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San Francisco Woman Helps Preserve Traditional Sudanese Craft

March 2, 1989 GMT

KHARTOUM, Sudan (AP) _ The traditional handicraft of Sudan is being preserved in a small shop in Khartoum and Sudanese women are getting the chance to survive difficult economic times - thanks in large part to a San Francisco woman who has since gone on her way.

She is Marilyn Dodge, 45, who came to Sudan from Uganda in 1986 and now has moved on to Bangladesh with her husband Cole of Seattle, Wash., a United Nations Children’s Fund representative.

″When I was in Uganda, I saw a very brave Ugandan lady open a shop selling Ugandan handicrafts. It was a big success,″ Mrs. Dodge said at the shop, Al- Sudaniya (Arabic for Sudanese woman) before she left.

″When we came here, I found very few craft shops. Those (that were here) dealt mainly in things made of ivory and skins of wild animals, which we avoid.″

Mrs. Dodge said she and Ellen Ismail, a West German married to a Sudanese, joined up with a couple of ″dynamic″ Sudanese women to open Al-Sudaniya.

Today, it is a success, filled with all kinds of handicrafts made by women like Rokaya Abdallah, who found herself widowed a year ago, untrained for a job but with seven children to feed. She had a knack for needlework, however, and she turned to Al-Sudaniya.

A group of women and children from southern Sudan, fleeing a vicious civil war with few possessions except a talent for making traditional furniture and bead necklaces, also ended up earning a living at Al-Sudaniya.

Sudanese handicrafts occupy every nook of Al-Sudaniya’s small rented villa. They range from mandelas, a type of western-Sudan basket made of palm fronds, to necklaces of tiny colored beads called soksok from the south.

For sale on the walls are red-and-black decorations called sinkat, cloth embroidered with sea shells traditionally created by mothers in eastern Sudan for their daughters’ wedding day.

There are hand-sized containers from Gedaref in the east: dried skins of local pumpkins decorated and used as plates or to hold milk. And mekhalyas, bags made of dyed sheep wool. In the countryside they’re used to hold animal feed, but Al-Sudaniya’s customers use them as women’s handbags or wall ornaments.

These and hundreds more handicrafts from across Sudan have been put together in a shop unique in Sudan.

Mrs. Dodge said that at first finding women capable of making items to sell was difficult. But as word of the shop spread, women from around the country began contacting the organizers, eager to display their work.

″We have lots of women contributing to the shop - thousands of women from all over Sudan,″ said Salwa Ibrahim Awad, the shop’s Sudanese director. ″We encourage the national culture and help its preservation. We also help the women by providing them with a place to sell their work.″

Typical is Mrs. Abdallah, the widowed mother of seven. She sews dresses and cushions and occasionally sells homemade Sudanese candies and cakes.

″When I first came here, I was in a very bad state,″ she said. ″My husband had just died, and I had no income for me and my children.″

Now, after a year, she said, ″things are much better.″

The shop’s prices are extremely inexpensive even with the 30-percent marup the shop adds to cover overhead and profit margins. Most patrons are foreigners, although increasing numbers of Sudanese pop in for a soft drink at the shop’s small cafeteria or simply to take a look at their country’s goods.

Sudan is widely diverse, geographically Africa’s largest country with terrain ranging from desert to tropics. Its 22 million people comprise 19 tribes and 597 smaller ethnic groups, speaking 26 major languages and about 90 minor ones. Handicrafts vary widely because they develop from raw materials available in each region.

Putting the handicrafts together in one place has created a colorful browsing atmosphere.

A favorite are tabaks, which originated in Darfur in western Sudan and are woven from palm fronds and straw, crafted in many colors and sizes. Some are used as lids for food containers and others as wall decorations.

Also popular are chairs and tables of wood, bamboo and rope, native to southern Sudan. Southern women, refugees with their families from the war in the south, make the chairs and tables in the shantytowns where they now live in Khartoum.

″The southern women from the camps also provide us with drums, made of cans and dried skins of cows or sheep, and pipes,″ said Mrs. Dodge.

Al-Sudaniya also accepts for sale small carpets made in eastern Sudan by Ethiopian and Eritrean refugee women. They are made of sheep or camel wool and depict lions with human faces and can be used as carpets or wall decorations.