The Women Shaping Clay

Pottery—the art of molding clay soil into various shapes of products—is bringing business to women at a center in Addis Ababa’s Gulele district. In the center, pottery is giving both livelihoods and life to the more than 300 women involved, though not as modernized as one would have liked. As much as the practice is giving a good look to people’s living rooms as well as giving high service in Ethiopian kitchens and homes, the craft still struggles to improve the society’s bad impression of it as a profession, writes Trualem Asmare.

The traditional handicraft sector is one of the important and cultural sectors in Ethiopia. Pottery production has a long history related to the daily lives in rural and urban communities and is mainly done by women. Ethiopian ladies produce cooking pots, water containers, coffee pots, and other products that are very much alive today. In the past, potters worked from their personal homes. Nowadays, however, pottery products are made in modern methods for a variety of uses.

EBR visited the spacious Ensira Clay Center—host to cooperatives—with its large number of clay products in various designs including vases, storage containers, different types of pots, and of course jebenas—the emblematic Ethiopian pot for boiling coffee. The artistic value and energy that goes into making such pieces of pottery is awe-inspiring.

Ensira was established in mid-2020, in the Gulele District of northern Addis Ababa in front of the Embassy of Nigeria. According to Genet Assefa, Assembler, before the inception of Ensira, women in the cooperatives worked in an area further north to the current site called Qechene in more than 15 collectives.
“District officials and the former mayor offered this new site to us,” Genet told EBR.

The center is a place of work, residence, and market for 300 women. Some make use of the small day care for their children within the establishment. The center had to be remodeled to fit the purpose as it is an antique building. The previous sites in Qechene were too small to grow the business and after moving to the new center, the women were able to create additional jobs for more than 139 women and 11 men possessing various types and levels of skills to complete each pottery project with set standards.
“Now the place is so comfortable any order can be completed within just a week,” says Genet.

The center was established as an association of sorts, paying salaries of which the highest is ETB8,000. The center has also created auxiliary job opportunities for other groups including fine soil suppliers which primarily comes from the Entoto Mariam area, as well as Sululta and Fiche in the State of Oromia. Apart from soil, workers also need adhesives as input for the products. Fortunately, inflation on the main input—soil—is not evident, though the same cannot be said of the adhesives.

“It is not just an association of women in business,” Genet says. “It has added social value to the women’s lives at times of happiness and sorrow.”
Genet and her colleagues make a variety of products. Though most are traditionally and historically handed down, there are some creatively designed new works as well. One can site the flower pot gifted to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) when he visited the center in its early days.

Even though most of the customers are Ethiopians, foreigners also buy some pottery products. However, selling the items from the center has been a challenge owing to its location which is relatively far from the city center. Genet and her colleagues wish to secure a shop in the middle of the capital.

The women aspire to grow the center into a factory. Noticing that some of the mechanical machines they use to mold and fire pottery are imported, they also wish to fully use local machines. The women also call on investors to join them in expanding the business into something bigger.

“An obstacle in growing the sector is the attitude of the general community. They do not see it as a profession,” Genet says. Even though pottery is purchased to decorate homes and for use in the kitchen and elsewhere, the same attitude is not extended to the profession and professionals. Genet fears this attitude endangers the entire community of pottery professionals.

Though potters in center are thankful for the new center, they are still faced with health and environmental issues that were not solved. For example, even though there is an electric kiln for the firing of pottery products, it is still not in use. Workers still have to endure heavy smoke as cow dung and other materials that produce heavy smoke are used to fire the kiln. Further, work needs to be done to change society’s not-so positive outlook on potters.

‘’We do not want our children to be involved in pottery, because the community’s attitude towards pottery has not changed much, and clay making is also harmful to health. All the pottery products are still made in the traditional way.’’EBR

10th Year • May 2022 • No. 107


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