Niger’s nomads are skilled craftspeople; the artistry trade is traditional to certain castes of people and has long supported them. Traditional skills have eroded over time, and fewer young women learn the skills their mothers and grandmothers knew. Keeping traditional culture alive is part and parcel of what we do. Members of our artisan co-operatives act as cultural ambassadors to the next generation. As they earn more, learn new designs and expand their markets, interest grows in the community. With help from RAIN, co-op artisans play a key role in designing products and choosing materials for both local sales and the U.S. Now, these efforts will receive a real boost in potential for U.S. markets.
Since 2005, we've been privileged to have Illiah Addoh, master leatherworker and head of the Zinder Leather Artisan Cooperative at Niger’s National Museum, provide training to RAIN artisans in how to create their culturally traditional products within modern contexts. The next step: connecting those products with U.S. distribution channels.Enter Andrea Williamson. Using her fifteen years of experience in small business sales and marketing, Andrea has focused the last five years as an "international boutique matchmaker" to help artisans in more than 50 countries suceed in U.S. markets. "I became fascinated with the unbridled creativity emerging from these artisans," says Andrea. "from the incredible items fashioned from upcycled materials in the Phillipines to croched and quilted creations from South Africa, artisans come upon frequent stumbling blocks, such as language, import laws, and quality consistency, that keep their products from this channel of distribution. Both the artisans and boutiques in the U.S. then miss out on a great opportunity."
"I'm inspired by Bess' vision of empowering nomadic women in Niger to bring their skills to the next level while providing for their families in the face of such extreme poverty, and am excited about what these women are creating - fabulous leather purses and tote bags by the Tuareg ladies, and the Wodaabe women expressing their rich culture with colorful embroidered textiles. I feel confident that with a little bit of creativity, we can help to open up this channel for these artisans."
A country like Niger at times seems worlds away to those in the U.S. If we can bring more hand crafted cultural treasures to our friends here - that's another direct connection to the nomadic women of the Sahel and Sahara, with new liveihoods and support for local schools as the result.
Thank you for paving the way to empowerment for nomadic women!
P.S. Coming soon: The RAIN online Shopify store!
Wodaabe artisans take the prize for RAIN
At the yearly Cure Salee Festival in In'gall, the Wodaabe women artisans who create products based on their legendary embroidery heritage joined Bess in proudly displaying their unique wares for sale. Though there are many throughout the year, September is the "official" nomadic festival marking the end of the wet season and the start of the dry season. For centuries, pastoral people have brought their herds to the salt licks and to take part in salt cures for themselves as well. It's time for reuiniting with other clans, planning for the upcoming season, and to meet potential marraige partners. The local celebrations are fascinating, especially the Wodaabe dancing and Tuareg camel races. It was quite a spectacle: both Wodaabe and Tuareg performers made appearances ifor various competitions -- Tuaregs with donkeys decked in full wedding regalia and camels fully outfitted in their traveling gear and good luck charms, women drumming and men dancing; and the Wodaabe men performing their gerewol dances for potential partners.
This year, RAIN artisans were awarded First Prize at the festival for a blouse made of traditional woven cotton featuring a hand embroidered cell phone pocket in traditional Wodaabe design. The judges declared the piece a perfect marraige of traditional craft with modern design. The prize? 4 sacks of cattle feed, 2 sacks of rice, 2 tee shirts and $100! Our booth received a special visit from Niger Prime Minister and RAIN friend Brigi Rafini to wish us "Bon Courage!"
Meanwhile, back in Agadez, we had the chance to talk with artisan Ouma Aama.
Ouma Amaa is the head of the RAIN Albaye Leather Cooperative as well as president of all Agadez women artisans. Ouma, a leather artisan in the Tuareg tradition, was absolutely thrilled when RAIN won the embroidery contest.
Ouma: "Thank you, Bess. RAIN is the only organization in Agadez that recognizes and promotes the traditional work of women artisans." She extends her best wishes and thanks to supporters like you for making this work possible.
Straw + Leather = Fabulous!
In a perfect marraige of two traditions, the women artisans of In'gall, who work primarily in straw, are collaborating with the RAIN Albaye leather artisans to create gorgeous tote bags in vibrant colors of Tuareg tradition: magenta, ochre and deep turquoise. We can't wait to offer these gems of beauty and good karma for sale in the U.S. - visit our website very soon if you'd like to own one for yourself or a good friend. You won't find these at Macy's!
Niger’s Wodaabe cattle herders remain one of the most nomadic groups in the world today. They experience many difficulties related to their marginalized status in Niger, however this same status has allowed for many ancient traditions to remain intact, including the legendary tradition of women’s embroidery. Women play an important role in Wodaabe society. One aspect that expresses this is ownership of the family milk and of the calabash gourds that hold it. The gourds are passed down through generations of women, carved and decorated in special motifs that are covered up with palm fronds to ensure secrecy. Men use the calabash to catch the milk, then return the full calabash to the women, who in turn offer it to children and family members or use it to make yogurt or butter for sale. Wodaabe women also hold the honored duty of embroidering the long dance tunics specially donned by adolescent men in ritual dances. One of the most important dances, the gereewol is a competition wherein young women decide which men are most attractive and representative of their culture in their dance - also in essence choosing among them whom they would like to court.The symbols prominent in their embroidery feature themes reflecting the nomadic life of the Wodaabe. There are symbols for star, cow’s eye, the calf rope, sleeping children, and the road, among many others. These symbols represent the aesthetic and cultural identity dating back thousands of years, as evidenced in rock carvings hewn from a time when the Sahara desert was forested. The material of choice is consistently handspun woven cotton bands sewn together into cloth, often died with indigo. Wodaabe women often embroider for their families, but the women of the Barka Cooperative in Foudouk are creating new products, adapting their craft for international markets. With support from RAIN and donors like you, the women design embroidery for T-shirts, purses, and decorative scarves. These activities serve to preserve their culture while adapting to the ever-changing world. Much like the special ownership of milk in their pastoral lives, embroidery co-ops further empower Wodaabe women in our partner communities to grow more economically independent and better able to fight for the survival of their families in one of the most hostile environments in the world.
The remote community of Seiga is located near a lake in the Tillaberi region of Niger, bordering Mali in the southern part of the country. Seiga and it's surrounding communities of Tooru Tondi and Belkou are comprised of nomadic herders of cows, goats, sheep and camels. The village is now primarily women, as the men migrate in search of pasturelands or work. The Tillaberi region is one of the most food insecure regions of Niger, and Seiga is no exception. This past year found Seiga highly impacted by the effects of drought with food stores and income at an all time low. Responding to the community’s short-term and long-term needs, RAIN has initiated various herding and animal husbandry related income generated activities (IGA's). These activities serve to build sustainable ways to provide a source of revenue in times of need, and allow women to directly participate in supporting their community. Women from Seiga and the surrounding communities skilled in traditional crafts are now expressing interest to RAIN in forming an artisan co-operative as another IGA with the understanding that 50% of their income will support their children’s schools.
The women of Seiga primarily work with straw, prevalent among the Bellah (a class of former slave families), creating both baskets and elaborate decorative mats that may be used as placemats, trivets or home decor. RAIN plans to provide the raw materials and assist the artisans in honing their skills through training sessions. We are exploring the possibility of partnering with SAFEM (Salon Artisanat pour des Femmes), the primary artisan association of Niger.
Very few women have the knowledge of how to make the most elaborate item, the Teydeyint decorated tent wall mat. There is a great variety of designs for the teydeyint and the efartay (smaller decorative mat) that may be adapted for a variety of different products. Along with the Bellah people in Seiga is a smaller number of Inaden families, members of the Tuareg crafts class. These families specialize in metal, wood and leather work. Inaden’s heritage as artisans, the Belkou Inaden knowledge of most traditional craft items, and the fact that they remain dedicated to local level production demonstrate the importance of including them in RAIN's artisan cooperative. They will add variety with both Inaden-produced items or with the creation of new items based on the Inaden skill base.
Currently, most sales are commissioned, but they may also put items into the local Bankilare or Tegue markets. Participating in an artisan cooperative with RAIN will provide much needed additional income and expand the scope of their current sales from local to international.
All the raw materials needed are purchased from local markets and include wood, various raw metals, akof (palm fronds), tezawen (reed grass), leather, naturally produced dyes, yarn and mirrors.
Items created by Bellah people include:
Efartay: small decorative straw matEfartay wan tikan: very small efartay Eytewel: winnowing pan with sides Leyfey wan asahar: winnowing panLeyfay wan eghaf: cone winnowing pan cover Leyfey tilliwan: small, yarn-wrapped winnowing pan Lgaraygaraya/Isanam: decorated hanging leather panels with fringe and mirrors Alaami: turquoise leather panelsTekurut/Essarer: leather tied stick mat Tasotit: simple long straw tent wall mat Tawana: hanging bowl holder with long leather fringe Teydeyint: decorated reed-grass tent wall mat
Adefur: leather pillow Agadut/Agalagut: leather bag to hold water or butter Enafat: small leather purse necklace Isamut: large leather bag for grain Izayan: large leather bag Tagbat: simple leather bag Tanuwart: large horizontal leather bag Tebawunt: large leather decorative travel sac for camelsTegarut: medium sized leather bag Spoons, decorated small spice mortars The women artisans and Inaden families would benefit from the organization of a RAIN artisan cooperative producing a variety of products, overseeing a boutique for supplies, and training children and teenagers in the community in traditional artisan skills for future livelihoods and cultural preservation. As some items needed for production fluctuate seasonally in cost, establishing a store of supplies to build during lower price periods for sale during higher price periods would allow the artisans to work throughout the year unburdened by material inflation. Artisans and older youth can work together to produce traditional and marketable products, both independently and in collaboration.
RAIN is excited about this budding artistic enterprise in Seiga, and with your support, together we can make it happen!
RAIN founder and Executive Director Bess Palmisicano is in the field in Niger for two months, spending a good part of her visit doing what she loves best -- working with the talented and determined women who make up our ever growing artisan cooperatives. Says Bess: "We're having fun. The women here have definite tastes in styles and colors. We bring our ideas together and create different models to try out. For example, the oversized traditional hat from Burkina Faso that I modeled for the Wodaabe women in the MCV/Barka embroidery co-op drew lots of laughs. But when our resident tailor Aisha scaled it down and tried it on -- voila! An instant hit all around."
Meanwhile, the Tuareg women in the Albaye leather cooperative are just starting a joint project with the artisans of a straw weaving cooperative from Ingal. Together, they will be hand crafting striking straw tote bags enhanced with leather work featuring the saturated ochre, turquoise, magenta and black in the traditional Tuareg style. We can't wait to share our new styles with you... look for us on eBay Giving Works this spring, or directly from our website at www.rain4sahara.org.
Best wishes for the New Year and grateful tidings for all your support from the staff at RAIN and our Tuareg and Wodaabe partners!
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