Nubian Treasures works to recreate pride in Nubian heritage and teach community members new skill sets
By Dominika Maslikowski
Every three months locals and volunteers in Aswan gather around village houses with glass jars and bowls filled with vibrant, colorful paint. With their paintbrushes they make their villages and neighborhoods in Nubia their canvases as they participate in the “Nubia in Colors” festival and paint houses in traditional Nubian colors.
“Nubia in Colors” is just one festival run by the Nubian Treasures, an NGO founded by May Gah Allah, 28, that works to empower Nubians and bring much-needed resources to their communities.
Gah Allah’s first encounter with Nubia came during family trips to visit the land of her parents’ roots. It wasn’t until later in life, however, that she was able to explore Nubia outside of the context of her own heritage and family. GahAllah embarked on a three-month trip in early 2011, during which she passed through dozens of villages in Upper Egypt and talked with many locals about their life’s hardships and the scarcity of resources.
“I found very poor places, middle-class places and privileged areas and they all complained about life and money, and in some villages there were no hospitals or [clinics],” says Gah Allah, who has years of experience in development and education. “I was very disappointed when I came back […] and I decided to [create] change and do something. I decided to [go] back to my roots.”
Instead of trying to offer solutions from her native city of Cairo, Gah Allah decided to move hundreds of kilometers away to Aswan to stay in local homes, gain a better understanding of local needs and earn the people’s trust. Although her family warned her that such a career choice would take over her life, Gah Allah met the man who would later become her husband in Aswan.
After spending time in Aswan and gaining the trust of the locals, she founded Nubian Treasures in February 2012. The two main targets of the NGO, Gah Allah stresses, are raising household incomes and the standard of living and branding Nubia by making products with a distinctive local flair. Once she gained credibility and developed a good reputation with the local people around Aswan, the donors and sponsors followed.
“We are trying to educate Nubians about their heritage,” says Gah Allah. “We start with personal development to educate people about their heritage and what they have, then we educate them about economics and produce products with a taste of Nubian heritage.” Gah Allah also says that she is trying to teach Nubians how to consider the environment when producing products so that they can be marketed as an international product and be sold anywhere.
Nubian Treasures has generated a variety of projects in the area, including the house-painting “Nubia in Colors” festival and a September 2012 program sponsored by Unilever that educated some 40,000 students across Aswan about hygiene. These days, Gah Allah says she’s working on a rooftop farming project that will help families increase their income by planting organic herbs and spices and then marketing their products in Egypt and abroad. A solar energy project is also in the works and aims to provide power to 25 houses in the Aswan area by using solar panels.
By teaching Nubians skills and designs such as carpentry and pottery, Gah Allah says she hopes to challenge Egyptian stereotypes that portray Nubians as working in menial jobs.
“We’re producing, we’re a productive community and we’re a part of this country,” says Gah Allah. “All the youth now just want to get married to a foreigner and escape the country. I want them to feel more pride in what they’re doing and let more people know about what we’ve done, about our history and the culture we’ve made so young people know the value of being Nubian.”
GahAllah says, “the more things we make, the more we raise incomes, and at the same time people will know about Nubia. Even Egyptians, because not all Egyptians know about it. Some Egyptians ask, ‘oh, you’re from Nubia, so you’re Sudanese?'”
The NGO has researched and collected old Nubian motifs and has incorporated this knowledge into teaching Nubians how to make modern and affordable handicrafts with a Nubian flair. The products have already been exported to the US, and now Gah Allah plans to start exporting to Canada and other countries and to start selling on the classifieds website Dubizzle.
Every training workshop Nubian Treasures holds in Aswan trains 30 people who then return to their villages and pass along their training to five others. This way the skills are spread to different areas and Nubian culture is preserved, GahAllah says. The items made at the first workshop have sold out, but in the future GahAllah hopes to have showrooms of the products created in Cairo and Aswan and stands at airports.
Gah Allah says the workshops cost LE 10 each, which changes the mentality of those who attend so that they don’t feel like they’re receiving charity.
“Some of our workshops also teach business skills,” says GahAllah. “The ladies who sell handicrafts just spend the money they earn. We’re teaching them to save money and changing the culture of the people [in the process].”