Artisan Cooperatives on the Road to Independence August 04 2015

Artisan cooperatives provide a way for rural women to draw upon their rich heritage that generates income and preserves nomadic culture. The women who make up our cooperatives start without knowledge of how to measure, follow a pattern, or conduct basic accounting. RAIN provides seed money, skills training, design, as well as marketing consultations and opportunities in both Niger and the U.S.

With this, these artisans hone and refine their abilities to become true professionals, able to trade with the modern world while preserving the traditions that define each group's unique identity. The women are able to pool their earnings together to support their families and fund local schools, providing books, medicine, food and uniforms for students. This past winter, the women of Albaye and FAHRA pooled their earnings to purchase French books for local primary school students about to take the important government exam that will determine if they can progress to middle school.

The goal of all of our programs is self sustainability leading to new paths that are independent of RAIN. With your help, the Wodaabe artisans of Foudouk have achieved this goal, with the Albaye and FAHRA artisans close behind. 

RAIN Artisans Learn New Products! August 29 2014

The 16 Tuareg women who make up the Albaye leather cooperative in Agadez have recently teamed up with other women artisans in Ingall who primarily work in straw. This collaboration has led to beautiful leather & straw tote bags, a product not possible for these two groups on their own. 

The collaboration continues with new products this summer with some help from a true master artisan - Illiah Addoh, Director of Artisans at the National Museum in Niamey. Organized by Albaye co-op president Oumma Amma, Three artisans from the Ingall straw cooperative joined the 16 members of Albaye to learn ways to improve their craft and make new items. 

We're proud to share two new products from this learning collaboration - straw woven platters and leather handbags.
We are truly excited by the high quality of these items as well as their stunning beauty - the traditional Tuareg patterns taking on a new modern look in completely different ways. 

A very warm "thank you" to our supporters from RAIN staff and our artisan partners as they develop their skills and expand their livelihoods.


     Artisans creating straw platters

Ancient artistry empowers Wodaabe women June 24 2014

Embroidery is naturally a social activity

Niger’s Wodaabe cattle herders remain one of the most nomadic groups in the world today. They experience many difficulties related to their marginalized status in Niger, however this same status has allowed for many ancient traditions to remain intact, including the legendary tradition of women’s embroidery. 

Women play an important role in Wodaabe society. One aspect that expresses this is ownership of the family milk and of the calabash gourds that hold it. The gourds are passed down through generations of women, carved and decorated in special motifs that are covered up with palm fronds to ensure secrecy.  Men use the calabash to catch the milk, then return the full calabash to the women, who in turn offer it to children and family members or use it to make yogurt or butter for sale. 

Wodaabe women also hold the honored duty of embroidering the long dance tunics specially donned by adolescent men in ritual dances. One of the most important dances, the gereewol is a competition wherein young women decide which men are most attractive and representative of their culture in their dance - also in essence choosing among them whom they would like to court.

The symbols prominent in their embroidery feature themes reflecting the nomadic life of the Wodaabe. There are symbols for starcow’s eyethe calf ropesleeping children, andthe road, among many others. These symbols represent the aesthetic and cultural identity dating back thousands of years, as evidenced in rock carvings hewn from a time when the Sahara desert was forested.  The material of choice is consistently handspun woven cotton bands sewn together into cloth, often died with indigo. 
Wodaabe women often embroider for their families, but the women of the Barka Cooperative in Foudouk are creating new products, adapting their craft for international markets. With support from RAIN and donors like you, the women design embroidery for T-shirts, purses, and decorative scarves. These activities serve to preserve their culture while adapting to the ever-changing world. Much like the special ownership of milk in their pastoral lives, embroidery co-ops further empower Wodaabe women in our partner communities to grow more economically independent and better able to fight for the survival of their families in one of the most hostile environments in the world.


                 Wodaabe symbol "cow eye"                                               Wodaabe symbol "star"


Cotton strips with embroidered symbols


Wodaabe male gereewol dancer wearing a special tunic

Cure Salee Prize Winners and an Artisan Interview June 24 2014


Wodaabe artisans take the prize for RAIN

At the yearly Cure Salee Festival in In'gall, the Wodaabe women artisans who create products based on their legendary embroidery heritage joined Bess in proudly displaying their unique wares for sale. Though there are many throughout the year, September is the "official" nomadic festival marking the end of the wet season and the start of the dry season. For centuries, pastoral people have brought their herds to the salt licks and to take part in salt cures for themselves as well. It's time for reuiniting with other clans, planning for the upcoming season, and to meet potential marraige partners. The local celebrations are fascinating, especially the Wodaabe dancing and Tuareg camel races. It was quite a spectacle: both Wodaabe and Tuareg performers made appearances ifor various competitions -- Tuaregs with donkeys decked in full wedding regalia and camels fully outfitted in their traveling gear and good luck charms, women drumming and men dancing; and the Wodaabe men performing their gerewol dances for potential partners. 



Platform where dyed leather is shaped with a stone

This year, RAIN artisans were awarded First Prize at the festival for a blouse made of traditional woven cotton featuring a hand embroidered cell phone pocket in traditional Wodaabe design. The judges declared the piece a perfect marraige of traditional craft with modern design. The prize? 4 sacks of cattle feed, 2 sacks of rice, 2 tee shirts and $100! Our booth received a special visit from Niger Prime Minister and RAIN friend Brigi Rafini to wish us "Bon Courage!"

Meanwhile, back in Agadez, we had the chance to talk with artisan Ouma Aama.

Ouma Amaa is the head of the RAIN Albaye Leather Cooperative as well as president of all Agadez women artisans. Ouma, a leather artisan in the Tuareg tradition, was absolutely thrilled when RAIN won the embroidery contest.

 Ouma and her mother, In'gall

Ouma: "Thank you, Bess. RAIN is the only organization in Agadez that recognizes and promotes the traditional work of women artisans."  She extends her best wishes and thanks to supporters like you for making this work possible.

Straw + Leather = Fabulous!

In a perfect marraige of two traditions, the women artisans of In'gall, who work primarily in straw, are collaborating with the RAIN Albaye leather artisans to create gorgeous tote bags in vibrant colors of Tuareg tradition: magenta, ochre and deep turquoise.



                                                RAIN founder Bess & Niger PM at Cure Salee


  Artisans wares on display at the festival

Wodaabe men dance the gerewol at Cure Salee

RAIN artisans get a boost from "boutique matchmaker" Andrea Williamson June 24 2014

            Andrea Williamson

Niger’s nomads are skilled craftspeople; the artistry trade is traditional to certain castes of people and has long supported them. Traditional skills have eroded over time, and fewer young women learn the skills their mothers and grandmothers knew. Keeping traditional culture alive is part and parcel of what we do. Members of our artisan co-operatives act as cultural ambassadors to the next generation. As they earn more, learn new designs and expand their markets, interest grows in the community.  With help from RAIN, co-op artisans play a key role in designing products and choosing materials for both local sales and the U.S. Now, these efforts will receive a real boost in potential for U.S. markets.

Since 2005, we've been privileged to have Illiah Addoh, master leatherworker and head of the Zinder Leather Artisan Cooperative at Niger’s National Museum, provide training to RAIN artisans in how to create their culturally traditional products within modern contexts. The next step: connecting those products with U.S. distribution channels.

Enter Andrea Williamson. Using her fifteen years of experience in small business sales and marketing, Andrea has focused the last five years as an "international boutique matchmaker" to help artisans in more than 50 countries suceed in U.S. markets. "I became fascinated with the unbridled creativity emerging from these artisans," says Andrea. "from the incredible items fashioned from upcycled materials in the Phillipines to croched and quilted creations from South Africa, artisans come upon frequent stumbling blocks, such as language, import laws, and quality consistency, that keep their products from this channel of distribution. Both the artisans and boutiques in the U.S. then miss out on a great opportunity."

"I'm inspired by Bess' vision of empowering nomadic women in Niger to bring their skills to the next level while providing for their families in the face of such extreme poverty, and am excited about what these women are creating - fabulous leather  purses and tote bags by the Tuareg ladies, and the Wodaabe women expressing their rich culture with colorful embroidered textiles. I feel confident that with a little bit of creativity, we can help to open up this channel for these artisans."

A country like Niger at times seems worlds away to those in the U.S. If we can bring more hand crafted cultural treasures to our friends here - that's another direct connection to the nomadic women of the Sahel and Sahara, with new liveihoods and support for local schools as the result.

Thank you for paving the way to empowerment for nomadic women!

U.S. West African Doll Project Collaboration with Wodaabe Artisans June 20 2014

RAIN will be partnering with the African American Civil War Museum of Washington D.C. in a collaborative West African doll project. African American Civil War Museum in Washington D.C. The mission of the museum is to preserve and tell the stories of the United States Colored Troops and African American involvement in the American Civil War. The museum has interest in the culture of the Wodaabe, as reflected in their exhibit focusing on the role of Wodaabe soldiers of the Union Army. Over 179,000 African American men served in over 160 units, as well as in the Navy and in support positions. The Wodaabe, historically elusive members of the Fulani people, were a part of this chapter of pivotal American history.

Looking to tie together the culture and the time period, the dolls will be designed in authentic African style, donned in traditional clothing, designed by Wodaabe artisans in Niger recruited by RAIN. The co-operative of Wodaabe women artisans in the hamlet of Foudouk has recently achieved independence of RAIN (in line with our goals of sustainability). The particular Wodaabe women who will likely be creating the dolls have yet to be confirmed, however they will be from RAIN partner communities, possibly including some of the Foudouk women. The Wodaabe are famous for their embroidery. 

Seacoast Sewing and Quilting of Portsmouth NH is generously contributing their time and talents sewing the finished product. With a tradition of giving back to their communities, they've supported the efforts of Neighbors Helping Newborns, Project Linus, End 68 Hours of Hunger, and their local schools and Girl Scout Troops. Owner Jill Patsfield expressed: "We're thrilled to help RAIN engage their artisans in a product for a national museum and to take part in telling this unique chapter in American history." 

Proceeds from doll sales will support RAIN programs in Niger, including support for our artisan cooperative programs. This will be the first collaboration emerging from RAIN as we produce a series of limited edition dolls available for sale Summer 2014 through the RAIN website, or through the museum. In the meantime, we'll be sharing updates as the artisans do their magic creating a collectible piece of cultural and historical art for all to learn from and enjoy.



          Wodaabe man                          Doll prototype waiting for                Wodaabe artisans at work

                                                               Wodaabe outfit                 

Show your love of West African culture - wear it! December 16 2013

Welcome to the online store of Rain for the Sahel and Sahara!

Based in Portsmouth, NH, RAIN forges partnerships with underserved rural and nomadic communities of West Africa to realize their ambitions for education, food security and enduring livelihoods. Our grassroots programs focus especially on empowering girls and women. We work in Niger - ranked among the poorest countries in the world. However, Niger is rich with a cultural heritage that includes the legendary Tuareg camel caravaners of the Sahara, known for their striking jewelry and leatherwork, and the fascinating cattle herding Wodaabe of the Sahel, world famous for their elaborate embroidery. We draw upon these centuries old traditions to share cultural treasures direct from Niger with you. When you purchase authentic Tuareg jewelry or a one of a kind item hand crafted by the women artisans in RAIN co-operatives, you are helping to make possible transformative change in the Sahel and Sahara.

Enjoy and thank you for your interest!  
To learn more about what we do, visit us at