Growing up, I remember watching documentaries about the Nana Benz of Togo: these powerful ladies who ‘owned’ the country solely by selling textiles. I also remember that my grandmother was (and still is) very fond of ‘Wax Hollandais‘, and how many women will go through hoops to have access to these pricey wax prints traveling to Togo or Ghana to acquire them. They all loved to dress in these bright colors, with these bright and often lavish wax prints.
Well,… the Nana Benz of Togo, made their mark internationally by trading in wax printed cloth starting in the 1930’s and 1950′s, before independence. They started from nothing to rise to be among the country’s richest. They imported the fabric from Dutch companies based in Indonesia. From there the material arrived on Togo’s shores and the women distributed it throughout West and Central Africa. They became known as Nana Benz because in the mid-50’s through 80′s they had made so much money that they were the only people who could afford Mercedes Benz cars, so much so that the government used to hire their Mercedes Benz for important guests and state functions. The phrase ‘Nana Benz’ came to symbolize the freedom, ingenuity, creativity, pride, achievement, success, and courage of these women. A woman did not become a Nana Benz through inheritance, or society’s choice, but through ingenuity, and struggle.
The Nana Benz positioned Lomé, Togo’s capital, into a regional centre of textile distribution and dominated the trade in wax prints. Between 1976 and 1984, at least 40% of the commercial business in Togo which was in the informal sector, was in the hands of the Nana Benz. During the 1970′s, the scope of this trade in textile was so important that it exceeded Togo’s phosphate industry, the country’s primary source of revenue. The Nana Benz rose in wealth and power. Although many were uneducated, they travelled abroad on business, and played a leading role in national politics under the one-party rule of the Rassemblement du Peuple Togolais (RPT). They rose in society’s echelons. During his presidency, Gnassingbé Eyadéma, appointed them to high offices in the women’s wing of the RPT. A leading Nana Benz, Madame A. Amedome, was appointed Minister of Social Welfare in 1977 even though she could not read or write.
They sold the ‘wax hollandais’ made by the dutch, in particular by the dutch company VLISCO implanted in Togo since 1846 to sell textiles to Africans. No offense, but implanted since 1846? Why are Togolese or Africans not making their own wax prints 150 years later? We love it… so we should make it too! What were African textiles before then? was it mostly ‘bogolan‘-type of textile? This should be the subject of another post. In the meantime, let us celebrate the ingenuity of the Nana Benz. Check out this photo-journal entitled The Nana Benz, An African Epopée by Bruno Zanzottera. If you are ever in Lomé, make a stop at the market and buy the right fabric known as Vlisco that made the Nana Benz famous. Listen to this song praising the Nana Benz by the Togolese singer King Mensah. Don’t forget to check out the documentary Reflets Sud on ‘le tissu pagne’, as well as the Togolese opera Madame Paradji ou la Reine des Nana Benz which describes to life of a powerful Nana Benz.