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.
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