Takwin wa Tamkin: Women in the Amour mountain range are weaving their own future

14-10-2020
Tarik Hafid

Part of the European Union Pilot Action Programme for Rural Development and Agriculture in Algeria (PAP-ENPARD), the Takwin wa Tamkin (training and empowerment) project has helped strengthen networks of rural craftswomen. For two years, experts from Res’Art, a project by the association Femmes en Communication, have been providing training and mentorship to craftswomen in several regions of Algeria. In Oued Mzi, in the foothills of the Amour Mountains, members of the association ''Tradition and modernity for the development of rural women'' (TMDFR) have used this expertise to strengthen their capacities and develop new initiatives.

There is strength in unity and together Amira, Takia and Messaouda are the embodiment of this strength and willpower. In Oued Mzi, a village in the foothills of the Amour mountain range in the high-plateaus of Western Algeria, they founded the organisation ''Tradition and modernity for the development of rural women'' (TMDFR) in 2018. Though their backgrounds could not be more different, their paths crossed a few years ago, and this meeting of minds is now beginning to bear fruit.

Amira Benayed is a haematologist. In 2015, she left her hometown to live in Oued Mzi with her husband Arezki, who had just begun a job in the region. “It was a very hard time as I had just lost my twins Tiziri and Silina”, reflects Amira. She had gone from being a working woman to unemployed and directionless. “The early days in Oued Mzi were tense. My presence in the village made people uncomfortable as I was the only woman who didn’t wear the hijab and I often rode a motorbike”. However, with her sociable character, it didn’t take long for Amira to strike up a friendship with Messaouda Mbarki, whose brothers worked with Arezki, and Takia Ziani, a self-employed woman dedicated to raising her family.

Thanks to her new friends, she became aware of the difficult living conditions locals faced, in a region where employment was extremely high and many young people were failing at school. “In 2018, over a coffee, we realised there was a need to launch an initiative to help women in the village so that they too could provide for their families”, says Messaouda. That’s how the idea of founding the Oued Mzi Rural Women’s Association was born. Amira, Takia and Messaouda shared their plans with the Mayor, Mohamed Athmani and the municipal Secretary-General, Belabbès Abassi, who immediately agreed to support them.

A space for life

Once it had been officially founded, the association TMDFR needed a home. The village Youth Centre was chosen, requiring renovation work before the association could move in and set up a small dressmaking workshop. It was an immediate success and in a matter of months the association had 180 members. After the dressmaking workshop, a weaving workshop was added, thanks to the support of the Mayor, which covered the cost of purchasing four looms. Part of the region’s heritage, woollen rugs from the Amour mountains have gained a reputation that goes beyond Algeria’s borders.

From there, initiatives proliferated: traditional basketwork using esparto (a grass that grows on the steppes) and even production of couscous, jams, robb (date syrup), and essential oils made of local medicinal plants. The “Women’s Centre” rapidly became a place of mutual aid and solace, while it was providing much needed tuition to women and children. A classroom has been set up to provide revision and basic literacy classes.

Raising awareness

Proud of their initial achievements, the three friends had no intention of stopping. In 2019, at an exhibition in Laghouat, Amira Benayed met Commander Khadidja Badaoui of the Directorate-General of Forests, an institutional partner of PAP ENPARD, the Pilot Action Programme for Rural Development and Agriculture, jointly implemented by the European Union and Algeria. At this event, the forest ranger told her that one of the leaders of the “Takwin wa Tamkin” project was looking for a representative of an association of craftswomen from the Laghouat region to take part in a study trip to the South of France. With a budget of 199 991 euros, “Takwin wa Tamkin” is the fruit of a partnership between the Algerian “Association Femmes en Communication”, and Marseille-based organisation “Citoyens de la Terre”.

“After accepting the offer from project leader Maya Azeggagh, I renewed my passport and headed to Marseille. I had the opportunity to meet artisans who had launched very interesting initiatives and were making a living doing what they love. It was there that I understood the importance of working within a structured framework to achieve tangible results”, says Amira.

Reclaiming traditions

Next, the women behind “Takwin wa Tamkin” visited Oued Mzi. The project is based on several years of work by the Network of Algerian craftswomen (Res’Art) where Maya Azeggagh plays a key role. She is one of the founders of Res’Art, and treasurer of the association “Femmes en communication”. When she met women from the small village, she spoke to them about the need to increase the autonomy of craftswomen, in particular weavers. “The association ‘TMDFR’ plays an essential role, as all of the region’s women are experts in traditional crafts and work on a self-employed basis. However, the situation for weavers is different, as their work is more laborious and, crucially, the materials are far too expensive. The wool can cost up to 70% of the value of the finished rug. Therefore, there is a risk that they might become disheartened and decide to stop producing traditional rugs. That is how trades and traditions are lost,” explains Maya Azeggagh.

Therefore, the decision was made to take the initiative, by teaching craftswomen to prepare and dye wool in order to maximise their earnings. The aim was to cut out the middle man, produce quality fibres dyed using natural pigments, and reclaim expertise passed down from generation to generation. Wool preparation and dyeing classes are taught by Amina Youcef-Khodja, a traditional clothing designer and craft skills tutor. “In the past, we had difficulties when selling our rugs. Now, we prepare our own wool, which we collect from local farmers. I have to say that the training we have received from Amina Youcef-Khodja has been invaluable. Now we know the true value of our rugs”, says Takia Ziani who now trains other craftswomen herself.

Opening up to the wider world

“Takwin wa Tamkin” has also given members of the TMDFR association in Oued Mzi the opportunity to meet other Algerian craftswomen at exhibitions in Timimoun, in the southeast of the country, and in Algiers. “It was a chance to promote our products and, above all, our village, which few people had heard of”, says Messaouda Mbarki, smiling. But what Oued Mzi wanted most of all was to attract domestic and international tourists. This is more than just a dream. It is the shared objective of the three main associations in the village, the craftswomen and the local authorities. Not only is the Amour region famous for its rugs; it also possesses a wealth of historical heritage, including dozens of rock carvings.

Around ten kilometres from Oued Mzi, at the base of the El Gaada cliffs, visitors can admire the carving of the “ram with the sphere”. “There is no lack of things to do, but what we need most of all now is a place for our visitors to stay. We have almost solved this issue, by converting an old building into a hostel”, says Athmani Mohamed, the Mayor of Oued Mzi. On this subject, he adds that the hostel will be managed by associations in the village. This is a great boon for the craftswomen, who will be able to contribute to the decor of the hostel, giving it local charm. They will also be able to sell their products directly to the tourists. “The people of Oued Mzi are very hospitable and will be pleased to welcome tourists of all nationalities”, adds the Mayor.