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A Gallery of Multi-talented Women

Sona Berhane

To commemorate International Women’s Day, an exhibition was held at the hall of the Association of Eritreans in Agricultural Sciences for three days, from 9 to 11 March. The exhibition was organized by five organizations: National Association of Eritrean Designers, Eritrean Women’s Agriculture Association (EWAA), Ministry of Marine Resources, Tinsae’e Handcrafts Association, and Textile and Weaving Association.

The first thing I came across when I walked into the exhibition hall was a dizzying spread of exotic-looking handcrafted jewelry. On closer observation, I noted the delicate, beautifully rendered earrings were mostly made of seashells, buttons, paper and a variety of knickknacks that one would never think of turning into jewelry. One artisan used strips of locally treated leather and transformed them into elegantly understated earrings and bracelets. The craftswomen not only showcased their intricately ornamented handiworks but also provided explanations on the raw materials they used and the processes involved in crafting their products.

Next was a verdant display of all kinds of herbs, including the highly medicinal Shnfa’e, hibiscus, fringed rue, black seeds, henna, turmeric and many more, packaged neatly and sold at very reasonable prices. Except for turmeric all of the herbs on display are grown locally and are entirely organic. It was impressive to see how knowledgeable these women are of their products and the host of health problems each herb could be used for. I decided to buy a packet of home-grown chamomile tea.

On display beside the herbs were small vials of skin moisturizers made solely of beeswax and sesame oil – no coloring, scents or additives. The specialist who concocted this ointment passionately cautioned us to remain on the naturalist path to take care of our health, our skin, our hair and our beauty. The effects, she stressed, are considerably healthier and long lasting compared to the enticingly packaged imported chemicals.

The most interesting aspect of the exhibition for me was the food section. Displayed were different pastries such as the soft, orangish flat bread or Himbasha made of whole grain wheat and sweet potatoes. I tried a piece, and it was dense and delicious. I then saw brown biscuits made of red taff and the crispy crackers whose main ingredient was chickpeas. All of these were a marvelous alternative to white flour. There were also mango marmalades with zero additives. Careful sterilization of the jars allowed them several months’ worth of shelf life. The place, it seemed, was buzzing with the innovative juxtapositions of the traditional with the modern.

We then moved to a display of a variety of cheese. The production of milk and cheese entails a complex series of processes that require careful and precise monitoring. The businessowner elaborated that cheese was her main export because a substantial portion of her clientele lived abroad. This does not come as a surprise given that milk, and especially cheese, produced organically from grass-fed livestock is bound to be tastier and more nutritious than the enhanced, mass-produced alternative. She emphasized how important it is to keep our agriculture and livestock organic.

What I saw next was an odd contraption that seemed to be no more than a foot long. I learned that it was a stove used to dehydrate and smoke fish. Abraham Sultan, one of the coordinators who was handling the PR for the exhibition, explained to me that 60% of marine life in the Red Sea consists of small fish. The focus, therefore, is primarily on the most common small fish — sardines and anchovies. On sale were packets of dried sardines that had been smoked and cured using the dehydrating stove. This method could preserve them for up to a month, which opens up the potential for distribution of seafood to corners of the country farthest from the coastline, as well as to rural places where constant refrigeration and/or ice is not readily available. Like most cured meat, the dried fish are flavored and can simply be served with awaze. They can also be ground and sprinkled on one’s food for an extra boost of protein.

On the textile side of the exhibition was laid out an array of scarves and shawls made from the traditionally favored fabric Jedid. These clothes were dyed, washed and handwoven by the seamstresses themselves. According to Abraham, the weavers still use traditional looms to interlace the fabric. I thought the choice of muted hues complemented the coarse appearance of the fabric.

Alongside them was an artist showcasing her work in the form of elaborate, handwoven stitches on a wide stretch of Jedid, which created a kind of minimalist Afrocentric tapestry. Her needlework was impressive. The resulting design, reminiscent of the local ecclesiastic style, captured the eyes.

This was followed by a small section devoted to knitting and crocheting. Flawlessly knit scarves, sweaters, hats, bags and toddler clothes were the main products of this designer. More important, though, was the display of washable diapers in varying sizes. Considering the cost of disposable diapers and their impact to the environment, I thought these washable diapers are a great sustainable solution.

As we circled toward the last of the display tables, Abraham drew our attention to the middle of the hall, where there was staged an elaborate centerpiece. I recognized major components of the coffee ceremony, decorative artifacts, flowerpots, and small canvases of art. These last works showed very pleasant interplay of two dominant shades: a light brownish color and a maroon clay color. The artist later explained, to everyone’s astonishment, that what she used to craft her work were taff grains – both types. The flower pots and decorative lamp holders were constructed from carved gourd and dried seeds of the same gourd plant.

An overarching theme that ran through the entire exhibition was the creative incorporation of the women’s artistic imagination with their knowledge of domestic life.

The five organizations collaborate to hold an exhibition monthly on the last week of each month. On a larger scale, a similar exhibition, with more participants and showcasing similar craftworks by women, will take place for three more days, starting on the 18th of March.

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