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What hauled firewood in Kenya is a handbag in the United States

WITH one uninterrupted motion my daughter emptied her wallet, cosmetics, and books onto the table. I was reminded of the Kenya housewife who had dumped her load of firewood from the same basket when she learned I was interested in buying it. No matter what they're called, baskets or bags, these Kenyan carry-alls, with wide-mouth design, sturdy leather handles, and genuine return-to-nature look, have become one of America's most popular handbags.

The first time I spotted a basket, it was slung over a woman's shoulder, filled to the brim with firewood. I stopped my car and ran toward her, all the time exclaiming about her beautiful basket. She gazed at me blankly while I rubbed my hands along the rich red and brown stripes as if feeling the earth itself sagging under the heavy load. She didn't speak English nor I Swahili, but there was no doubt it was the basket and not the firewood I was interested in.

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We stared at each other for a moment before I pulled out a handful of money and offered it to her. Without a change in expression she whirled the basket over her shoulder and emptied its contents on the ground. The smile on her face as she handed me the basket was one of pride. She had created a basket worth the average monthly salary in Kenya.

Similar baskets are for sale in the central marketplace in downtown Nairobi, where Kikuyu and Kamba women sit twisting strands of sisal into a myriad of natural designs to supplement the family income.

Since sisal is one of Kenya's largest export crops, many people work the sisal plantations on the outskirts of town, cutting rigid, waxy leafstalks from rows of tall, green plants. The leaves are hauled to a factory, where they are shredded and crushed by machine. The outer tissues are scraped away, leaving thin sisal fibers 40 to 50 inches long. The fibers are washed and brushed, hung to dry, and then bailed for export.

Kenya, Tanzania, and Brazil are the world's main suppliers of sisal, although the plant is native to Mexico and is cultivated throughout the tropics and in such countries as Angola, Venezuela, Indonesia, and Mozambique. Besides being woven into ``Kenya bags,'' sisal is used for making ropes, twine, cordage, sacking, and the like.

While in the market, I asked an elderly Kikuyu woman where she got her weaving materials. ``From the factory,'' she said, rolling her eyes upward and nodding toward what had to be the factory. Fifty years ago her mother made baskets out of native grasses collected along the river banks. When sisal plants were introduced into the country as an export crop in the early part of the 20th century, most women switched to sisal.

``I don't have to go out and collect it,'' she said, smiling widely, ``and it's pretty cheap.''

I was disappointed to see many of the women making baskets out of nylon imported from Korea. It comes in a variety of very bright colors, which women like to combine in shocking fashion -- orange and red, orange and yellow, or red and yellow, to name a few.

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One woman said she preferred the nylon because the finished baskets are easier to clean and they dry quickly. Another woman, who was making a basket out of yellow and orange plastic, told me she liked using the bright colors because they were ``happy.''

As evidenced by the piles of unsold plastic baskets, however, tourists and importers don't buy them.

Fortunately, the ingenuity of these talented women paid off when they decided to dye sisal fibers in the bright colors they love. Voil`a! Spectacular designs in hot pink and brown, white and pale blue, or beige and green. Happy but mellow!

The women also weave smaller versions of the same basket out of a combination of sisal and baobab string to give young girls when they marry. Baobab trees are native to tropical Africa, and string is made from the tree's bark. Some baskets are decorated with tiny metal chains or colored beads that are woven around the sides. Handles are often braided out of sisal or fine strips of leather. They make great evening bags -- their extra-long handles slung loosely over the shoulder.

Sisal baskets can be purchased in Kenya at the central market in Nairobi, or where you might least expect to find them -- in restaurants, at gas stops, game park hotels, or on the back, shoulder, or arms of inhabitants. But don't wait for a trip to Kenya. The baskets can be purchased for less than $30 in shops throughout the US -- an excellent value considering the amount of work that goes into making one.

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