“Tanzanian Tupperware” gives student research assistants an international experience

January 21, 2020 | Society


Dr. Katie Biittner and Bachelor of Science student Liam Greene with a selection of Iringa baskets.


Baskets are everywhere in Dr. Katie Biittner’s office. Tucked away under her desk and placed on the bookshelves, the handwoven baskets come in almost every shape, size, colour and pattern created in the Iringa region of Tanzania — and are the inspiration for Katie’s latest community-based research.

“We joke that the baskets are like Tanzanian Tupperware,” says Katie, assistant professor in anthropology. “But it’s not as simple as that.”

Katie initially started out wanting to document the practice of basket making that appeared would soon be lost or replaced by more modern methods. Instead, the baskets are a huge souvenir draw for tourists and a sign of women’s empowerment in the Iringa region. The majority of basket makers are women, who have revived the traditional practices and passed them down to their children and grandchildren while supporting themselves and their families.

In summer 2019, Katie took two research assistants (Bachelor of Science student Liam Greene and Bachelor of Arts student Jesse Heintz) and anthropology alum Keyna Young (a master’s candidate at the University of Alberta) to Tanzania to gather information about the baskets and the techniques used to make them.

“These handwoven baskets have become a new avenue for economic improvement and social engagement that you wouldn’t really expect from a traditional item,” says Jesse.


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Exploring the new — and unexpected — role of this traditional item had Liam and Jesse doing a combination of “classical archaeology” — excavating, documenting and cataloguing — and socio-cultural anthropology (conducting interviews and observing people).

“We got to see everything from where and how the people gather and prepare raw materials to how they make the finished product,” says Jesse. “We got to engage with them every step of that process.”

Using samples and sediments they collected from archaeological sites, Katie and her students will see if they can trace how long this form of basket making has been a tradition in the region.

“Now that we’ve identified what the baskets are made of, we can try to identify them with archaeological settlements so that we can contribute to the women’s narratives about this being a long-held technology and tradition,” says Katie.

The work will culminate in a paper and an exhibit on campus, and they also intend to develop a digital story that will show how the practice of making the handwoven baskets is not only an art form, but a vital economic activity.

“We want to communicate everything we’ve captured about the basket technologies and give it back to those communities so they have something to preserve this part of their culture,” says Liam, who will be presenting an independent study based on this research at Student Research Day.

Jesse and Liam’s contributions were critical to the research, and Katie was impressed with how well they adapted to a constantly changing environment and opened up to members of the community.

“Getting to watch them connect in meaningful ways with a community that I love was really powerful,” she says.

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