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Sudan: The Art of Making Art and Income

By Bereket Tsegay

Women in the Kassala State of Sudan are striving to improve their livelihoods through developing the handicraft sector. The field trip report follows:

The sun was sending its ‘Goodbye’ message after fulfilling its duty for the day – a sunny day in June 2013 when we arrived at Awad, a village in Eastern Sudan which borders Eritrea. Soon after the arrival, our team from both the Pastoral & Environmental Network in the Horn of Africa (PENHA) and the Pastoralist Environment Association in Kassala State (PEAKS) engaged in assessing the joint interventions and also in listening to and understanding the communities’ needs with a particular focus on those of the women.

PENHA-PEAKS strategy of empowering women communities in Eastern Kassala was based on the context of the rich experiences in understanding the needs of women. The key idea was based upon building up the handicraft skills the women already had, rather than introducing major changes to their cultural and traditional lifestyles.
The programme, which was funded by the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA), included elements to help the women to develop their handicraft skills, to enable them to produce eye-catching and high quality items that are more widely marketable. The women produce high quality handbags, mats, decorations, etc. I had the chance to see one of the products, a handicraft of about 5 metres long. I was amazed as it is difficult to believe it was made by hand rather than a sewing machine. I was also impressed to hear the positive impact that the project, which was made clear by the women who spoke to us. All of them assured us that they have experienced an increase in their monthly income which is contributing towards more and better quality food in their households. They also said that they now have more to spend on education and health services. We found that their monthly incomes have increased by about 300 to 500 SDG (Sudanese pound).

When I shared my experience with the PENHA Executive Director, Dr. Zeremariam Fre in London, he strongly supported my observations. He told me of Mr. Kiyofumi Tanaka, a friend of PENHA who works for the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and attended one of the exhibitions held in Kassala city. He expressed his deep amazement at the quality of the exhibits: ‘Did the women attend any Art’s Colleges?’ he asked after enjoying the women handicraft exhibition held in Kassala city in December 2010. His testimony demonstrates the quality of the handicrafts being produced by the women in the Eastern Sudan. Boosting the handicraft sector has the following major advantages:

 It is complementing the women’s traditional practices which are already accepted and respected by the community
 The women can produce handicraft items while they are looking after their children and also the small animals (goats, sheep, chicken, etc)
 The activities have played a great role in developing team spirit and cooperation among women as they learn to work as groups and mobilise their resources together
 It has helped them to generates alternative household income which is especially important during the time of harsh impacts of climate change such as drought
 In the Art they produce, they express their ideas, values and use cultural symbols
 Domestic usage of the handicrafts is cheaper than buying high priced items from the markets.

Nefisa won ‘Best Handicraft Award’
I had the chance to have brief meeting with Nefisa Mohammed Ahmed who won the prize in one of the Khartoum festivals for producing a very skilful handicraft item.

Nefisa is one of the women who participated in the first capacity building scheme (business skills) organised by PENHA-PEAKS which was held under the Women Economic Empowerment Programme (WEEP) - funded by DANIDA. She is one of the women who organised groups to share the experiences, gain skills and help each other to solve their common socio-economic problems and devise alternative ways of improving their lives.

Nefisa, 42, is a very skilful handicrafts producer, and she is responsible for earning an income to look after her family. She is a member of one of the groups in which the women strive to improve their skills and are eager to learn more and maximise the utilisation of the available local resources. According to her, the women capacity scheme helped her improve her technical skills and also helped her to come up with exotic and unique designs and items.
As a result of the networks set up by PEAKS, the women in Kassala area are gaining more access to markets and potential customers. They are attending more local public events in Kassala city and national level festivals in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. As a result, Nefisa had attended the Khartoum festival which helped her to show her beautiful and durable handicraft, and compete with other similar items displayed in the exhibition. In the festival she earned the ‘Best Handicraft Award’ from the festival organising committee of the Ministry of Social Affairs. Among other items, she produced covers which can be used for vehicle seats and office chairs. It is well decorated (with a chess board design) and gives comfort for the driver as it has good ventilation, especially important in Sudan’s hot weather. This award gave Nefisa and her women group huge motivation as it acknowledged their practical and artistic contribution in seeking an alternative household income.

Individuals and organisations which can support the development of PENHA-PEAKS micro-businesses initiative on handicraft in Sudan are welcome to contact us: