art we take the artisanal sector very seriously!
An artisan weaving
Burundian craftsmanship has been used for thousands of years to create items for traditional and practical uses, such as beads for ornaments or pots for cooking. Artisans were essential in all communities and earned a decent living from their skills and trade. However, the recent past in Burundi has seen a decline in the use of artisan-made products and a preference for cheaper, mostly imported, mass-produced products. Despite the fact that the artisanal trade requires diligence, artistry, and a high level of technical skill, artisans begun to lose their value in society and so began to be thought of as just joking around – ubugenegene.
With this decline in prestige and decline in customers to sell to, the lifestyle and living conditions of Burundi’s artisans has declined and artisans today often struggle to feed themselves and their families, to educate their children or put a roof over their head.
This is where we see an opportunity to help. By training artisans in a range of skills, by supporting them in their continued improvement, by paying them a fair wage and by finding them customers they would never normally reach, we hope to turn around the trend of the artisanal sector becoming a joke.
Artisans as work making kitenge bags
But what does our help really mean? Well, for one of our artisans Violette, it means she can pay for her 7 younger siblings to finish school. For Goreth, from our jewelry department, it means that she knows she will be able to feed her 10 children, despite not being able to read or write. She can even employ a cook to help her. And for Victor, who was not able to finish high school, it means he has now learnt the skills to work with leather, earn a good income and lead a team of other artisans. He has now connected and hand made products for international organizations.
Violette, Goreth and Victor
This is why we do what we do.
But there is a less obvious reason for supporting Burundian artisans that we also think is important. Burundians have always valued using artistic expression, and Burundian traditional craftsmanship techniques are unique. With the devaluing of the artisanal sector, an appreciation for artistic expression through arts and crafts, and for the complex artisanal skills used has declined, and a strong part of Burundian cultural heritage is at risk of being forgotten.
Training new artisans and having them earn an income will help to raise the standing of the artisanal sector – making it known that craftsmanship is a way to earn a living in today’s Burundi. If we equip artisans with the skills to combine traditional techniques with modern designs, and provide them access to national and international markets, we will help to reestablish the strength of the art and craft industry, and the strength of Burundi.