When Somalia collapsed after the onset of civil conflict in the late 1980s, the country’s once-thriving industrial production sector was almost totally destroyed.
But some communities kept their traditional crafts alive throughout the turbulence, including the Benadiri people who mainly live in coastal areas including the capital Mogadishu and the southern port town of Merka.
The Benadiri suffered disproportionate violence during the civil war of the 1990s with many fleeing the country for good. This makes it all the more astonishing that they have managed to preserve their age-old skills including weaving by hand beautiful, colourful cloth called aliindi.
Maxamed Nuur Caddoow, also known as Maxamad Aliindigo, is one of those who has kept the craft alive.
I have been making aliindi for about 30 years,” he says. “It takes a lot of patience and a lot of energy. In one day you can weave a maximum of about 5 yards (about 4.5 metres) of cloth.”
Maxamad says he inherited his skills from his father and that the aliindi cloth woven by the Benadiri is much more durable than machine-made imports from India.
“They mass-produce their fabric very quickly while we are lucky if we manage to weave one piece a day. But ours lasts much longer.”
Somali cloth has been famous for centuries. In 1330, the famous Maghrebi traveller and scholar Ibn Battuta described how the Benadiri people made “unequalled woven fabrics which are exported to Egypt and elsewhere”.
Aliindi was traditionally made from cotton dyed with natural products including saffron. There are hundreds of different patterns woven into the cloth with names like ‘goats in the sand dunes’ and ‘teeth’.
The cloth has been worn for everyday use and for ceremonies such as marriages, funerals and cultural dancing. However, today many brides prefer to wear imported gowns from places like China, Turkey, the UAE and India instead of garments made from aliindi.
The weaver Jeylaani Abshir Cadde says imported fabric and clothing are threatening the aliindi business.
“Everything we produce is handmade apart from imported thread and buttons. You can buy imported clothes for between $2 to $3 whereas the aliindi we make costs at least $15 because of the cost of the materials and the amount of time it takes to make it.”
He says it was better when Somalia restricted imports because this prevented cheaper, foreign cloth from replacing locally-made fabric.
The elder Maki Mooye Fuule sells aliindi and other traditional items in Mogadishu. He says the fabric is not as highly valued as it was in the past.
“The best traditional cloth is made from aliindi handwoven by Somalia’s Benadiri people even though it’s somewhat out of fashion,” he says. “It is far superior to imported fabric and clothes. Luckily, some local people still treasure it and we are finding a growing number of new markets overseas as we export aliindi to diaspora Somalis who are keen to maintain and learn more about their culture.”