Basketwork of Harar
Institute of African Studies, University of Nairobi
Harara is a Muslim town in Hararge/East Ethiopia with a population of ca. 50,000 people, who belong to five different ethnic and language groups: Harari (ca. 20,000), Kottu-Oromo, Argobba, Somali, and Amhara. Only the Amhara are Christians. Harari and Amharinya are Semitic languages, Orominya and Somalinya are Cushitic languages: Agrobbinya is extinct; the Argobba speak mostly Orominya (personal communication. Sidney R. Waldron, 1975).
Basketwork is a refined art. That it has to be valued as an art proper is perhaps up to now only recognised by the African art market overseas. It is carried out by the women of the Harari, the élite group within the town. Distinct forms and shapes of baskets and distinct and complicated patterns were developed throughout probably several centuries, although we have material proof of basketmaking only for about a hundred years. The Paulitschke collection of 1884 in the Austrian Ethnographic Museum in Vienna has the earliest Harari basket we have. The intricate patterns show a richness of color combinations for which already in the last century imported chemical dyes were used although natural dyes were known, and informants were still able to give me the recipes how to prepare them. Raw materials were several species of grass and straw, and for dyes minerals and organic substances.
The technique demands great skill, since foundation and oversewing coil often have to be composed with materials of several (not only two) contrasting colors.
The patterns reflect the cultural history of the town: for instance patterns with the names of "Shield of the Amîr" (indicating that there had been amîrs ruling the city), "Mohammed Ali Gâr" (referring to an unusual and beautiful house, the Pakistani trader Mohammed Ali built at the turn of this century), "Servant of the Needle" (gäbär märfï)--an Amhara term--(referring to the presence and influence for the Amhara conquerors). Other patterns give the name of the inventor of a particular pattern.
The greater number of baskets show that the "good side" is the decorative side--that is the outside--and not the functional side, the inside of a plate (With a modern soup bowl the "good" side would be the functional inside). This shows that such baskets had much more a decorative function, namely, wall decoration. Only at rarer occasions such baskets were used for food presents or to serve special types of food to guests, for instance at a wedding.
Baskets had to be arranged in a Harari house according to prescribed rules. Mastership in basketmaking and in arranging baskets in a Harari house showed that the artists and housewife knew the skills and rules of this fine art, and she thus indicated that she was a member of the élite group of the Harari. Also, every young woman had to have (and still must have) a basic outfit of baskets for her household when she gets married.
The art is still alive. A tourist trade and craft has developed, which is of a simpler make and less fine quality. Here it is most often Kottu women who work for a Harari dealer.
Key Words: Harar/East Ethiopia; Basketwork; Women's Art; Culture history.