Commentary: Connecting a Century-old Weaving Tradition to Rainwater Harvesting Practices

Commentary: Connecting a Century-old Weaving Tradition to Rainwater Harvesting Practices

Résumé en français

Woven With Water est un projet situé au bord d'une zone humideappelée Elephant Marsh à Nsanje, au Malawi. Ce projet vise à créer un systèmerésilient à l'aide d'étangs à doigts et de pratiques de collecte des eaux depluie qui intègrent le processus d'inondation et de précipitation pendant lasaison humide en retenant l'eau et en lui permettant de s'infiltrer dans lesol. En outre, le projet vise à célébrer et à reconnecter une communautériveraine à une pratique traditionnelle centenaire de récolte et de tressage deroseaux et de feuilles de palmier pour en faire des nattes et des paniers, afinde permettre la formation d'une relation plus profonde entre les personnes etle lieu, tout en créant davantage d'opportunités pour la communauté.

 L'étude commence par la recherche du sens du lieu et del'identité du paysage. Les éléments du site sont ensuite synthétisés à l'aidede récits visuels afin de comprendre les différentes relations entre lesaspects sociaux et écologiques du site. Enfin, ces relations sont placées dansune intervention de conception qui vise à tenir compte de l'incertitude et àformer un système agricole, aquacole et traditionnel plus intégré qui conservele fonctionnement de la zone humide, améliore le bord de la zone humide etdonne à la communauté les moyens d'agir.

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Woven With Water is a project located at the edge of a wetland called the Elephant Marsh in Nsanje, Malawi. This project aims to create a resilient system using fingerponds and rainwater harvesting practices that embrace the process of flooding and precipitation during the wet season by holding water and allowing it to infiltrate into the ground. Furthermore, the project aims to celebrate and reconnect a riparian community to a century-old traditional practice of harvesting and weaving reeds and palm leaves into mats and baskets to allow for a deeper relationship to form between the people and place while also creating more opportunities for the community. The study first uncovers the landscape's sense of place and identity through research. Elements of the site are then synthesised through visual narratives to understand the different relationships between the social and ecological aspects of the site. Finally, these relationships are placed in a design intervention that aims to accommodate uncertainty and forms a more integrated agriculture, aquaculture, and traditional system that retains the functioning of the wetland, improves the wetland edge, and empowers the community.


The Elephant Marsh is a seasonal wetland located at the southern end of the lower Shire Valley. It is one of the most productive ecosystems in Malawi, contributing to thousands of households in the area (Timberlake, 1997). The marsh is important in supporting local communities through agriculture, fishing, collecting wild foods such as lotus roots and lily bulbs, and raw material for home consumption or sale.

Unfortunately, the Shire river valley is a hotspot for land degradation and siltation. It is one of the most susceptible regions to the impact of climate change and is likely to experience shorter wet seasons and longer dry seasons. (Forsythe & Turpie, 2016).

Therefore, coping strategies for low-income households can be critical during drought and poor harvest, which usually involves burning land for agriculture.

Low-income communities are further marginalised because of privately owned sugar estates along the marsh that excessively consume water which has led to the depletion of groundwater resources and an increase in the salinisation and pH of the soil (Cheeseman, 2004).

Agriculture and fishing are the main livelihood activities for many households, determined by accessibility within and along the Elephant Marsh. During the wet season, only upland cultivation occurs because of the high-water levels and access to the wetland for fishing is difficult. In the dry season, cultivation occurs both upland and lowland where the soil fertility is higher along the floodplain. Fishing normally occurs at the beginning of the dry season when there is more fish, and the wetland is easier to access. (Forsythe & Turpie, 2016).

Plants and vegetables are also important food, income, and material sources. Usually low and middle-income households harvest reeds, papyrus, and palm leaves to make mats, hats, baskets, and other products for household use and to sell at the local market when the opportunity arises. Most grass species' harvesting happens throughout the dry season (June- September) when people need cash for food and the harvesting process is often done by hand (Forsythe & Turpie, 2016).

Figure 1: Project site location (Sketch: Nicola Chidyaonga, 2022)

Figure 2: The relationship between the riparian community, the seasons, and the wetland

The Wetland Edge and the Community 

Figure 3: An active participant's experiences along the Elephant Marsh as a fish trader and artisan (Sketch: Nicola Chidyaonga, 2022)
Different social groups represent, speak of, experience, and relate to nature in a way that the rigid scientific ecology cannot grasp.

Although the scientific aspect of landscapes is critical, there is a loss of understanding of landscapes as a representation of art and a cultural project (Corner, 1997). Therefore, ecology should be thought about beyond the scientific perspective to give room to different ways of seeing that can create alternative relationships between people, place, and cosmos.

The site's exploration through an active participant named Esther tells a story of how a community member experiences the edge of the wetland in different seasons. Esther, a fish trader, and an artisan, normally buys fish from a fisherman at the marsh's edge in the early dry season. Esther then displays her fish to sell alongside other fish traders at a small local market at the marsh's edge.

Throughout the dry season, when water levels become low and fewer fish are found in the wetland, Esther begins to harvest reeds and palm leaves at the marsh's edge. This raw material is then prepped for weaving by boiling and leaving it to dry in the sun for a few hours outside her home. After the raw material has dried up, the weaving process begins. The process is often a mobile and social event involving people gathering in groups to talk and work simultaneously. The weaving normally occurs under a tree or at someone's home.

Each village or community has a unique weaving technique passed down from generation to generation. Weaving in Malawi is often done by men however female weavers are usually found in communities where the chief is also female (Design A., 2023). Unfortunately, this traditional practice of weaving is declining mainly because of a lack of interest from the younger generation within communities. Preserving this cultural practice is crucial because it is a source of identity across weaving communities; each woven item has a story to tell through its process, style, pattern, and shape specified to each community's location, culture, and needs.

This type of ecology is a form of mapping that tells us about the past while deepening our sense of unity and belonging within a place and community.  

Finger ponds and raised garden beds

Figure 4: Diagram showing how finger ponds work and how raised garden beds are made(Sketch: Nicola Chidyaonga, 2022)

Fingerponds are an integrated aquaculture and agriculture system that retains the functioning of wetlands and combines the socio-economic (livelihoods, costs, benefits) with the biophysical aspects of the site (water, fish, soil, inputs) (Kipkemboi, 2006). Fingerponds sites are usually composed of four ponds each about 8m x 12m, with a depth of 1m on the shallow end, and 2m on the deep end. Excavated soil from the ponds is then heaped to form 3 or 4 raised beds that are 24m x 10m and used for seasonal crop cultivation (Kaggwa, 2006). The criteria for selecting a site for fingerponds is based on the topography, accessibility, soil type, flood history, presence of fish in the wetland and the availability of a local community group.

A fingerpond system was proposed for this area to create a symbiotic relationship between the edge of the wetland, the community's needs, and the community's cultural heritage.

How this system works is such that during the second half of the dry season, earthen ponds known as finger ponds are dug and raised garden beds are built in between the ponds by the community at the edge of the wetland in an area that regularly floods and where flooding recedes. During the wet season, flooding and precipitation fill up the finger ponds with water, and as the flooding water eventually recedes, fish and water are trapped in the ponds.

In the early dry season, infiltration and evaporation occur in the ponds, and feeding the trapped fish is necessary. Animal manure and green material can feed the fish by placing a small bag at the corner of each pond. All fish must be harvested when water levels reach 0.5m in depth. Traditional fishing gear such as basket traps and seine nets made from reeds is typically used to harvest the fish. Eventually, these finger ponds dry out during the late dry season through evaporation and infiltration. The organic matter from the pond system can be used on the raised bed as fertiliser for the crops.

The design of the raised garden beds was inspired by the chinampas of Mexico, an ancient agricultural system of 'floating gardens' covered by the lake in a maze of canals. These floating gardens are constructed by creating a boundary of stakes anchored to the lake's bottom. Reeds can then be woven into the framework of the stakes to create a container filled with different layers of organic material such as aquatic plants, lake mud, and organic sediments.

Over time, the organic material becomes a body of fertile soil that can then be used to grow agriculture (Coe, 1964). These raised beds would be constructed above flood level so that they 'float' during the wet season, and maintenance of the raised beds would have to be done by the community during the dry season. The continuous practice of weaving is part of the project's process to preserve the indigenous weaving knowledge of the community.

Common Reed (Phragmites australis) grows thickly in the elephant marsh and plays a significant role in the wetland ecosystem. Harvesting this raw material would have to be done sustainably in such a way that there is a balance between natural primary production (Kasama et al., 2012). Harvesting would also have to be done in a diverse pattern that is not concentrated in one area so that there is minimal disturbance to the soil and the plants rapidly re-grow. Furthermore, appropriate levels of cutting can even positively affect the wetland (Forsythe & Turpie, 2016).

The advantage of this overall system is that the fingerponds supports the continuation of fish growth and supply of fish in the early dry season whilst the raised beds provide crops. The system also retains the functioning of wetlands by not affecting their hydrology nor impeding natural flooding regimes (Denny et al., 2006).

Furthermore, the system encourages the formation of a project club with members of the local community to construct and maintain the ponds and garden beds using locally sourced materials and local skills of weaving (UNESCO, 2006).

It is in the maintenance of this system and day-to-day management that creates new forms and programs that are more than just corrective measures of restoration.

The Framework

In terms of where to begin with a project of this nature, a framework was developed by looking at the three significant areas our active participant walks through daily; the wetland edge, her household, and the paths she uses to get to her destinations. The project would begin at a household level with swales to divert rainwater through household gardens and into infiltration pits that can regenerate degraded land. Furthermore, micro-catchment areas such as semi-circular bunds would be built along the walkways to collect water run-off that rehabilitate walkways with trees that produce fruits and raw material while providing spaces for people to stop and gather. Lastly, the walkways would lead to the construction of the fingerponds and raised garden beds that increase food production and have the potential to create a better local market for the community while also improving the edge of the wetland.


Figure 5: Diagram showing the proposal (Nicola Chidyaonga, 2022)

The Local communities must be involved in the beginning stages of the project so that trust and ownership can be developed. Reviving the edge of the wetland is an endeavour that goes beyond ecological considerations. It is about recognising the value of cultural heritage, empowering communities, and promoting sustainability.


Coe, M.D., 1964. The chinampas of Mexico. Scientific American, 211(1), pp.90-99.

Corner, J., 1997. Ecology and landscape as agents of creativity. Ecological design and planning, pp.80-108.

Cheesman, O.D., 2004. Environmental Impacts of Sugar Production The Cultivation and Processing of Sugarcane and Sugar Beet. CABI.

Denny, P., Kipkemboi, J., Kaggwa, R. & Lamtane, H. 2006. The potential of Finger Pond systems to increase food production from wetlands in Africa. Int J Ecol Environ Sci, 32, 41-47.

Design, A. (2023) Visiting our weavers in Malawi, AshantiDesign. Available at: (Accessed: 19 October 2023).

Forsythe, K. & Turpie, J. 2016. Climate resilient livelihoods and sustainable natural resource management in the elephant marsh, Malawi.

Kaggwa, R.C., 2006. Fingerponds: managing nutrients and primary productivity for enhanced fish production in Lake Victoria's wetlands, Uganda. Wageningen University and Research.

Kipkemboi, J., 2006. Fingerponds: seasonal integrated aquaculture in East African freshwater wetlands: exploring their potential for wise use strategies. Wageningen University and Research.

Timberlake, J. 1997. Biodiversity of the Zambezi Basin Wetlands: A Review of Available Information; Phase 1. Draft report for the IUCN, Harare, Zimbabwe.

UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education. 2006. Fingerponds. [online] Available at: <>[Accessed 6 October 2022].


All figures by the Author