Palm Leaf Industries Brace For a Fight

By: Aisha Braima

Khartoum (Sudanow) To make ends meet, Batool, an elederly but energetic woman of 70, manufactures straw brooms. Her specialization is brooms made from palm leaves.
“I have inherited this trade from my grandmothers and, God willing, I will teach it to my daughters, if they wish to’’ Batool tells Sudanow Magazine, with determination.
In the process, palm leaves are inundated for some time. Then they are thinned by hand leaving out the harder parts (or hangoug) that join the two flanks of the leaf together. Then Batool presses the product together in a good handful which is finally tied up hard in three separate places from the rear. The result is an elegant broom that can leave no dirt behind. A small broom fetches Batool SDG2 while the bigger one with a tall handles is sold at SDG5.
Another interesting product of palm leaves is the mishlaeeb .This is obtained by binding together two long strands (braids) of leaf fibre making a plus (+) shape that is hanged to the roof of a room or a shack on which food or milk pots are put to secure adequate ventilation and keep away rodents and insects. The mishlaeeb is now an ‘’endangered species ‘’with the wide use of refrigeration in urban households, in particular. However, in outlying rural areas, especially among nomadic communities, the mishlaeeb is still steadfast.

Batool displays mishlaeeb, guffas on the right
Batool displays mishlaeeb, guffas on the right

The habbaba (or the straw fan) is a multi-colour, multi-shape tool that helps with a cool breeze in the summer. There are circular and rectangular habbabas which can be held directly by the hand or with the help of wooden handles to bring about cool air, repel flies or blow a spark into a fine glow of charcoal to make tea or coffee.
Unlike the mishlaeeb, the habbaba still secures a graceful presence in coffee shops and coffee get together.
One can also notice that the leaf guffa(or shopping basket) of the past has become very rare or non-existent in Sudan’s households due to the plastic revolution. Guffas with their different colours now assume a shy presence in market places and folklore shops and expos.
Kaltoom , another aging but illustrious lady is a master of “tabag” industry. The tabag is a wide palm leaf tray. It is of two types: a spacious and deep one is used to store the local sorghum bread known as {kisra} or the wheat bread known as gurrasa. The other type of tabag is a rather flat and light colourful one used to cover the aforesaid products and other types of food in general.

The latter is still in wide use while the former has given way to the aluminum trays. whereas, and according to Kaltoom, the big tabag sells at SDG 60-70, the small one fetches 35-50.
Hajja Amna’s shop in Omdurman market smells of the history of palm leaf industries. There one can find tabags of sorts especially the bright ones used in wedding ceremonies. Here they are used to house all the delicate requirements of a wedding part, topped of course by perfumes, incenses, sweets and pastries.
Outstanding among Hajja Amna’s merchandize is the colourful “birish” which is a spacious palm leaf sheet used to cover the bridal bed. Then one can also see the white palm leaf sheet used as bedding during funerals.
A seasoned birish –maker needs 3-4 days to make one. The birish trade is in high demand. One birish sells at SDG 30-40, according to Hajja Amna.
Then there comes the “nutu” which is a circular palm leaf birish with a hole right at the centre. The nutu is used by women during smoke baths. It is fitted firmly on a hole in the ground in which aromatic “taleh” and “shaf” acacia timber rods are burned in certain manner that does not harm the woman sitting comfortably above amidst a flow of lovely smoke that by time colours the skin into a yellowish glisten. However, as the smoke baths develop, thanks to the effort of engineers and masons, the nutu is gradually losing ground for ceramics and other substances.
Then we have the long broosh (plural of birish) which measure 6-7 meters on which the faithful line up for prayer in mosques and open spaces during the fasting month of Ramadan and the Eid prayers. These broosh are, meantime, being replaced by plastic and other synthetic fibres.

Another blessing of the palm leaf is the gargareeba which is part of a wide leaf trimmed in a rectangular shape with which women spread sorghum paste on a hot oven surface. The kisra bread thus created measures 1-3 cm in height, according to the skill of the baker. Wherever a household bakes kisra , the gargareeba, is there.
Also, farmers, herders and masons would often prefer to put on a spacious palm leaf hat to get a shade during hot weather.
Palm leaves are of two types: date palm leaves and dom (indigenous fruits) palm tree leaves. These craftswomen usually prefer the dom leaves because of their strength and durability.

Dom trees grow in many parts of Eastern and Northern Sudan, but the bulk of the product is fetched across the border from Eritrea.
Now then, the palm leaf industries that sustained poor families for centuries are having an uphill fight of survival against a heavy tide of plastic household utensils. Whether they can win or lose this battle is left for the future to decide.

Sudanow is the longest serving English speaking magazine in the Sudan. It is chartarized by its high quality professional journalism, focusing on political, social, economic, cultural and sport developments in the Sudan. Sudanow provides in depth analysis of these developments by academia, highly ...


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