Pottery is the latest craft absorbing millions of TV viewers in the UK with the BBC’s The Great Pottery Throw down, but Send a Cow has discovered that some of Africa’s potters are one of the most marginalised groups in society – leading to social exclusion, discrimination and extreme poverty.

Send a Cow is currently focussing on Ethiopia for its UK government matched fundraising appeal Planting Hope, but in the course of research into the country’s poorest families we unearthed an entire community of people deliberately kept poor by the remarkable skill they provide.

Head of Programme Fundraising at Send a Cow, Peg Bavin, who visited Ethiopia last September said: “Ethiopia is a country with clear social hierarchies. It’s highly dependent on agriculture which means farmers are powerful figures in their communities. This brings its own special problems when crops fail and natural disasters, like the current drought in the north, can affect millions of people.

“But what I found really remarkable given the stunning products they were making, is how potters, along with tanners and blacksmiths are regarded as the lowest of the low. They are known as “hilancha”, which means craftsmen and live in clans on the outskirts of their communities. They aren’t allowed to mix socially with people, or marry those from higher social groups and because the cost of making pottery is very high and the market value of pots is very low, they end up living in extreme poverty, barely eating once a day.”

''Evil Eye''

Peg says the fate of potters and other trades seems to have been determined long ago. Potters are considered to have the “evil eye” with powers to harm other people and so are not invited to social ceremonies. People also accuse potters of eating “unclean” meat and as a result are considered impure and dirty, so that people do not invite them into their homes or visit them.’’

Abulle's story

One of the potters Peg met on her trip was Abulle. Orphaned at just 8 years old, Abulle joined the army at 15 and fought in the Eritrean – Ethiopian war which claimed the lives of some 70,000 people.

After the war, Abulle returned home but with a lack of support and no employment opportunities, he was forced to leave in search of work and travelled to the district of Boloso Sore where he met his wife: a local woman who was part of the pottery clan. By marrying her, he too became part of the clan, taking up the trade but also the stigma. He said: ‘‘Community members do not accept us, they isolate us and give us no support. We can only do pottery and are not allowed to practice other ways of earning a living. It is only my wife’s family who support and visit us.’’

The couple work relentlessly hard but they barely make enough to live. After countless hours crafting pottery every week, they take their pots to the market where they are lucky to make 100 birr (around £3). Not only do pots have a low market value in the region, but there is also a high cost in making them. Abulle and his wife have to pay for clay, wood for firing and transport to take the pots to market – costs which eat into their profits and leave them with little else.

Breaking the isolation

Peg added: “The challenge for Send a Cow is to see how we can support marginalised people like potters with training so they can work their way out of poverty, but also engage with communities to foster integration of excluded clans, like potters, tanners and blacksmiths so they not only become food secure and financially better off, but are valued for their artisan skills and included in community ceremonies and social events.”

One of the potters Peg met told her: “Send a Cow has trained in the area and now people no longer ignore me. People come into my home and eat and the isolation is less. Before people from the community did not want to communicate with us but now they do. They understand that pottery is a type of business and accept us.”