Wednesday, July 14, 2004

On 'Bend Down' Markets and African Textiles - My Ragu theory

The LA Times has been doing a series on 'Living with Pennies' (those who live on less than a dollar a day - ergo Africans in the main). The first article is about eking out a living the second about starving off hunger.

Here's a snippet from an article on used clothing in Africa (mainly looking at Nigeria and Congo) tracing the path from the discard at say the Salvation Army or Goodwill drop-off point through the various middlemen wholesalers who buy by the pound down to the 'bend-down markets' common in Ghana - termed bend-down because wares are typically laid on the ground and everyone bends down to inspect them.

For sale -- cheap: 'Dead white men's clothing'


"These clothes make people's dreams come true," says Anorue, chairman of the vendors association at Yaba Market. "Everyone wears them, from insurance women, vendors, poor people to parliamentarians. When they put them on, you can't tell rich from poor."

Much of Africa was once draped in fabrics of flamboyant color and pattern, products of local industry and a reflection of cultural pride. But with half of its people surviving on less than a dollar a day, the continent has become the world's recycling bin. People scramble for 10-cent underpants, 20-cent T-shirts and dollar blue jeans discarded by Westerners.


I'm someone who is very interested in African textiles, always buying batiks and all types of cloths whenever I go to Ghana - whether "Dutch wax" prints, Kente or, of late, indigos (here also) and mud cloths.

It's a truism that traditional clothing in Africa is, by and large, being replaced by western clothes and, of course, it's only the used, second-hand clothing that is affordable. We've come to standardize business attire (even the Japanese use the western suits) and as far as the casual goes well right now it's hip-hop culture that rules. I can understand that going to work, sitting in a tro tro wearing cloth in our tropical weather is a bad idea. Furthermore, I may not wear the political suits of my dad's generation - a little too severe for my taste - although Nehru suits are still competitive in India, but I don't mind a smart batik during the summer even at Big Blue and make a point to wear them - I like them, they are comfortable, mostly hand-made and well tailored (the only issue is not to be too 'exotic' for my workplace).

Still, it is surprising how quickly these changes have taken place. I wouldn't have expected this trend to become so entrenched in West Africa given our rich textile and weaving traditions (my gross generalization of eastern and southern Africans is that they - I remember one day wearing one of my shirts, probably something batik and Munene Kiruja asking me whether this was 'traditional dress' - not what I expected from a Kenyan - didn't they have 'traditional dress'? I asked in pan-african confusion. Of course this ignores say the great weaving traditions of Zimbabwe for example.

Anyway I suppose that this just capitalism/globalisation in action. The consolation is that traditional clothing and textiles are still going strong for festive occasions and ceremonies (weddings, funerals etc.) just ask the Nigerians or the Senegalese. The pity of course is that on the economic front these cheap imports are displacing fledging textile industries. I guess with things like AGOA giving african countries a tiny peak at the American market, Botswanans and Tanzanians are now making my Gap shirt - that's better than nothing.

I still wish that someone would crack the marketing. All the creative folks at Tech and the others who I seek out on every trip home just need a little branding, advertising, some strong business plans, and a little savvy about developing a local niche (ala FUBU). Of course, solving basic infrastructure issues (roads, water, electricity) would accelerate things but that will come. The current trend of simply targetting black america is not sustainable (how many kentes or batakaris will the Bill Cosbys and others buy. <gross generalization alert> African-americans are fundamentally conservative, they may skew and reinvent the culture (see their musical traditions), but by and large the overarching trend is to blend in, to belong - i.e. socially conservative although they vote liberal.
What is needed then is something more mass market, first targeted at building a strong internal market for these things and then scaling outward. I suspect that there is a larger market for African textiles than say Hawaiian shirts. I hope I win the lottery and am able to put my money there. To me, Italy's fashion and clothing industry is proof that high quality artisanal textiles can thrive. There will be a point of commoditization but it is a matter of application and branding. There you have it: Koranteng's "Spaghetti and Ragu" theory of african textiles.

As a sidenote: trusty google gives some interesting sites on Batik in Ghana.

A Gallery of Batik Wall Hangings from the National Geographic. This is obviously the artistic side, not the practical 'Prêt-à-Porter' clothing that is sold at the Gap or Macys.

As an example: Summer in Bolgatanga by Kwabena Kufuor Afriyie-Addo Jr. (also known as K. Baka)

Batik from it's original Java perspective.

From an artist's collective in the UK: What is Batik? and a gallery.

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1 comment:

Esi W. Cleland said...

It's been six whole years since this posting but I'm pleased to point you to a clothing manufacturer based in Ghana, AfroChic Ltd. whose audacious vision is to clothe Africa: www.afrochiconline.com