Africa: Many Peoples, Many Cultures, Much Hope
Pounded Yams and Injera
My journeys to Eritrea began in 1994, when I interviewed young women (the age of my daughter, Winona) who had lived almost half of their lives as fighters in a war zone. This occurred during Eritrea's thirty-year war of liberation from Ethiopian control from 1961 to 1991. During the war, a culture unit was established, and several women also learned to paint between battles. Their story is told in the chapter "Eritrea: Artist-Fighters with New Visions" in Africa: Women's Art, Women's Lives.
I returned to Eritrea in 1995, pleased to be invited by the Eritrean Ministry of Education and Culture, the Asmara School of Art, and the United States Information Service to present an art workshop. It was an extraordinary challenge, to help young people shift from images of war to peace and reconstruction and to explore their personal lives. I then also had time to sketch each day at the Asmara markets, and when I traveled with the artists to nearby towns and villages. Gradually my paintings began to reflect Eritrea's cultural diversity, as well as common survival themes related to village life and people's dependence on the land.
fig. 60: Eritrea: Compassionate Madonna
1996, acrylic, 72"x68", © Betty LaDuke
The Tigrinya women of Eritrea wrapped in traditional white cotton shawls, come together each morning for prayers in the courtyard of St. Mary's Coptic Church. I sketched their gestures as they pray to the Compassionate Madonna (fig. 60), with arms upraised or touching the ground, or hands clasped to their chest or forehead. After prayers, they sit and talk with friends and neighbors. This generation of mothers bore the sorrow of war, the wounds, lost limbs, and death of many friends and family members.
There is a special Saturday market in Asmara that bustles with people and chickens. In Eritrea: Chicken Vendors (fig. 61), the women's forms merge with the chickens they are selling.
fig. 61: Eritrea: Chicken Vendors
1996, acrylic, 54"x50", © Betty LaDuke
Near the market there were large warehouses for grain storage and mills for grinding tef, the grain used for their basic food staple, injera, a flat, circular bread comparable to a sourdough pancake. Traditionally, it is served with berberi (chili pepper), meat, fish, or vegetable sauces placed in the center of the injera. Pieces of the injera are then dipped into the delicious sauces.
fig. 62: Eritrea: Sifting Grain, Sharing Dreams
1995, acrylic, 72"x68", © Betty LaDuke
The young women in my painting Eritrea: Sifting Grain, Sharing Dreams (fig. 62) sit long hours each day, clustered together, sifting, tossing, and cleaning the grain before it is ground into flour. The grain kernels then become the recipients of the women s dreams of love and fulfillment.
A week before a wedding, Women Celebrate (fig. 63) when they come together to prepare suwa, a fermented beverage made from dried injera. Then, at the wedding, after the food is served, the women will drum and dance to celebrate the bride.
fig. 63: Women Celebrate
1997, acrylic, 68"x54", © Betty LaDuke
New traditions are also evolving in Eritrea, as women now drum to celebrate their national day of liberation, as more than thirty percent of the combatants were women. For Women's International Day, they also celebrate their contributions during peace.
I am grateful for the many friends I now have in Africa. Sharing food has been an important part of our friendship, whether pounded yam in Nigeria, West Africa, or injera in Eritrea, East Africa. I also appreciate the daily work that goes into food processing and preparation.
I also appreciate the women artists and artisans who add another ingredient to their daily routine, the creation of bambolse, or beauty, in their environment, as well as the basics of every day life, baskets, pottery, and cloth.
I admire the courageous women who paint their reality while in jail, as Inji Efflatun in Egypt or on the battlefield as Terhas Iyassu and Elsa Jacob in Eritrea.
I admire the spirit of Princess Elizabeth Olowu of Benin, Nigeria, who creates monumental sculptures depicting women's lives. These women are my new role models and teachers about life and the creative spirit. They have inspired my books as well as canvases, Africa Between Myth and Reality.