Courtesy of Room and Board

One of the best parts about working at Room and Board is getting to meet the manufacturer partners behind some of the products that the store offers.  It is during this time that we get to hear the stories about how these companies were created and listen to their journey of how they got to where they are today.  A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Bob & Bridget Meyer, who own and operate Toka, an African imports company.

Bob Meyer, a Minnesota native, met his wife Bridget when he was a rafting guide in Zambia.  Upon moving back to Minnesota, the couple decided to start an import business to help the women of Bridget’s native tribe, Toka, become financially self-sufficient.  The women earn their living by making beautiful Makenge baskets.  These baskets are used as an everyday tool in the tribe.  Not only do they look beautiful, but each basket has a different meaning behind the woven patterns. Please read on after the jump to read more about Toka’s story and see my interview with Bridget and Bob Meyer.

Courtesy of Room and Board

After Bob and Bridget moved back to Minnesota, Bridget missed her native Zambia and wanted to find a way to stay connected to her homeland and introduce Americans to her culture.  Bob and Bridget started their import business out of their Minneapolis apartment in 1991.  Their first success was with the Makenge basket.  These baskets, sewn by the Toka women, are traditionally given to the bride on the day of her wedding ceremony.

The patterns within the basket represent different parts about family and relationships.  In the below example,  the sewn lines represent the bride and groom coming together to become one.  The dyed circles to represent the family circle.

Courtesy of Toka Baskets

Below is a video of Bridget Meyer demonstrating how the wedding baskets are used during the wedding ceremony.

Courtesy of Toka Baskets

In 1999, Bridget and Bob began to import Kuba Cloth from Congo.  This cloth, dating back to the 17th century, is made of soaked, beaten and dyed raffia woven by the men of the drive.  The women will then slowly weave the geometric patterns freehand.  The tribes which are a part of the production include the Shoowa, Ngeende, Ngongo, Ngombe and Bushoong tribes.  The Kuba cloth is often used as dancing skirts for ceremonies.  In recent times, the cloth has also been used by officials as scarves or shoulder cloths, or for decoration when placed over stools or as mats in front of important individuals.

Courtesy of Toka Baskets

This week, I had the great opportunity to interview Bob and Bridget about their business and how it helps the women of Zambia:

Bob-what originally brought you from Minnesota to Zambia?

Growing up in Minnesota, I had always liked to canoe.  I was working as a whitewater rafting guide in California in 1982, when the premier whitewater rafting company, Sobek, offered me a chance to work as a guide on the Zambesi River in Zambia.  I was probably put on this earth to raft the Zambesi so it was a good fit and an easy choice for me to make.

How did you first learn about the Toka tribe?

The Zambesi River including the Victoria Falls are in what was traditionally Toka tribal land. My job required me to work with Senior Chief Mukuni who later would become my in-law. I spent alot of my working hours on Toka land and became fascinated with the Toka people. My marriage to Bridget really sealed the deal because she is incredibly proud of her tribe, culture, and history. For the last 25 years I have been surrounded by all things Toka. I am lucky.

Bridget-What was your first impression of Minnesota?

It was so green. The people were so kind and welcoming to me. That was especially true of Bob’s family who are mostly farmers. The first winter was a shock. I did not realize that snow fell from the sky and assumed it collected on the ground like frost or dew. The first time I saw snow was in December 1990 and I thought we were under chemical attack from Saddam Hussein. I called the police and only calmed down when a neighbor explained we were having snow.  Later Bob showed me what a wonderful thing snow can be. He even showed me how to wash my face in it.  I got him back for that!

How did you two think to the sell the Makenge Baskets?

Bridget: I bought many items from Zambia which I hoped to sell in the USA. One customer in Minneapolis got really enthusiastic about the Wedding Baskets and wanted a thousand of them.  I brought in the baskets and received a really strong response to them. I love working with the basket makers and feel good about what I do to market the baskets. It is such a rich interesting product and is so easy to admire.

Tell me a bit about how the export business has helped the Toka women.

The basket makers are very poor. They make everything they need including their homes, tools, and food. The sale of baskets helps them to earn money which they use to buy the items they do not make like school fees, medicine and shoes. They are able to earn the money from home so they can make baskets while still taking care of their family. The money they earned has lifted their status within the family and community. They are very proud that they can make a basket which is sold in USA. It has strengthened their self-esteem.

How long does it take to sew each basket?

A normal 16″ basket on average takes 1 month to make. The basket makers can only sew baskets for about 2 to 3 hours per day before their hands begin to hurt.

What do the women think about their baskets being featured in design
magazines and catalogs?

They are so proud. They do not own many nice things but they can make a really beautiful basket.  That their basket is admired in USA is exhilarating to them. We make sure they know they are #1.

What made you think to branch out and carry Kuba cloth?

We always loved the cloth. Room and Board asked us to source the cloth so they could be made into pillows. Bridget loves the cloth and enjoys the challenge of working with it.

What is the most rewarding part of your business?

Going to Zambia and seeing what a difference our efforts are making. The basket makers are such easy women to admire.  They are just good.  We help people in Zambia when we can and they repay us over and over again in so many ways. Both Bridget and I love our time in Zambia.

Kuba Cloth Pillows

Courtesy of Room and Board

Through Bob and Bridget’s company, Toka,  they have helped the Toka women  become financially self-sufficient.  All the weavers work from their own home and weave at their own pace.  By doing this, the women are able to earn money  for school books or medicine, all while taking care of their families.  You may read and learn more about Toka from their website.  You may find the Makenge baskets and Kuba Cloth and pillows from Room & Board.

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