An Atlas of the Traditional Material Culture of the Saho (ACMTS)

The non-profit association Ethnorêma, together with the Dipartimento di Studi e Ricerche su Africa e Paesi Arabi dell’Università di Napoli «L’Orientale» and the Dipartimento di Studi Storici dell’Università di Venezia «Ca’ Foscari», has organized a project aimed at documenting the traditional material culture of the Saho (ATMCS), its related terminology and dialect variation. This project is being carried out in close co-operation with the Ministry of Education of Eritrea, which whom Ethnorêma has been working together for several years.


The ATMCS project has the aim of documenting the traditional material culture and dialect variation of the Saho in Eritrea. In particular, it collects:

I) data on the following seven cycles of activities:

a) cultivating different domesticated plants;
b) animal husbandry;
c) bee keeping and honey harvesting;
d) traditional buildings (houses, enclosures etc.) and how they are built;
e) food (acquisition, transformation, cooking, eating and commensality)
f) preparing leather objects;
g) preparing mats and other objects with plant fibres

II) data on dialect variation.

Field research is being carried out in different places of Eritrea, that have been chosen for representing different dialect varieties of Saho as well as the above mentioned cycles of activities carried out by native speakers of this language. In each place (documentary location) local informants are administered specific questionnaires in order to collect data about:

– the artefacts that are used for performing such activities;
– how such artefacts are used;
– who builds them and how;
– technical knowledge and how it is transmitted;
– popular beliefs, tales and proverbs about such artefacts;
– dialect variation.

Research is done by expatriate Italian scholars and Eritrean researchers who have been trained during the first stage of the project.

Drawings, pictures and audiovisuals of the different artefacts and kinds of activities are being produced, in order to document as fully as possible the above seven cycles of activities as well as their interactions.

The data that are obtained in the above ways are compared with the existing descriptions, pictures and collections of artefacts that have been created during the 19th and 20th centuries, e.g., by the “Eritrean Mission” 1905-1906 (A. Mochi, L. Loria etc.), in order to get a useful diachronic perspective.

Dialectological data will be transferred onto maps representing dialect variation, and compared with what is presently known about Saho dialect variation.

The results of this project will be the following ones:

i.) publications on the traditional material culture of the Saho and their dialects as audiovisual DVD’s and printed texts;
ii.) new lexicographic data for an advanced dictionary of the Saho language*;
iii.) new data to be used in the Saho school books;
iv.) preparing a movable exhibition on the traditional culture of the Saho that will be displayed in the Eritrean locations where Saho schools exist;
v.) if funding and local conditions shall make it possible, local museums of Traditional Culture shall be organized in order to show the younger Saho generations how their parents and grandparents used to live and work;
vi.) an ethnographic and linguistic revision of the collections of Saho materials, collected during the “Eritrean Mission” of 1905-1906, that are now in the Section for Anthropology and Ethnology of the Museo di Storia Naturale in Florence.

Expertise acquired through this project can be extended to other traditional cycles of activities of the Saho, as well as to other language groups of Eritrea, in order to achieve a full documentation of the traditional material culture of the people of this country.


Different meetings and workshops were held 2007, 2008 and 2009 in Castelnuovo Scrivia (Alessandria), Bolzano, Naples and Asmara (Eritrea) on language documentation, techno-cultural anthropology and dialect atlases. Several travels were also done to the Section for Anthropology and Ethnology of the Museo di Storia Naturale in Florence, in order to work on the Saho materials collected during the “Eritrean Mission” of 1905-1906.


The first ATMCS field campaign in Eritrea took place in January and February 2008, the second and third ones one during the same months in 2009 and 2010. During these three campaigns it has been possible to visit the villages of Safiira, Ciyaago, Kaaribossa, Thiisha, Cishka, Dhamxina, Xaruba, Golo, Mako, Buyya, Irhaafalo, Xadish and Laacaytan**. The following cycles of activities have been documented:

- Bee keeping (Ciyaago, Kaaribossa, Dhamxina, Thiisha, Mako, Laacaytan)
- Traditional buildings (Safiira, Kaaribossa, Thiisha, Buyya, Irhaafalo, Xadish, Laacaytan)
- Traditional artefacts in leather and plant fibres (Safiira and, in part, Buyya)

- Animal husbandry (Golo, Xaruba [with informants from the nearby villages of Maahiyo e Raaw], Buyya, Irhaafalo)
- Agriculture (Cishka, Kaaribossa, Golo, Buyya, Xadish, Laacaytan).

The team of Italian scholars included:

Giorgio Banti (Oriental University of Naples)
Giovanni Dore (Ca’ Foscari University of Venice)
Moreno Vergari (Ethnorêma)
Roberta Zago (Ethnorêma)

The local researchers and informants represented different Saho clans: Faqhat Xarak, Gacaso and Dhasamo (Minifire); Casaleesan, Casakare and Leelish Care (Casawurta); Xasabat Care; Dabrimeela; Xazo; Thaaruca; Shiikha (of the Malxina Mecembara).

Local coordinator: Axmadsacad Maxammad Cumar, di Caddi Qayyix.

Main informants:

- Maxammadnur "Xajji" Axmad “Baska”, at Ciyaago
- Xaliima Saalix Axmad, Xaliima Idirish Cumar, Maxammad "Xajji" Cumar "Xajji" Axmadsacad and "Xajji" Suleeman Cumar Maxammad, at Safiira
- Maxmuud Ibraahim Aboobakar and Maxmuud Maxammad Ibraahim, at Dhamxina
- Axmad Maxammad Axmadsacad, at Cishka
- Axmaddin Cabdalla Ibraahim, Maxammad Axmad Idris, Cusban Sacad Moosa and Ibraahim Maxammad Cali, at Xaruba
- Cumardiin Ibraahim Ismaacil, at Thiisha
- Maxammad Axmad Xigo, Cabdu Yoosuf Cabdu, Suleeman Ismaacil Suleeman and Siraaj Cabdalla Axmad, at Golo
- Xammad Adam Axmad, at Mako
- Maxammadcali Axmad Maxammad and Saalix Cumar Ibraahim, at Kaaribossa
- Ibraahim Shuum Maxmud "Xajji" Xammad Moosa and "Xajji" Siraaj "Xajji" Maxammad Cumar, at Caddi Qayyix.

- Ismaacil Maxammad Xigo, Adam Cumar Cali, Jumca Maxammad Ismaacil, Maryam Cumar Cali, Dawud Cabdalla Suleeman, Abuubakar Suleeman Cabdalla, Suleeman Maxammad Abraahim, Maxammad Saalix Cumar, at Buyya.
- Maxammad-Shifa Adam Maxammad, Maxmuud Maxammad Cali, “Sheekh” Soliiman Ismaacil Maxammad, Ibraahim Maxammad Ismaacil, a Irhaafalo.
- “Xajji” Maxmuud Maxammad Saciid, Ismaacil Ibraahim Xasan, Maxammad Cali Zukur, a Xadish.
- Ibraahim Xuseen Cali, Diini Cabdalla Abraahim, Jumca Axmad Suleeman, Nasra Maxmuud Suleeman, a Laacaytan.

During the interviews it has been possible to record ca. 75 hrs. of audio files, 11 hrs. of video files, and to take ca. 1850 pictures. Hundreds of new words have been recorded for the special lexicons of the above mentioned cycles of activities, together with detailed explanations about the objects and the actions they indicate.

Preliminary inquiries on poetry and on festivals associated with the above cycles of activities have also been carried out (Caddi Qayyix, Sancafe).

The questionnaires on dialect variation have been administered to 8 informants in the villages of Buyya, Irhaafalo, Xadish and Laacaytan.

In Asmara work has been done, especially on the words that had been collected, with Abraahim Maxammad Cali, coordinator of the Saho Panel of the Department of General Education (Ministry of Education), and with Cabdulqaadir Saalix Maxammad.


During the summer of 2008 and 2009 the data that had been collected during the 2008 and 2009 field campaigns were archived and provisionally classified. For this purpose it has been possible to avail ourselves also in Italy of the collaboration of Axmadsacad Maxammad Cumar, the project’s Eritrean local coordinator, who is a native speaker of Saho.


The field campaigns of 2008 and 2009 have been partially co-financed by the Istituto Italiano per l'Africa e l'Oriente (IsIAO), the Italian Ministry for Foreign Affairs and by COFIN funds of the Italian Ministry for the University and Scientific Research.


Three seminars have been organized for presenting the ATMCS project. The first one in November 2008 at the Dalarna University at Falum (Sweden), the second one in May 2009 at the Ca’ Foscari University in Venice and the third one in November 2009 at the Italian Institute for Africa and Orient (IsIAO) in Rome.


A first set of results on traditional beekeeping have been published on Ethnorêma, 5 (2009), pp. 1-116.


The expected next steps of the ATMCS are:

i. publishing on Ethnorêma and elsewhere other results of the field inquiries carried out in 2008, 2009 and 2010;
ii. going on with the work in Italy on classifying the data that have been collected and preparing the next field campaigns.
iii. new fieldwork in Eritrea in January and February 2011.


* A basic Saho-English-Italian dictionary has already been published by Moreno and Roberta Vergari in 2003. Both of them belong to Ethnor êma. As an aid for this dictionary, Moreno Vergari has also published in 2005 a school grammar in Saho. Its title is Dikshineeri amneefecituk Saaho labcad [Practice Saho by using the dictionary]. Both the dictionary and the grammar have been printed in Eritrea and freely distributed in all Saho schools.

** With the exception of the word “Saho”, all Saho names are spelt according to the official orthography currently used in Eritrea.


Last update: March 2010.