Decorating walls in Baskeet houses

Today’s post is dedicated to wall papers and other wall decorations in Baskeet town houses or modern houses in the rural neighbourhoods. By “town houses” or “modern houses” I mean rectangular houses with iron sheet roofs and walls made of wooden poles and mud. These houses are the most common house type in small Ethiopian towns; they also become increasingly popular in remote rural areas due to the scarcity and high price of house grass.

When I visit people’s houses, I am always intrigued by their wall decorations. As it often happens that I have to wait for someone to be called or to get ready, I usually have time to take a closer look at what people use to embellish their home. The walls of a modern house consist of fairly thin wooden poles (often eucalyptus), which are driven into the ground at intervals of a couple of centimetres. When the house is roofed, the wooden grid is plastered with mud, inside and outside. As the mud becomes crumbly after a while and small chunks tend to break out of the wall, people often put newspapers on freshly plastered (and moist) walls. These newspapers dry together with the mud underneath, they become firmly attached to it and thus provide some protection against chunks breaking away. See the background of the photo I took with the lyre player Puc’ane Ts’uggo.

Newspaper decoration in a Baskeet town house

Newspaper decoration in a modern Baskeet house

The origin of these wall (news)papers is a mystery to me. There were times when Scandinavian newspapers were easily seen in people’s houses, then came the time of English newspapers (from Asia) and at present Chinese newspapers are found all over the place. (The same newspapers are used to wrap bread in the bakeries and other small goods in the local shops.) What all these newspapers have in common: People cannot read what is written on them. Unfortunately, I can sometimes read it and most of it is boring gossip about starlets, news from the real estate market in Dubai or local Singapore news that I cannot relate to. Sometimes I am lucky and I come across a Garfield or Calvin and Hobbes cartoon on somebody’s wall ;-)

A more expensive alternative to wall (news)papers is sackcloth (in fact, it is not cloth but plastic). From the local shops, you can buy stripy sackcloth by the metre, which is attached to the dry mud wall with little nails. My own fieldwork “office” (which was also my bedroom and living room) was also covered with stripy sackcloth – a different pattern for each stay:

Stripy office setting (1)

Stripy office setting (1)

Stripy office setting (2)

Stripy office setting (2)

While the newspapers and sackcloth mostly have a protective value, there are other things with a predominately decorative value fixed to the walls. It is not uncommon to find an eclectic mix of

  • graduation decoration (left over from the graduation day of a family member)
  • holiday decoration (especially “Merry Christmas” ribbons)
  • wedding decoration (left over from a marriage in the family)
  • religious wisdom and proverbs
  • personal photos
  • pictures of Orthodox saints (especially Saint George)
  • pictures of Indian-looking babies in police uniforms (sic!)
  • election posters and Ethiopian flags
  • and other decorative objects of Baskeet origin, e.g. small baskets, coffee pots and butter calabashes

On the following picture you can see most of the objects listed above; see, for instance, the election poster at the bottom right, a picture of the archangel Michael trampling on Satan at the top right, baskets and coffee pots in the middle, and to the left, a picture of Saint George on a horse, slaying a dragon:

House decoration in a Baskeet town house

House decoration in a modern Baskeet house

Here you see another picture of Saint George (with a caption in Greek letters!) attached to a wall which is covered with an Arabic newspaper. The picture was taken in a remote area in the Gaarbaya neighbourhood of the Basketo Special Woreda:

Picture of Saint George on Arabic newspaper

Picture of Saint George on an Arabic newspaper

Even more puzzling than the origin of the newspapers is the origin of the pictures of the Indian-looking babies in uniforms (see the arrow on the picture below – click to enlarge). I have no idea where these pictures come from. Or why the babies are in uniforms. Or why Baskeet people like them so much! The pictures are sold in the streets of the town of Laska and on the local markets. Has anyone also seen them elsewhere in Ethiopia?

Decoration in a modern Baskeet house

Decoration in a modern Baskeet house

I think it would make an interesting anthropological research project to investigate the motivations behind the house decoration in Baskeet (and probably also elsewhere in Ethiopia) and I close this post with another view into a modern Baskeet house, again an eclectic mix of Indian- and Chinese-looking babies (the babies in uniforms are partly hidden by the Orthodox poster in the middle), a religious poster, Ethiopian flags, music and beer advertisements, a Christmas ribbon and personal photos:

Decorated wall in a modern Baskeet house

Decorated wall in a modern Baskeet house

© 2011-2 Baskettoethiopia All Rights Reserved
Acknowledgments: I am very grateful to all Baskeet people who have warmly welcomed me to their homes! Some of them might recognise their house on the pictures above.
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