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.


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. …

Kente Cloth: An Ashanti Tradition dating Centuries back

Kente scarf
Kente scarf

Have you ever seen those beautiful bright multicolored scarves worn on graduation day by thousands of African Americans and African students across the United States?  Those scarves are usually hand-woven, bright, and multicolored, worn to represent the membership to a Black sorority, fraternity, or to just an African student organization at the different colleges and universities.

Well, those scarves are made from a material commonly known as Kente cloth, which originates from the Ashanti people of Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire.  The Ashanti people used to (and still do) hand weave these bright multicolored clothes for their kings and noblemen.  The tradition of kente cloth is said to have been developed in the 17th century, and stems from ancient Akan weaving techniques dating as far back as the 11th century AD (this is one of Africa’s textile tradition).  Kente cloth is known as nwentoma (meaning woven cloth) in Akan language, and is a type of silk, cotton, or rayon fabric made of interwoven cloth strips which is native to the Akan/Ashanti ethnic group of Southern Ghana (and also Cote d’Ivoire).  It is woven on a wooden loom, which produces a band about 10 cm wide; several bands will then be sewn together to make a larger cloth.  The elaborate patterns arise from the mixture of different weaving techniques applied to the same band of cloth.  The quality of the fabric, and weaving indicates the rank of the person, the best being reserved for the kings.  It is worn by men as a toga, and by women as upper and lower wrappers.  The art of weaving kente is passed down only to males, from generation to generation.  The main center of weaving kente is around the Kumasi region of Ghana.

Kente cloth
Kente cloth

An Ashanti legend has it that two friends who had gone hunting in the forest came across a giant spider (the famous Ananzé) who was weaving her web.  They were so amazed that they stayed welded in place for two days, contemplating the spider at work.  When they returned from hunting, they imitated the animal and wove a cloth out of raffia.  This is how was born the first kente which was offered to the king.  The Asantehene (king) was so amazed by the beauty of the present, that he elevated the weavers to the rank of royalty, and they became the king’s exclusive tailors.  The clothes woven for the king were each unique, and whoever tried to reproduce them was severely punished.

Kente is an Akan royal and sacred cloth worn only in times of extreme importance and is the cloth of kings and nobility, before finding its way into bags, and scarves sold around the globe nowadays.  In Akan culture, the different colors and intricate patterns used in the weaving do have traditional meanings.

White: is the color of purity, innocence, spirituality, and peace (mental, collective, and interior).  Very small amount are found on the kente (sometimes just the threads are white).  White has a divine and sacred character;

 Paramount chief Nana Akyanfuo Akowuah Dateh II in Kumase,Ghana (Photograph by Eliot Elisofon,1970, National Museum of African Art).
Paramount chief Nana Akyanfuo Akowuah Dateh II in
Kumase, Ghana (Photograph by Eliot Elisofon,1970,
National Museum of African Art).

Yellow: is the color of gold, and symbolizes preciousness, royalty, wealth (financial, spiritual, intellectual, etc), and fertility.  It is associated with the earth’s generosity.  This color is strongly represented in the kente, because the king, who wears it during public gatherings, embodies all these virtues: gold, royalty, wealth, high status, glory, spiritual purity.  Yellow, just like the sun’s rays, also reminds of divine goodness.

Black: is the color of bereavement, and darkness, but also of mystery and secrecy.  It is mostly used in initiation and purification ceremonies.  It is an ambivalent color representing both obscurantism, and spiritual elevation; it is thus both feared and revered.  Its discrete presence in kente reminds that noblemen are first and foremost the guardians of the throne.  Black also represents maturation and intensified spiritual energy;

Blue: reminds of the big spaces: the sea and the sky.  It symbolizes elevation, communion, humility, patience, and wisdom.  The king and noblemen have perfect control over their environment.  Blue is the color of peace, harmony, and loveIt is sometimes associated with yellow or white, or red, to represent wealth and power which are founded on spirituality, and which bring tranquility, and balance, and constitutes a strong guarantee of stability for all powers;

Green: is the symbol of life, growth and harmony.  Green reminds of the forest, the trees, birth, and youth.  It is also linked to vegetation, planting, harvesting, growth, and spiritual renewalJoined with blue and yellow on a kente, it completes the meaning of the clothing which expresses wealth and nobility founded on humility, humanism, and balance.

Other less common colors are:

A Kente cloth was offered to Michael Jackson during his enthronement as prince of Krindjabo (Côte d’Ivoire).
A Kente cloth was offered to Michael Jackson during his enthronement as prince of Krindjabo (Côte d’Ivoire).

Grey: healing and cleansing rituals, and is associated with ashes;

Brown: is the color of mother earth, and is associated with healing;

Pink: mostly worn by women, is associated with the female essence of life: sweetness, tenderness, calmness, pleasantness;

Purple: is associated with feminine aspects of life, and is mostly worn by women;

Red: political and spiritual moods, bloodshed, sacrificial rites, and death;

Silver: serenity, purity, joy, and is associated with the moon;

Continue reading “Kente Cloth: An Ashanti Tradition dating Centuries back”

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!