|Elema Boru and Borana Milk Containers
Elema is a Borana woman who currently lives in Dolollo Makaala, located about 20 kilometers south of the town of Mega in southern Ethiopia. The Borana are a pastoral people living in adjacent areas of southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya. They speak a southern dialect of the Oromo language. Despite having strong affinities with other Oromo groups, the Borana still regard themselves as a unique people. Their autonomous ethnic identity is expressed in various ways and contexts, including the distinct style of their milk containers.
During interviews with Elema and other Borana women, inquiries about the origins of various container designs were often answered with references to aada--the idea of cultural heritage, traditions that are passed from generation to generation. Woven container making among the Borana is a woman's activity that is passed from mother to daughter.
All Borana women are expected to know how to make woven milk containers like gorfa and chicho. In contrast, wood carving is a specialized skill, and the production of wood containers is usually practiced by only a few men in a community. The significance of woven milk containers and their ritual uses reveals the importance given to woman-made containers. Milk containers themselves are vital objects in Borana culture. The milk that they hold is a symbol of abundance. The container's symbolic meaning stems from its structure. When a girl marries, she makes two plaits in her hair; when she becomes pregnant, all of her hair is plaited. Plaiting hair is equated to weaving a fiber milk container. It is something only women are allowed to do. These acts suggest that in Borana society, weaving is associated with fertility. The container and the milk thus symbolize the ideal combination of abundance and fertility, two fundamental requirements for the reproduction and prosperity of the group.
The physical reproduction of a man (and the continuity of the community) primarily depends on his wife's fertility; a man's marriage, the social setting for reproduction, depends on objects made by women. As Elema says, "there cannot be any marriage without a chicho and there cannot be any reproduction without woven milk containers." That is why every woman must be able to make milk containers. Woven milk containers represent her fertility; they are round, full of milk and nourishment, "just like a pregnant woman's belly." The woman's womb contains a life that will sustain the social continuity of her husband and family.
At first glance, Borana milk containers might appear very similar if not identical. But not all woven milk containers are alike-in fact, because they are each handmade they are all different and there is a good deal of room for innovation. A woman may experiment; she may use new materials, alter the proportions or profile of a container, or introduce new surface treatments. If accepted and copied by others, such a creative act by an individual may be integrated into the tradition and thus become aada Borana-part of the Borana heritage.
Various vegetal fibers and techniques are used to produce the different types of woven containers. The chicho is smaller than the gorfa. Its beauty lies in its symmetry and its simple but elegant elliptical profile. The surface texture of both containers is enhanced by the integration of a vertically oriented raised design called obriis. Elema was proud to note that most women know how to make only one type of obriis design, but she uses up to five when weaving containers. Cowries are often used to decorate gorfa but are never attached to chicho. Chicho and gorfa both have round bottoms and they are not meant to stand upright by themselves. A sepan, or holder, made out of leather straps is used to carry the container and to suspend it from the wall of the house.
Women produce woven containers and men carve wood containers. Both types of containers may serve the same utilitarian function but they are used in different social settings. There also are containers that have both wood and basketry components and therefore require the work of both a man and a woman, usually a husband and wife or at least members of the family living in the same household. Such containers reflect a fundamental element of Borana society: there is a healthy interdependence existing between the sexes and this is manifest in the complementary roles men and women perform in their families and communities.