Meet Dinah Sibongile Cele, an unassuming Durbanite who is upcycling used printer tape into useful and decorative homewares and accessories.
Dinah never set out to be an eco-warrior. But when she was widowed at age 40, in 1998, she had to find a job—and quick— to sustain her two school-going daughters. She took up the first job she could find, working as a printing assistant at a small printing firm in Durban.
The company, where she still works, was generating a good amount of waste printer cartridges, and one day Dinah looked inside one.
She was intrigued by what she saw: perfect rolls of multicolored tape lay inside. The colours were vibrant; CMYK—cyan, magenta, yellow, and black—and the tape was coiled neatly in an endlessly repetitive pattern. She touched it and tugged at it.
“It could bend like this and like that. This thing is the same as plastic!” thought Dinah.
She asked her employer if she could take some of that tape home, and they were happy to oblige.
Now Dinah’s mother had always woven and crocheted. Basketry is famous among her tribe, the Zulu people of South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province. Zulu women make their beautiful baskets mostly from the Ilala palm and the bark of ncebe, a wild banana. The baskets’ geometric patterns have meanings, with masculine and feminine symbols that can tell a story to the trained eye. These baskets have a super-tight weave, and besides storing and carrying grain, they are used to carry liquids like umkhomboti, a traditional Zulu beer.
The next time her mom came to see her daughter in Durban, Dinah presented her with a basket full of printer tape.
“Look! You can use it for your crochet!” Dinah told her mother excitedly.
“Why are you telling me this? Don’t you have hands?” shot back her mum.
“Here you are complaining about not having money and yet in your hands you have a treasure,” she went on to lecture Dinah, and left the printer tape behind.
“Eish – I used to hate doing this at school, but let me try,” thought Dinah to herself.
Her workmates soon noticed her talent and her supervisor asked her if she’d like more raw material. Before long a huge box of the plastic tape she loved so much had landed in Durban, shipped by the cartridge supplier in London, who also collected used cartridges for refilling.
Dinah was on a roll, and before long she was selling her crafts at local craft fairs, roping in her brother, Sibusiso Mbata, to help her in the now small family business.
Dinah credits the “150 percent support” from her company for her success as a small business. It is they who helped her set up Dinah’s Craft Work, and continue to give her time off to travel to expos and fairs around the country, including those of Department of Trade in South Africa. Dinah has even been to been to Chicago to show her work.
Today, Dinah say weaving is her life. The extra income her weaving brings in is welcome, but her Zen and fresh beauty are the real prize. Diminutive (she’s under 5 foot in shoes), Dinah has a clear, melodious voice and an even clearer, wrinkle-free skin. She says her craft keeps her youthful and busy. She takes her work everywhere she goes, with designs coming to her even in her sleep.
“I don’t look like a 49-year-old woman… It’s because I’m fresh and I have something I like,” Dinah says emphatically.
“When you are only going to work in the morning and coming back home in the evening with nothing more to do, you’ll be constantly thinking about how many things you don’t have, and how poor you are,” she muses.
“They know me at work— I’m the rubbish bin! Glass bottles, plastic bottles, plastic bags, I take them all!” she laughs.
“Some of these whiskey bottles—such nice shapes! I spray paint them and turn them into beautiful flower vases.”
Dinah is now keen to see other women supporting themselves, like she does, through weaving. She draws the connection between upcycling, income generation, and the environment.
“There are widows who need to support their children. Poor women in the rural areas who have no skills. They go to the forests and cut trees because they have no other option.
“They need to be trained. I want to teach them what I know. I want to help… maybe through a training school. They can use all sorts of different materials…raffia, grass… even used plastic shopping bags can be woven.”
By training women, Dinah would be adding two new feathers to her eco-warrior cap: empowering women and keeping the Zulu art of basketry alive.
Dinah Cele (pronounced Diner ‘Click-sound’-e-l-ee)—was part of the Department of Trade in South Africa exhibition at the World Forestry Congress in Durban in October 2015.
Zulu Baskets. The Ukhamba, left, is water-tight