Ethiopia: 'Ge Mot' - Harari's Women's Craft Work

If you visit the house of the Harari people, it is common to be mesmerized and captivated by the rooms which are decorated with beautifully designed baskets and mats. For Harari women, furnishing the walls of the rooms with properly configured and artistically made baskets is an age old style and an important traditional heritage they apprize it highly. Not only that, but the artifacts are also the manifestation how the women are creative and talented.

As revealed in different literatures, basket weaving has been one of the practices that have been practiced by Harari women for centuries. The crafts, noted as Ge Mot, apart from used to decorate walls and making houses more livable and cozy, they denote the identity of Harari women, the sphere of their life and show the well-developed aesthetic tastes of the women.

Many people, who came to visit the historic walled city of Harar appreciate and cherish the beautiful handiworks that the women have crafted. The artifacts, with their distinctive designs, perky forms plus contrasting colors, grab the eyes and minds of tourists.

As various sources indicated, the materials from which the baskets are woven consist of a number of different types of dried grass or straw. Migir, a sturdy plant, usually left undyed, is used as the basis of the coils that will make up the basket. The coils are woven over with a type of grass known to the Harari as agargara, and to western botanists as Eleusine jaegeri. These stems, which are often dyed, are used as a kind of thread both to decorate the finished basket and to hold its structure together.

Quarma is a basic type of straw, which serves as a predominant decorative function and is only used on the outside of the basket. While the traditional means of adding color to weaving materials involves an assortment of natural dyes, modern dying requires little more than adding powdered chemical dyes to boiling water and adding the intended grasses and straws to the mix.

"Baskets are a symbol of identity for women. They are a symbol of Harari women's sphere of life", wrote Ahmed Zekaria in an article titled- Harari Basketry through the Eyes of Amina Ismael Sherif, quoting Silverman's writings.

The works have decorative value and demonstrate that the housewife knows how to properly configure baskets following Harari conventions for basket display. What is more, the artifacts serve distinctive functions in social activities, in particular, in the ceremonial exchange of gifts, especially food, during life cycle festivities.

As to the writer, different colors are combined to form patterns and designs of varying complexity. One starts with simple designs like the uuf horda, the "foot-print of a bird." More complex arrangements include qut'ur fetah (tie and release), finch'iq (splash), fershi mahallaq (coin), gebre merfi (slave needle), meqnati (belt), bisaat' (rug), and mesob (bread table). Today there are more than twenty-five designs and patterns. Some of the designs are named after building and place names, such as Muhammed Ali gar, a building built inside the city walls by a wealthy Indian merchant, and "Bombay," named for the textile of similar design that is imported from Bombay. Many of the design names refer to animals, like the previously mentioned uuf harda and also adurru iin (the eye of a cat) and dokhon lanka (the trunk of an elephant), and so on.

Both natural and artificial powdered colors are the essential components for the making of dyes. The most commonly used colors include qeeh (red), wariiq (green), hurdi (yellow), and t'ey (black). These are called gerengi, Harari colors, whereas pink and orange are considered tourist colors. The essential ingredients are plants, such as hurdi inchi (yellow spice); imported powdered dyes; water; and lemon juice. The dyeing process involves dissolving the natural plant material or the powder in boiling water and then soaking the agergera and qerma in the solution. Lemon juice is added to set the color, the writer further elaborated.

Elias Tesfaye, an editor at Harar Newspaper, said that Harar is known for its basket works. The Ge Mot, Hararis' basketry work, is an Islamic tradition in which Harari people value it.

Even though it is hard to put an exact time when the art of basketry was started in the place, various documents show as it began centuries ago. However, as archeologists suggested and agriculture is the oldest form of activity, the ancient Harari people have been developing the work of basketry in parallel with farming.

As other kinds of decorative motifs, the baskets made by the women reflect the religious, historical, cultural and traditional values of the Harari people and portray their identity, he added.

As to him, basket making has crucial role for Hararis. The patterns, the colors, the shape, the decorations and motifs depict the history, the cultural and economic relations of the town, the structural arrangements, the life style of the people plus their ideological advancements. They also indicate the functional purpose apart from being wall decorations. Equally, they have irreplaceable significance to pass on the values to the next generation. "Every user knows the function and standard of the art works plus their usage".

According to Elias, in Harari community, basket making is female-centered activity. Thus, Harari daughters, regardless of any differences, learn weaving at their early ages. They learn the art from their parents, elder sisters, peers and neighbors. Then, they develop and master it throughout the course of their life.

As it is mentioned repeatedly, the tradition of basket making and basketry is an important symbol of identity for Hararis. Thus, preserving this tradition and passing it to the new generation is vital.

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