Description of African Dressing in 1400s

Van Sertima_They came before Columbus
‘They Came Before Columbus, The African Presence in Ancient America’ by Ivan Van Sertima

As I have always said in the past, I truly despise the claim of  The New York Times that Africa’s fabric is Dutch. This is simply a case of falsification of history. As I have proven before, African Fabrics and Textiles traditions is large, existent, and real; it is not just VLISCO-based. Below is an account by a European of African dressing in the 1400s! And yes… the Africans he met wore garments.

They numbered seventeen, of considerable size. Checking their course and lifting up their oars, their crews lay gazing. … We estimated on examination that there might be about one hundred and fifty at the most; they appeared very well-built, exceedingly black, and all clothed in white cotton shirts: some of them wore small white caps on their heads, very like the German style, except that on each side they had a white wing with a feather in the middle of the cap, as though to distinguish the fighting men.

“A Negro stood in the prow of each boat, with a round shield, apparently of leather, on his arm. They made no movement towards us, nor we to them. Then they perceived the other two vessels coming up behind me and advanced towards them. On reaching them, without any other salute, they threw down their oars, and began to shoot off their arrows.

Bogolan
A piece of Bogolan

This encounter between the Portuguese and the boatmen on the Gambia occurred in 1455. It is the only account of West African riverboats documented by Europeans before the coming of Columbus.

G.R. Crone, The Voyages of Cadamosto, London, the Hakluyt Society, 1937, pp. 57-59

Ivan Van Sertima, They Came Before Columbus, The African Presence in Ancient America, Random House, 1976, p.54

History of African Fabrics and Textiles

As I share this other great favorite on African textiles, I am preparing to write another piece on this subject next month… so stay tuned.

African Heritage

Wax Hollandais Wax Hollandais

Very often, Africans are depicted on old pictures as naked people, walking around without any clothing.  This seems to be quite at odd with the fact that the Dutch textile company VLISCO has been installed in Africa, more precisely in Togo, since 1846.  So how could pictures from the 1800s and early 1900s only show naked Africans?  The BBC recently ran a story on VLISCO and African textile tradition actually being European.  The New York Times claimed that Africa’s fabric was entirely Dutch.  I find this quite appalling, and I call this a falsification of history.

For starters, before VLISCO, Africa had a very rich textile industry as noted by Kankan Moussa‘s entire delegation being clothed from cotton woven with golden threads in 1300s during his pilgrimage to the Mecca (this will be a story for another day), or the Kanembu clothing tradition which dates as far…

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Why some African countries don’t want charity clothes

second-hand clothes
Second-hand clothes

In recent years, the textile industry in African countries has taken a hit because of second-hand clothes from the Western world. Remembering the great and rich African Fabrics and Textiles industry of years and centuries prior, many have thus decided to stop accepting these to keep building or rather re-building their own textile industry. Over 30 years ago, President Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso instituted the Faso Dan Fani in the workplace to encourage the local textile workers. Today, our wish is that other African countries will follow suit, and that throughout the world there will now be clothes worn with the label ‘Made in Senegal,’ or ‘Made in Mali,’ or ‘Made in Tanzania,’ or simply ‘Made in … [the African country’s name]’. Below is the excerpt of the article from the BBC. For the full article, go to The BBC.

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Faso dan fani2
Faso Dan Fani

Claim: Donating second-hand clothes has had a negative effect on textile industries in African countries.

The Rwandan President, Paul Kagame, has said: “We are put in a situation where we have to choose – you choose to be a recipient of used clothes… or choose to grow our textile industries.”

Rwanda is planning to ban the import of second-hand clothes by 2019 and has already put up tariffs.

Verdict: Imports of cheap second-hand clothes from the West have had an impact on local clothes manufacturers – but so have changes in world trade policies and the rise of Asian garment producers.

… African countries once had large textile industries – and some critics blame the flood of cheap second-hand clothes from abroad for the continent’s shrunken textile sector.

[…]  In 2015, member states of the East African Community (EAC), which comprises Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda, announced they would ban second-hand imports from 2019 to protect their own clothing manufacturers. 

Kente cloth
Kente cloth

East African countries, which account for 13% of the global market in second-hand textiles (worth a total of $274m (£208m) in 2015, began imposing tariffs. But then, under pressure from the United States, countries in the EAC reduced tariffs and withdrew the proposed ban. Rwanda, however, refused to back down.

And in March 2018, the US temporarily suspended Rwanda from an arrangement allowing sub-Saharan countries preferential access to the US market.

But Rwanda stood firm and maintained its import tariffs, saying it wanted to build up its own “Made in Rwanda” textile industry. …

History of African Fabrics and Textiles

Wax Hollandais
Wax Hollandais

Very often, Africans are depicted on old pictures as naked people, walking around without any clothing.  This seems to be quite at odd with the fact that the Dutch textile company VLISCO has been installed in Africa, more precisely in Togo, since 1846.  So how could pictures from the 1800s and early 1900s only show naked Africans?  The BBC recently ran a story on VLISCO and African textile tradition actually being European.  The New York Times claimed that Africa’s fabric was entirely Dutch.  I find this quite appalling, and I call this a falsification of history.

For starters, before VLISCO, Africa had a very rich textile industry as noted by Kankan Moussa‘s entire delegation being clothed from cotton woven with golden threads in 1300s during his pilgrimage to the Mecca (this will be a story for another day), or the Kanembu clothing tradition which dates as far back as the 800s.  It is misleading to believe that the Wax hollandais is the only fabric worn by Africans, when we know that the Bogolan rises from a long tradition of weavers in Mali, or the Kente cloth of Ghana.

A piece of Bogolan cloth
A piece of Bogolan cloth

So what is the history of African fabric?  Is there an African history of textile?

As pointed earlier, the African fabric industry is very old, and dates as far back as 5,000BC when ancient Egyptians began cultivating flax and weaving it into linen.  An ancient pottery found at Badari shows an ancient depiction of a loom dating back to this period, while a 12th dynasty image from the tomb of Khnumhotep shows weavers using a horizontal loom (ca 2400 BC).  Moreover, pyramids, sculptures, and hieroglyphs clearly show all Egyptians clothed.
Even their neighbors to the south, the Nubians, had a flourishing textile industry, as can be seen on images on pyramids at Meroë, and images of the great queen Amanishakheto, as well as those of pharaoh Piye.
Later on, as several civilizations flourished throughout Africa, cotton became a more commonly used fabric.  The explorer Ibn Battuta does mention the presence of weavers in the Mali empire, and in Timbuktu, in the 1300s.  As Islam was introduced in West Africa, many began wearing today’s version of the boubou.
Kente cloth
Kente cloth

Today, one can find a full tradition of textile flourishing throughout Africa.  The Bogolan or ‘mud cloth’ is  hand-woven fabric hailing from Mali.  Kente cloth, is Ghana’s national fabric, with the most expensive ones made with golden threads for kings only (in the olden days).  It is said that the British explorers were amazed by the beauty of the Ashanti king’s attire.  Cameroon has a long history of cloth made from the bark of trees, with some fabric particularly made from the obom.  Fibers from the raffia are still commonly used to make bags, and clothing.  Moreover, in West Cameroon, Kings are dressed with finely woven clothing made by the best weavers of the kingdom embellished with beads.  The Pygmies use bark cloth made from tropical fig trees, while people from Chad and the Central African Republic weave cotton strips on horizontal looms; they use a variety of natural dyes.

Ndebele woman
Ndebele woman

The Kuba people of the Democratic Republic of Congo, use raffia and make some of the most beautiful hand-woven blankets, clothing, and sculptures.  The Ndebele of South Africa and Zimbabwe have a rich tradition of gorgeous colorful quilts and blankets entirely hand-made.  Many would envy the elegance, color, and presentation of well-dressed Ndebele women.

So why are the New York Times and the BBC trying to falsify history?
Even VLISCO patterns are not Europeans, as they are inspired by Africans, and made to address the needs of the African population.  Yes, Africans wear have worn VLISCO textiles and many Nana Benz have prospered from it, but that doesn’t mean that they do not have their own rich tradition of textile.   Africans have their textile industry which dates back millennia, and has probably inspired many in the world.  So today as you wear a wax hollandais, remember that there are Kente cloth, Bogolan, and many other beautiful garments made by local artists well-deserving of praise.
I am leaving you with a documentary video on Kente cloth weaving.  Enjoy!