By Bonnie Rukin 

Hawa Ibrahim, now 25 years old, was a young child when she came from Kenya to the United States. And although she has never woven a traditional Somali basket herself, she remembers her mother and other women making baskets in the refugee camp where they lived, and holds close to her heart the cultural memory of women making baskets. 

The craft, passed on from mothers to daughters in Somalia, now has a special place in the Somali Bantu community in Lewiston, where Atiya Haji and Asha Shongole began a basket-weaving program at the Somali Bantu Community Association (SBCA) 10 years ago. These days, four to five women of all ages, gather in a dedicated office space to clean the palm tree reeds, “baar” dye them, and weave them into baskets for sale at the “Suuq” – the SBCA farm market – as well as at other local farmers markets. The women hope to expand the program to younger people and children, as interest and scheduling permits.

Baskets can indicate identity and status, according to a document prepared by intern Holden Turner of the SBCA community. “A close look can reveal whether you are from the coast or the upload regions, as basket weavers in different areas use different palm fronds. A bigger basket is associated with higher status,” the document says, and the colors indicate status also. Lots of colors, including blues, greens, and reds indicate higher status. 

The palm tree reeds are imported from Somalia, as are the dyes, Crushing different kinds of rock produces variously colored pigment powders that make up the dyes. Baskets take up to two weeks to complete, and their creators are paid upon product completion. When the baskets are sold, the money goes back to SBCA. Baskets were used in Somalia as containers for everything from food to clothes, for shopping, and as wedding gifts. They are now available for purchase at the farm Suuq – where they can be filled with fresh produce from Liberation Farms, as well as other local food offerings. 

The basket makers said they enjoy their time together, talking and laughing in community. They recollected that in Somalia spending time together was an important part of cultural life, and they believe togetherness is important. Which makes the new SBCA office space particularly important to the community – it’s a place to foster connections, including basket making.