Salambo discovering Ethiopia
I have to start talking about the people I meet in Addis. Like many foreigners, we tend to regroup together at the start, but slowly we “branch out” to get to know local people. One of the first Ethiopian friends I made is Manale. She is part of what we call the Ethiopian Diaspora. She left her country in the 1970s after the fall of emperor Haile Selassié. Soon after the coup d’Etat which threw him out of power, a socialist military regime was installed which became known as the Derg. The government nationalised everything and families with properties had to select only one they could keep. Most of the educated elite preferred to emigrate for a freer life in Europe or the US.
Now, more than 30 years later, many Ethiopians are coming back to play their part in the rebirth of their country, and reclaim what they had left behind. The current government has a grand plan for growth and transformation and the country is currently booming. So about four years ago, Manale sold her flat in Paris where she was living at the time to reinvest her money in Ethiopia. She bought a house with the idea of launching a ready-to-wear line of clothes. Previously, she has had a successful career designing wedding and evening gowns in New York and Paris. To her disappointment the clothes label did not work out mainly because she could not find the textile she needed in Ethiopia. It may sound strange considering the ancient weaving tradition of the country, but woven material in Ethiopia tend to be of a uniform white, with a few coloured lines, and no other variation. Manale quickly realised that her business could not function if she had to import the material. She was also keen to produce something entirely made in Ethiopia.
However, as often in life, when one door closes another one opens. In the course of her travels through the country, Manale came across beautiful semi-precious stones produced in the North and the South of the country. It was love at first sight, she says. In the matter of an instant, she forgot about the ready-to-wear clothes and started dreaming about gemstones: opal, agate, onyx, jasper, calchedonite, serpentine, petrified wood, and so on…each with a story to tell. It occured to her that she could create a line of alternative jewellery “made in Ethiopia”. This time, everything worked in her direction. The regional government of Amhara had just started a so-called Lapidary Project, to make use of its great mineral resources and train young people out of school to cut and polish stones, the idea being to create new skills for the growing urban youth. So far, a total of 17 workshops have been setup in the Amhara region, and nearly 2,000 people have already benefited from the training, cutting and polishing stones according to a classic template. However, they completely lack exposure to the market. They produce stones, but they have no idea who could buy them and what they could do with them. The stones are beautiful but they need to be enhanced. That’s where Manale stepped in. She realised that she could become the missing link between the producers and the outside world. So she got involved in the project, and she is now helping some of the workshops to move away from the standard template to create more desirable products. Under her guidance, they are learning to cut the stones, not according to a template, but with a finished product in mind. Manale designs herself the stone patterns to make highly creative rings, necklaces and bracelets.
She is hoping that her initiative will attract other designers to use the stones in a more creative way and push the young artisans of Amhara to create their own patterns, even if there is still a long way to go. Apart from cutting the stones, they also have to learn to mount them in silver to make the finished product. At the moment Manale has her own jewellery produced in Addis, where there is a long tradition of working in silver, as can testify the many silversmiths based in the Piazza district of the city. Using stone however is new, and until now some of the most convoited stones such as opal, were exported in a raw state and transformed outside Ethiopia, further depleting the country of its resources. This is what Manale and many other Ethiopians want to change: they want everything made in Ethiopia. She is herself a gem amongst the gemstones!