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Artisan Crafts

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In Debre Brehan, the Beta Israel Community is mostly located in the neighborhood of Kebelle 05, estimated at around 7,000 members.  The community is connected in terms of social and economic networks and is separated and discriminated against by the general Ethiopian community.  The community keeps an external identity as Ethiopians, assimilating with societal norms, while inwardly keeping their identity and heritage of Beta Israel.   The community has a set of “Gedams” where elders retire for their end of days.  The community in Debre Brehan is closely related to the Gedams of Jambaria, Mentik, and Gizzo for which they provide physical and financial support. 


The Beta Israel community is often referred to as Bal Ej which literally means “Craftsmen” in Amharic. In all town centers, a variety of artisan crafts are produced by the community which includes blacksmiths, weavers, pottery makers, and leatherworkers.   These products are sold and distributed throughout Ethiopia and are symbols of national pride.


The Beta Israel community of North Shewa has always been characterized for its artisan craftsmanship.  In Debre Brehan, the government established a zone for the craft workshops which includes 10 metal workshops employing 60 men and communal pottery workshops that employ 70 women. It is common to see teenagers and children working in workshops to provide for their families. The livelihoods of an estimated 150 families (~1000 people) are dependent on the craft workshop in Kebelle 05.

Pottery Workshops

The workshops consist of the clay preparation area, the product preparation area, the firing and blackening area, and the finishing area. In the workshops several types of common cultural cookware were produced such as Dist (Cooking pot), Jebena (Coffee pot), Insira (Water pot) and matesha (use to burn incense during coffee ceremony). Most of the pieces are burnished and finished with a black color and sometimes reddish brown.  The clayware are all symbols of pride and Ethiopian tradition.  The products made in the workshops are distributed throughout Ethiopia.

The preparation process includes, manual crushing of two types of soil to create a suitable mixture, adding water and manual mixing by stepping on the clay.  The raw material is shaped after which is undergoes drying, intricate design, sanding and painting. All workshops harden the clayware with open fire as they do not have advanced ovens.  The products are burned for 1 hour in the open fire and than in a smaller fire of dried grass which creates a lot of smoke for an extended period causing air pollution to the entire neighborhood.   The other option is burning in a designated room, however the workers are than exposed to a concentrated amount of smoke causing respiratory problems.  Women state that it is impossible to breath while working and the fire causes damage to their breathing, eyes and throat and has been reported as a cause of death.  



As part of the collaboration with the community, the first volunteer program with Kebelle 05 aims to address the issue of burning of clayware and health related issues.  The program is being led by CultivAid together with one of the leaders in the community, Cherne Mulgeta. The initial activities aim to develop a working relationship with the community members and to build friendship.  Chernet leads a group of young volunteers who were rejected from formal school education and are learning to work the way of craftsmanship.  The young volunteers will be spending their time to build a chimney for the pottery burning room which will greatly reduce the effect of smoke on the health of the women pottery workers and also enable additional work hours in the workshops during the operation of the burning room, which was not possible previously.  


The final result will be the construction and installation of the chimney.  The volunteers will gain practical hands on experience, the women will have improved working conditions and the neighborhood will have improved air quality.  The volunteers will include 25 members of the community, each will contribute 8 hours a day for 8 days of work.  

Final outcome


The group of volunteers, built a set of chimneys for the pottery workshop.  The chimneys enable ventilation in the burning room improving the working conditions of the women workers.  In addition, the smoke created by the burning would choke the entire neighborhood and the working area preventing working hours during those days.  The results in cleaner air and safer work environments.

The activity created stronger bonds to the Beta Israel community.  At the opening event Abbas from different Gedams and leaders from the local community joined the event.  Following the event a request was made from additional Gedams to have programs implemented with them as well.    The event created a strong presence of the program with the community and showed the type of collaboration that will be built together.  


In total, 21 volunteers completed a total of 1764 volunteer hours.  


An additional result of the activities is that the government has committed to fund an additional building for the pottery burning. The volunteers will take on the construction and design of the oven in the building.

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