Brooms: A sweeping analysis of our material culture – Part Two

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By Dr Michelina Andreucci

LOCALLY, a variety of natural materials are used to make brooms such as the outer casing of imfe/ipwa — sweet reed and various cane grasses and plants.
In some local indigenous practices, the stems and leaves of lippia javanica (zumbani) are some materials used to make brooms.
These are used to sweep gravesites.
The entire plant is also used when coming from the mortuary to remove bad spirits and sweep the room with twigs where the deceased person was sleeping.
A veritable symbol of African femininity and motherhood, the mutsvairo (broom) also played a role in the processing of traditional foods; often used to separate the small grains from the chaff.
Personally, I found the mutsvairo more effective in sweeping carpets, screed floors, parquet floors and even car interiors without the harsh abrasiveness of Western plastic brooms.
Even in terms of disposability, the indigenous brooms are disposable without adversely affecting the environment.
Throughout my adulthood, I have collected brooms from African antiquity for their aesthetic appeal and function, which became part of my signature style as an interior design consultant.
The Laurent’s World Broom Collection housed at the University of Michigan, Museum of Anthropology (UMMA) in the US, has been collecting brooms and samples of plant material used for broommaking from different parts of the world since 2002, for ethno-botanical studies.
The aim of the ethno-botanical studies is to determine what plants were traditionally used in broommaking in the different cultures around the world that are sadly slowly dying out.
Knowledge gained from various ethno-botanical research in several areas, done so far, shows how ecological, geographical features and different cultures are in fact related to the variety of plants traditionally used as brooms as well as details for their uses, beliefs and folklore.
Unlike in Zimbabwe, the use of home-made brooms and the craft of broommaking are declining, though planting raw material and broommaking still continues in many regions to date.
The main causes of the decline are the realities of modern life; industrialisation, mass production and use of modern household gadgets, the loss of traditional farming methods and loss of the specific tasks and places where they were used such as chimney sweeping and cleaning ashes from cooking ovens. Now, brooms may have lost their indispensable place in our daily lives.
However, there are still many references to the broom made in popular culture.
The old Shona ditty: ‘Tsvai tsvai tahwina’ (Sweep! sweep! we won) comes from the word tsvaira (to sweep), to imply a sweeping victory.
Brooms made from a variety of plant species also form part of many folkloric superstitions, beliefs, traditions and religious rituals attached to brooms.
Brooms made from ocimum basilicum (basil), play a special role in European folklore tales and songs.
In Italy, as in several other European countries, they believe a broom made from sorghum bicolour or other vegetation, placed behind the door would keep witches away.
Apparently a broom laid in a doorway would detain a witch from entering because witches would not cross over without first adding up all the parts.
Counting all the fibres of a broom would keep them occupied the entire night and stop them from entering the house.
Some cultures believe if a broom is laid across a threshold on New Year’s Day, it would keep evil spirits away for the rest of the year.
In some European societies, traditionally it is considered a transgression to jump over a broom.
Unlike the African-American tradition of ‘jumping the broom’ where couples jump over a broom as a way of solidifying their relationship as a married couple, the broom signifies the ‘sweeping away’ of past misdeeds, a bride’s commitment to keeping her house clean, fertility and even an established order of command.
Whoever jumps highest would be in charge — usually the man wins.
In Wales, a broom is placed obliquely in the doorway of the cottage.
The bridegroom jumps first over the broom into the house, followed by his bride.
If either of them touches the broom, the doorpost or moves the broom, the marriage is said to be void.
On the other hand, if a single person wishes to marry, he should never let anyone sweep a circle around him and a girl will not marry if she is beaten with a broom.
In Germany, they believe if you drop a broom, you will marry on the same day, the following year and the Irish say if you stand a broom upside-down, you will marry soon (assuming one is unmarried).
Stepping over a broom handle in Lithuania means there will be no proposal that year.
Other superstitions are that it is bad luck to loan your broom to anyone, even to a friend.
If a child is left in a room, a broom is put next to it to defend it from evil spirits.
Traditionally, plants used for broommaking were either collected from the fields or grown by individuals in their homesteads.
As time passed, small production units were set up, gradually establishing broom-production as an industry with whole villages or regions engaged in cultivating and making a wide range of brooms and brushes. Eventually they established the modern factories of today that manufacture and export large quantities of brooms for domestic and industrial use.
In Zimbabwe, there is evidence mutsvairo was used to sweep the ancient caves by the inhabitants of the time.
Since dirt, dust and ashes are part of daily life, the broom was an essential tool in maintaining cleanliness; a daily necessity in, and areas around, houses, factories, town city centres, streets and farmyards.
Many are still in use today.
Currently, the use of home-made brooms and broom-making craft are disappearing.
The skills transmission passed on from generation to generation is currently threatened with extinction.
Making a broom is not a simple activity, it is an art.
Broom makers must be familiar with plant ecology; the observations gained on plants are subsequently used in the production of brooms.
In most Western societies, the craft of broommaking is a man’s prerogative, rarely of women.
As a tool, the besom was usually thought of as masculine in nature due to its phallic shape and symbolism.
Easy to make and easy to dispose of, the broom is an implement common in all tribal sub-groups of the country.
It is virtually one of the most democratic domestic implements ever invented, used by both commoners and kings.
Information concerning the diversity of plants used traditionally to make brooms and the ways in which they were made and used is important for ethno-botanical knowledge.
The unassuming broom contributes to the preservation of the world’s traditional human experience as well as national identity.
The shrilling voices of the vendors we emulated as children, calling out ‘mutsvairo!’ formed part of the daily free entertainment of the townships in pre-independence decades, but most of all, retained the word, sights and sounds of mutsvairo in our memories.
In Zimbabwe, the traditional mutsvairo remains a cultural reference as part of our belief system, our identity and our decorum, hunhu/ubuntu, folklore, hygienic practices, spiritual and environmental cleansing and a heritage artefact in perpetuity.
The broom is, in fact, an heirloom of our unsullied heritage; a heritage of cleanliness, purity and health consciousness.
It is the implement which incorporates these intangible components of our culture.
Our unwritten laws of cleanliness and hygiene need to be revived and preserved.
So much for the modest mutsvairo!
Dr Michelina Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant lecturer and specialist hospitality interior decorator. She is a published author in her field.
For views and comments, email: linamanucci@gmail.com

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