By Irene Kalulu, bird story agency
Nimble hands are busy at work, fighting against the clock. There is not much time left before the big event and, true to her meticulous nature and work ethic, Batanai Muganda refuses to leave anything to chance. Check-ins and updates happen regularly – via video call. Welcome to the frenzied preparations ahead of one of the most important social ceremonies in the region – the lobola ceremony.
“There has been a major shift in how people dress for the lobola ceremony. It is no longer as laid back as it used to be… It has now become a very fashionable event where families now go all-out with gowns, cake and Java-inspired décor,” explained Muganda, between episodes of pinning and sewing.
The bride-price – or, loloba, or loboblo, as it is known in southern Africa – ceremony has undergone a significant change over the past decades. At one stage simply an “aside” or precursor to the main “white wedding” or religious event, the labola ceremony used to be more relaxed, Batanai explained. Increasingly, however, this ceremony is seen as the more authentically African – and important – part of the wedding ceremony, with both bride and groom expected to go to significant lengths to ensure that the food, décor, ambience and most importantly the dress, are impeccable.
Muganda’s choice to get the unique mix of African flavour and modern wedding magazine look that her clients now require, has been to use Java print. With her unique sense of style and a willingness to experiment, she has become a highly sought-after designer for these events, not just in her home city but further afield, too.
“I started incorporating Java fabric in my lobola designs in 2013. Java is African print material that can be found in most African countries. I love infusing it in my designs and making a bride’s day memorable. There is no greater feeling,” she said.
Muganda cannot afford any mistake that might delay the process and potentially ruin the big day for her client. So she schedules regular checks. With the COVID-19 pandemic having forced a new socio-economic normal on many designers and creatives, working from home has become commonplace, as have the regular video calls. She interrupts her work to briefly check in with a client and see if they still want beading incorporated in their design.
Nestled in her room with samples of finished and inviting designs neatly hanging on one wall, Batanai, 30, looks comfortable.
On the wall opposite her is an array of colourful fabrics. The warmth of their colour is in stark contrast to the day outside, which is cold. Kwekwe, where Muganda resides, is Zimbabwe’s 6th-largest city, in the country’s Midlands. The winter months of July and August can get chilly. But the room is cosy and between calls, there’s a near-silence with only the snicking scissors to break the silence as Batanai cuts a new pattern.
Offcuts are strewn on the floor and the sound of the scissors is interrupted only by the occasional yelling and laughter of children in a neighbour’s house.
This is the very satisfied life of a “self-taught designer, who is transforming how people dress for the traditional lobola ceremony.”
Thanks to her, when a bride’s “lobola squad” – her bridal team – hit town, they do so in outfits that look striking, glamorous and African. Java, with its rich African history is all the rage.
“It has really become trendy for the bride and her squad to have Java incorporated in their gowns,” Batanai said.
Batanai started designing when she was in primary school. Something of an introvert, she spent most of her time doing sketches, making gowns for her dolls, and even designing dollhouses. She initially didn’t consider that she could make a living out of her talent and chose not to pursue a fashion degree, instead taking up business management at the University of Zimbabwe – a far more acceptable career path, socially.
However, her passion would “out” and she found herself drifting into design. She first started working for design house Afur Fashion based in Bloemfontein in South Africa, where she had moved to find better opportunities. She soon realised that she wanted to establish her own design company.
After taking on a commission for a friend, her design and tailoring was such a hit that individual clients started seeking her out. This confirmed that there was a gap in the market for someone with her particular skillset.
She started saving money, then moved back to Zimbabwe to set up Temple Range, her design label and has never looked back.
Word of mouth referrals and also her work on social platforms have led to around 20 projects a year, which is plenty for her to handle.
Happy customers include Itai Vongai Chiware,
“I had different styles in my head and I didn’t know how it would come together. Batanai was able to understand what I needed and she made the perfect dress for me and also for my bridesmaids,” Chiware said. “I was very impressed with my dress. She executed it exactly the way I wanted it to be done.”
For Batanai the most exciting moment in any design assignment is the moment a new client walks in the door.
“When the bride comes through wanting something special for her day I take my time to get to know her. I get my inspiration from this process but some brides come with a clear idea of what they would want. I make suggestions where I feel there needs to be adjustments. Every bride is different and the process of coming up with a design is different but I love the whole process,” she said.
The growing popularity of Java and similar patterns is good news for Muganda’s endeavour and she is now considering moving from Kwekwe to Harare in order to grow her business further.
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An extra word on Java print:
Known by a multitude of names – to some it is Dutch wax print, or Real English Wax, or Veritable Java Print, to others as African Print, or Dutch Java, or Ankara or simply, Java – this cloth is highly distinctive and is usually made of cotton fabric with vibrant and bold colours and patterns. Inititally made using wax and with a global history traced to early Egypt and elsewhere, the modern print famously comes from the island of Java in Indonesia, where it has also be known as Batik and was once made entirely by hand. Western African soldiers brought back beautiful Javanese fabrics to their wives after serving in the military in the Dutch East Indies between 1810 and 1862. Traders recognised the trade potential after seeing its popularity in West Africa and mechanised its production, selling large quantities on the continent. Today, it is synonymous with Africa and the print styles are constantly being adapted and evolved to suit contemporary tastes.