The Beta Israel village of Wolleka lies 3km north of the once royal city of Gondar. The village was once the home of Falashas (Ethiopian Jews). Most of these people were airlifted to Israel in the 1980’s and none remain today, but they have left their mark on the village. Not only are there a few original houses with artwork, mainly Stars of David, but there is also a small synagogue and a cemetery. The local people do their best to keep the buildings and cemetery in good repair in the hope that tourists, among them Jewish people, will come to visit and pay their respects.
Ethiopian Christianity has a definite Semitic influence even today, with the importance of the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabot, restrictions around food preparation, the rite of circumcision and the stories, still important, about Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
Ethiopia adopted Christianity as the state religion in the 4th c. but two deprivations occurred that affected Jewish people, the first under Yeshaq I (1414-30) when Jews lost the right to inherit land and the second under Yohannes (1667-82) when Jews (and Muslims) had to be geographically separated from Christians. Falashas, who refused to convert, had their land confiscated and so, to survive, many took up craft making and became skilled potters and weavers. This is where our charity of the months of June and July comes into play. In the town of Wolleka (probably becoming Falasha during the 2nd deprivation) it is possible to buy souvenirs from the townspeople who try to carry on this tradition, but there is a very special charity – Ploughshare Women’s Craft Training Centre – that has taken up the challenge of creating beautiful pottery made in the traditional Falasha method as well as weaving and basket making in the local Amhara tradition.
We were lucky enough to visit the centre in September 2019 on a tour of ‘Ancient Ethiopia’ which focused on archaeological and religious sites of world importance in the north of the country. The centre is situated directly on the route travelling north from Gondar – once the seat of Ethiopian emperors and the site of an immense 17th-18th-century royal compound of castles. Our tour guides had taken previous groups of western tourists there and clearly had a personal sympathy for and interest in the work as did our guest lecturer. We were impressed and moved both by what we saw and by the project director, Tesfalem, who showed us round and spoke to our group in English. On our return we decided to find out more about how the charity originated, and to ask the charity committee at St Mary’s for their help.
We managed eventually to make contact in June 2020 with the Rev’d Charles Sherlock, the originator of the centre, and he gave us some of the background. The Ploughshare Women’s Craft Training Centre, as it is officially called, was set up as a Charity in Scotland in the 1990s and eventually became a local Ethiopian charity. It was always intended to be a self -financing enterprise, partly on the sales of product and partly by offering training courses in crafts. The original aim was to help unmarried mothers, women disowned by their families, divorced women with no means of support, or women afflicted with fistulae and their children, irrespective of their religious background. The project has been run from the beginning by Tesfalem, and she went to Japan for a year to train as a potter. In the early years of the project a lot of help came from Japan, as well as Australia and Wales. For much of the last 25 years it has been very successful. Tesfalem told us that about 2,500 women have been helped by the project since its inception. However, economic conditions in the first half of 2020 and beyond have made things extremely difficult.
We were delighted to make direct contact with Tesfalem by email via the Ethiopian Red Cross in November 2020 and via the phone messaging App, Viber, in February 2021. We now feel we have a more or less up to date account of what is going on at the centre, and there is a video Tesfalem sent in March here:
Tesfalem told us that the centre is still providing training for single women, but covid restrictions have made this more difficult. Pottery production continues and sales are exclusively to local people. All income as a result of sales to tourists has ceased. Horticulture has continued with fruit and cabbages sold in local markets, but water shortage is a problem and investment is needed to improve the water supply. The centre is fortunate to have two hectares of fertile land leased to them by the government. Animal husbandry provides milk and cheese which is sold to produce income, but they have fewer cows now as they had to sell some of the dairy herd. Tesfalem says a cow costs around 70,000 Ethiopian birr – the equivalent of approximately £1,200.
We asked Tesfalem how the civil war in Tigray, the neighbouring region to the north east of Amhara, is impacting on the life of her community. Her reply: ‘The conflict in Tigray is direct – indirect affect anybody because if there is no peace everything will be corrupt…..anyway thanks to God now it is in a better way.’
If you would like to add to the £1,000 gift being sent from St Mary’s, please donate to Iffley PCC and specify ‘Ploughshare Women’s Craft Centre.’ Thank you for your support. We have booked Dr Jacke Phillips, our tour lecturer, to give a talk on Ethiopia on Saturday 11 December drawing on her considerable experience as an archaeologist working in Africa. We anticipate that she will reflect on both the impact of the pandemic and the civil war in Tigray. We will keep in touch with Tesfalem in the meantime and hope, also, to give an update on the work of the Centre
Lorna & Maureen