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Volume 40, Number 5September/October 1989

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The Weaver's Song

Written by Lark Ellen Gould
Photographed by Ilene Perlman

Omar Dahir Ali wakes each morning to the predawn call to prayer and thanks God for giving him a trade that has stood the test of time.

As his wives prepare tea and injera, or maize pancakes, for breakfast, Omar winds sized cotton thread onto a hand-fashioned spindle. His grandson crawls around his lap grasping at loose strands. Omar then sets off for the workshop, where he seats himself on the edge of a pit in the earthen floor, adjusts his wooden loom and sets his feet on its wood-and-rope treadles on the floor of the pit. In contentment, he sings a song.

It is the song of his fathers and his fathers' fathers and he will one day teach it to his grandson. It is the simple, humble weaver's song of victory - victory over poverty and starvation.

Somalia, a country of eight million people and 10 million camels, traditionally counts as its wealth that which can be corralled or worn or carried. Nomads in cotton skirts and hide sandals walk their country's principal export, livestock, from one green patch to another, ever wandering the parched Somali deserts.

Along the southern coast, however, some of the country's few settled inhabitants still eke out an existence today in what was Somalia's first industry and remains one of her enduring art forms: cloth weaving.

In 1330, the Arab traveler Ibn Battuta wrote of Somalia's thriving cloth industry: "In this place [Benaadir] are manufactured the unequalled woven fabrics named after it, which are exported from there to Egypt and elsewhere."

A crossroads between Africa and the Middle East, Somalia was a pivot-point of trade, linking ports from Egypt to India. Her capital of Mogadishu sits on the Indian Ocean, 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) from the Gulf of Aden and equidistant from Cairo, Baghdad and the trading cities of India's southwestern coast. It was once a major entrepôt of the trade in spices, slaves hides, aromatic gums, ivory and textiles. The Jubaland Plain, between the Juba and Shebele Rivers that rise in Ethiopia, gave Somalia riches of papayas, grapefruits, bananas, mangoes and, above all, cotton.

Even in the 19th century, a French geographer estimated, one out of every five persons in Mogadishu was a weaver. The fields of the Jubaland Plain were polka-dotted with cotton plants, and Somalis produced over 350,000 pieces of cloth annually from the fertile ground. Because the ginning and weaving processes traditionally fell to lower-caste Somali tribes, the product was cheap enough to export successfully to countries like India, Egypt, and Kenya. The white cloth was also the Somali national dress: One length of it, known in traders' Arabic as futa, wrapped every man's waist as a long skirt, with another shorter piece, called go, draped the torso like a shawl. Women wore a long wrap called guntino.

By the last decade of the last century, however, the white futa Benaadiri had been completely replaced by merikan, a grey sheeting manufactured by the United States to the dimensions of the Somali skirt. A length of it sold for one Maria Theresa thaler, and soon became interchangeable with that coin, developing into a kind of money known as cloth currency.

The introduction of European-style clothing by the Italian colonists, and a drop in the world cotton market that made production and transportation of merikan very competitive with indigenous industries, were abstract market forces that led to the near-eradication of futa Benaadiri But recent research also suggests an attempt by wealthy Indian merchants to drive out the local cloth and capture the intermediary trade.

Today, as a result, Somalia's southern ports of Merca and Brava no longer bustle with commerce, and their medieval fortifications crumble in the wind and tides.Today, only about 1,500 weavers nationwide carry on the trade that once flourished throughout the towns of the Benaadir Coast, struggling quietly against the onslaught of mass-produced synthetics. In steaming alleys away from the main thoroughfares - where local merchants today display sparkling textiles from Korea and Japan - the weaver's cooperatives silently sell their handmade products, moving their inventory slowly and patiently. So far, the weavers have survived, against the odds.

They have survived because, resourcefully, they introduced design and color into their weaving, developing - or discovering - a new, substantial market among their own people.

Using locally grown vegetable dyes such as saffron and imported dyed yarns from India and Pakistan, Somali weavers began in the late 1950's to weave brilliant reds, blues, yellows, blacks, and purples into their futas and guntinos, giving their people traditional cloths to use for marriages, funerals, furniture, war dancing, and everyday farming. Weavers invented dozens of patterns with names like "teeth" and "goats in the sand dunes" that have become standards and today are worn in major ceremonies and the religious festivities that keep the national spirit of this Islamic stronghold alive.

Although Somali weavers count themselves among the employed, their existence is a meager one and they live today, as they always have, among the country's poorest. The thick, coarse cotton grown in the Somali grasslands is frequently rejected for the finer and softer threads bought in now from India and Pakistan with coveted hard currency. The weavers must buy their thread at painful prices from merchants to whom they seem ever in debt.

Omar Dahir Ali, 56, had been weaving since he was a boy of 15. But, in the 1970s, the weaving stopped. Amid political chaos and war, wealthy merchants cornered the cotton market and drove prices up to levels the weavers could not afford.

"At that time, we were building houses to earn our living," said Omar, who even today earns less than 300 Somali shillings for every 750- by 75-centimeter (24- by 2½ foot) futa he brings to the cooperative shop. At the official rate that equals less than three dollars a length. Working swiftly with the nimble fingers of experience, Omar can weave one skirt a day, and working every day but Friday he brings home under $18 a week. As the price of a decent meal in the simplest Somali cafe is easily 200 shillings, or two dollars, Omar depends on the budgeting talents of his two wives to feed his family.

Omar now walks each morning to a cooperative workshop that has 32 pit looms, electric light, windows on the sea, and a roof that keeps the rain off. Its comfort and convenience are a far cry, he says, from stretching his yarns around the walls of his house, and running from the rain that used to flood the pit in his home workplace - but the weaving methods are the same.

The weaver first takes the dyed yarn in 24 batches of eight-meter (26-foot) lengths, each tied together and marked with spittle and kohl. He dunks them into a sizing of flour and water to make the fibers stiff and strong. Then, in a stretching method called darisi, the threads are wrapped from one strategically placed vertical stick in the building to another, and left to dry like a long L-shaped blanket. When the yarn has dried, it is wound onto a wooden spindle called the furfure, then unwound and tied into the heddle loops, following the color pattern indicated by loose strings on the bamboo heddle.

The weaver affixes the heddle to the loom and stretches the threads of the new warp out behind the loom to a single iron hook set in the floor seven and a half to eight meters (24 to 26 feet) away. There all the warp threads are gathered into one fat knot, tied to a length of rope, and attached to the hook. The other end of the rope is led back to the weaver's seat. As weaving progresses and cloth is wound onto the cloth beam, the warp is fed toward the loom, anchoring it to the hook each time with a new knot farther down the rope.

When the futa is finished it is delivered to the cooperative store, where the weaver receives his shillings along with new thread for the next length of cloth. The store sells the products for 1,500 to 2,000 Shillings each ($15 to $20) - though at that price, Benaadiri cloth for futas and guntinos is longer an inexpensive alternative to imported cloth. It faces competition not only from Tanzanian kitenge cloth and polyesters imported from the Far East, but even from modern Somali industry.

Fifty kilometers (30 miles) outside Mogadishu is the Somaltex factory, whose 154 automated looms work 14 hours a day, turning out nearly 14 million meters (about 15 million yards) of cloth annually - almost enough to reach from New York to Mogadishu. The Somaltex futas vary in thickness, color, and design and sell for approximately 800 shillings ($8); most shops in the marketplace stock them as well as the imported polyesters. The latter, although impractical in the tropical heat, easily torn and expensive, seem to have captured the taste of Somali women by their bright patterns and varied textures.

But in response to this challenge too, Somali weavers are raising their resourceful heads and refusing to disappear. To meet the challenge of changing fashion they are helping to change the way women wear their cloth.

Two new shops opened in Mogadishu this year, both bent on making futa Benaadiri the biggest thing since Benetton sweaters. At a fashion show last spring, Somali designer Amena Egal sent three models walking through the crowds in a debut of sun, business, and party dresses all made from traditional Benaadir wedding and war cloths. In her store, Garri Bila, Amena sells her fashions for the equivalent of $40 to $60. "We're not changing the tradition of Benaadiri cloth," she explains. "We're just bringing it up to date. Instead of wearing it in the fields or as a guntino, we're making it more western to appeal to the tastes of women today. Somalia is no longer just a society of nomads wandering around the desert. Somalis are coming to the city and their fashion has to reflect their change of lifestyle."

To keep their craft alive, the weavers may have to change too, even beyond bowing to people's tastes in colors and patterns, says Abdirahim Hussein, who heads the Somali Weavers Cooperatives for the National Somali Cooperatives Union. Weavers are requested to break out of their futa mindframe and create napkins, placemats, table" cloths, pillowcases and curtains from their weaves. Hotels are offering contracts and boutique owners are ordering custom designs. The business is out there, Abdirahim says, the weavers just have to bend enough to pick it up.

"There are problems," he adds. "The loom in the hole, for instance. The white thread gets dirty and the width of the cloth is limited by the weaver's arm reach. The fiber is often not tight enough. I see room for improvement if only by raising the loom off the ground."

Getting the weavers to change their styles and dimensions is an obstacle that can be overcome without harming the traditions of the nation's first industry, Abdirahim says, "These people are weavers for generations. They must weave. We're not trying to change the pattern of their lives. We're trying to change the uses of their trade."

So the Somali weavers' song is not yet a swan song. Steadfast and adaptable, he shuttles weft into warp with whatever thread he has available, and keeps his feet firmly in the pit beneath his loom, whether it is in his own house or in a cooperative workshop. The thread does come, alham-dulillah - praise God. His loom remains full and his family fed.

Edward A. Alpers, professor of history at the University of California at Los Angeles, wrote that "it would probably not be entirely inappropriate to repeat earlier concerns that the weavers of futa Benaadiri face an uncertain future. Futa Benaadiri is no longer an inexpensive alternative to imported cloths and as a prestige textile it faces competition from Tanzanian kitenge and similar stuffs. [But] its ability to endure for more than seven centuries, and particularly to make radical adjustments that historical circumstances have forced upon it over the past century, suggest strongly that it will continue to survive."

Lark Ellen Gould, a journalist specializing in political affairs in the Horn of Africa, lives in Massachusetts.

This article appeared on pages 8-11 of the September/October 1989 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1989 images.