West Africa

Susan had never been to West Africa, I not since 1977. Our first stop was Mali. Susan wanted the rock climbing, but I insisted on a textile tour. Okay, that is a joke, but there really is good climbing in Mali, as recent issues of the American Alpine Journal testify. But we signed up for a textile-intensive tour with Behind the Scenes Adventures, operated by an American woman, Cynthia Samake, and her Malian husband, Barou. It began in the country’s capital, Bamako, a rather featureless city of over a million, accessible by daily flights from Paris. We were eight clients. Unusually, I was not the oldest, but I was the only male. We traveled in a big white Benz van. Included were our factotum, Papou, and our excellent driver.

We had a few initial days in Bamako. We stayed at a new hotel, Comme Chez Soi, which had one of the best swapping libraries we have seen, in English and French. We even found a new copy of Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids. The room was dark but comfortable; like almost all the other places we stayed, it had its own toilet and shower. Like some, it had mosquito nets. West Africa is a malarial zone, and prophylactic pills are indispensable. Mali is a part of what was once French colonial territory. English is less useful than in any other place I have been. So we had another chance to show how badly we spoke French.

Much of our Bamako time was devoted to textiles, in markets and dedicated schools. We found we could withdraw money using our Visa debit card. We did this rather often, even though we had brought 40 $100 bills to change when needed. We had meals at various places, including the hot spot, Cafe Bla Bla. Good chicken and plantain. $20, including beer. (Currency is CFA francs.) Food note: along the roadsides young men dangle dead furry animals by their tails. They are said to be good eating. We can’t say.

Soon we embarked on our tour. But first some words about Mali. It is a big, impoverished country. The UN development index ranks it 178 out of 182 nations. Life expectancy is about 48. Most of the land is flat, with a large desert in the north. Natural resources are scarce; most people survive on subsistence agriculture. People are very friendly, but they are eager to sell you something, anything. They crowd about you with cries of Ça va? They must be resolutely ignored, unless you do in fact want to make a purchase.

Our first travel day was a long drive to the city of Segou, on the south bank of the Niger. Inter-city roads are pretty well paved, and the van was air-conditioned. Progress is slowed by intermittent population corridors: mud buildings, often roofless and apparently unfinished, and residents hawking fruit, calabashes, etc. Few signs of anything resembling prosperity. You see what "dirt poor” really means.

Segou is Barou’s home town; we would return for several days at the end of the tour. The following day we drove to Mopti, population 100,000. Like Segou, it sits on the south side of the Niger. Although a long way from its outlet to the sea in Nigeria, the river is already quite wide and rarely bridged. Its navigability varies with the seasons (hot, hotter, rainy but still hot). Wooden pirogues are usable at all times. It’s a pleasant place, though unevenly developed. There are several good restaurants, if with limited menus. A central item is Niger perch, also known as capitaine. It’s tasty, but a bit repetitive after the first four or five days. There are also omelets and sometimes pizza, now a global dish. We stayed at the comfortable Hotel Kanaga. To Susan’s delight, it had a big swimming pool. The room’s instructions were easier to understand in French than in English: “Fire security: You have just needed to leave the room at anypoints or any time without panick. In the case you notice or signs the fire... The Management regrets to take responsibilities for all stolen objects in the vehicles parking outside the hotel.”

The next morning we were up at 6:30 for our flight to Timbuktu. It was supposed to depart at 9:00 but did not until about 12:30. The two-propeller Raytheon plane had 17 seats, filled mostly by our group. The two pilots were German and South African; one of them appeared to be reading his e-mail during the flight. At lunch, we met one of nine Cuban doctors temporarily living in the vicinity. He was very affable, but didn’t speak a whole lot of French. The main reason people visit Timbuktu is to say that they have been there. The airport sells t-shirts with mottoes like “J’étais a Tombouctou” and “I have been to Timbuktu and back.” In truth, the town has descended from its glory days five centuries ago. It is now a sandy site of mud houses and alleyways. It nevertheless has attractions, including three mosques, which one cannot enter but admire from outside. It also has the desert, which extends far, far to the north. We were driven west of town to watch a Tuareg dance performance. For $10 we could also ride a camel. Given my unfortunate experience in Mongolia, this I declined. Then we had a tasty buffet supper. It was dark, with the city lights a faint gleam to the east.

After an early morning flight back to Mopti, we drove farther east into Dogon country. The terrain, so far unremittingly flat, turned hilly, the roads twisty. The Dogon escarpment is very impressive. Climbers note: it resembles the Shawangunks in height, but is much longer, perhaps ten continuous miles. There are some improbably located caves carved high into the sandstone. Much of the bottom section is overhanging and not promising for free climbing. Not many cracks either.

In a village beneath the cliff we spent our most basic night, sleeping on the roof at Chez Ally, the closest thing to a hotel in the area. The surface was mud, topped by a mat. Downstairs were two toilets: a pit squat for guides and locals, and a flush one for us tourists. There was also a shower with the injunction, “Ne pas pisser dans la douche.” There was a generator, which was turned off at 9:00 p.m.

The next morning, before the heat, we walked up to a rock vegetable garden near the cliff. It was a truly Edenic little site: actually lush, with flowers. I thought it the most beautiful place that we saw in the country. I could have happily spent the day there, but soon we were back in the van, headed for Bandiagara, the biggest Dogon town. En route we saw yet another dance performance--very skillful, with stilts and masks. In Bandiagara we stayed at La Falaise, the only true hotel in Dogon country. There we for one of the few times found a number of other Westerners mostly French and German. There were also lots of African gray parrots--like big pigeons with red tails.

Our next destination was Djenne, home to the biggest mosque in the country. Most of you have seen photographs of this gigantic mud structure. It is very impressive but, being mud, tends to melt (in part) at times of heavy rain. The town has a busy market and an internet. A number of its mud houses are adorned with graffiti, “Mister Bad Boys.” No political significance. We stopped by a Koranic school, a small museum, and a field of thousands of ancient pottery shards: an archaeologist’s dream or nightmare. The shards are on the ground to be stepped on.

We returned to Segou for four nights to catch the annual Festival on the Niger, a major event that fills the town’s hotels. A bandstand had been built by the river. West African musicians gathered to perform, following an opening ceremony full of pomp. The music was very loud and varied a lot in quality. That’s what I thought. The prices for tourists were high, but for locals, who predominated, very reasonable. The festival was full of energy. Daytime events included puppet shows with real people.

Most of our Segou meals were at L’Auberge, right by the festival. Its Lebanese owners had created a moderately varied Menu du Festival, likely pricier than its normal. The outdoor dining space was lovely as long as you sat away from the sewage smells, and the food was good: pizza, salads, capitaine, omelets. We viewed Papou’s organic vegetable garden, a large tract by the river. Its green was a happy contract with the usual brown and tan. One morning we boarded a pirogue, with 15 mph engines, for a trip up river to a small village known for its pottery. The river was lovely, the village rather bleak. It was full of children, one of whom clung to my hand for half an hour. Cries of Ca va? abounded.

One morning Barou told us that his brother-in-law had just died. He was 48, just the national average. That day we visited the local school, for which we had brought some welcome supplies. The principal did not hide his disdain of the government, which he said was corrupt and gives little help. His tiny office had only one chair--the gift of a French woman. Classrooms typically had some 90 students. The one we saw was filled with enthusiastic 7-year-olds, approximately. They erupted in cheers when we told them they age of our oldest participant: 82. They were puzzled by how few children we had. Malian families are (unfortunately) very large. We also made some donations to an adjoining health clinic.

In the afternoon we went to a mudcloth studio. The mud comes right out of the river. It is a very effective dye, and can be made into various colors. We all--yes, even me--tried our hands at dyeing and purchased some of the professional product.

After more than two weeks, it was time for the group to return to Bamako and then home. Not us. After coming this far, we wanted to see at least one other country in the region--Ghana. The issue was how to get there. It is not very far from Mali, but they share no border. Flying was exceedingly inconvenient. You could get to Accra via Casablanca, Addis Ababa, or Paris. These seemed a bit out of the way. There was a flight through Abidjan, but Ivory Coast seemed on the verge of civil war. Finally we decided to drive--that is, to be driven, through Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta). On Sunday, February 6th, our driver, Jean, picked us up in a white Toyota land cruiser. Now that we were (mostly) on our own, we appreciated all that Cynthia and Barou had done. Virtually all the expenses of the Mali tour had been paid in advance, including restaurant meals, hotels and tips. And gas, which was very expensive. Each time we filled up was another $60 or more. Jean proved very capable and had a great sense of humor--very handy in trips of this sort. He was learning English from a tape, but our common language was sort of French.

We soon reached a few sheds that denoted the Burkina border. Our visa (pricey, like the other two) was checked and we were asked to fill out a fiche de renseignments. It wanted to know the names of our parents and the names and ages of our children. Also our religion. I insisted on “Juif." The officer said this didn’t exist. But he didn’t fuss about it. There was also a page of observations. Did we pay our taxes regularly? What was our attitude toward authorities? Was our business prospering?

Once we were in Burkina, the scenery remained flat and largely featureless, but the roads improved and we saw fewer children out of school. Also more bicycles and fewer donkeys. We concluded that the country was better off than Mali, but the figures show them almost equally down the development lists. By 2:00 we had arrived at the country’s second city, Bobo-Dialossou, known as just Bobo (population about 400,000). And we stayed at the Villa Bobo. Its French owner was away, but his daughter was there on a visit. Her translation skills proved invaluable.

It had not been easy locating the Villa. In the first of numerous such episodes, we had been unable to decode the map, and drove fruitlessly around town. Eventually, stuck within a market, we resorted to the phone (what could we have done without it?) Soon a couple of young men on a motorbike showed up to guide us to the hotel.

Bobo has a nice French feel. We ate the first night at the Canne d’Or, a 15-minute walk down a dark street. Good food, though Susan was disconcerted by the very unGallic “Finian’s Rainbow” music in the background. We also recommend the restaurant San Germain. Breakfast at the Villa included brewed coffee, to Susan’s delight. She had been seriously depressed by the little envelopes of Nescafe that we had endured the previous two weeks. We also located some good ice cream. An internet cafe had a French keyboard, which interchanged a and q. This mqde q few strqnge messqges. We had a swim at the Villa’s small pool, which was surrounded by guinea hens.

After two nights we were off to Ouagadougou (Ouaga), the capital. We had an added passenger: Marie-Josee, a high-strung Frenchwoman who had been staying at the Villa. As we approached the city, she announced that she was to be taken to the airport. Jean lost the way, and we became entangled in dirt roads, all ending in an impenetrable fence. Eventually M-J exited to a taxi, with thanks but no offer to help pay for our gas or provide a pourboire for Jean. We all concluded that she was pas tres gentille.

Now we had to find the Hotel Les Palmiers. Many stops for directions in French. Finally Jean pulled up to the gate in triumph. But we had reached the Hotel La Palmeraie instead. “We don’t care,” we said. “We’re staying right here.” We had only that one night in Ouaga, which was a pity. It’s a big place, well over a million, with an expansive French atmosphere. We had dinner at a hotel run by nuns from the Mother Mary Grotto. Beyonce was shown playing on a large screen in back. But we had to be at the Ghana border the next morning. There another driver, with car, was supposed to meet us. Even with telephone reassurances, we wondered whether he would really appear. After another round of border formalities, we sat down with our luggage and waited. For some time. I wandered around and was approached by a middle-aged Ghanaian. “I am to pick some white people here,” he said. This was Eric, our invaluable companion for the next 17 days. He was driving a bright red Ford Galaxy, which was said to be new. But we think that meant new to the country, rather than fresh from the factory.

Our first stop, just a few miles south, was the town of Navrongo, home to the Holy Child Boutique. Life is Patience Electricals, Sarah Finger Tricks (a tailor, allegedly) and the Chastity Business School. At the Perseverance Spot we had lunch, which included my first Star beer. Until now we had been able to rely upon CFA francs, but the Ghanaian currency is the cedi (worth about $0.70 at this time) . We needed some cedis right away. Eric took us to the home of an evidently Big Man, who offered to get some in trade for francs and dollars. We ended up with him in the nearby pharmacy, which he seemed to be in charge of. There followed much fussing over a calculator and deputations to the bank. Susan thought the pharmacist a local Mafioso, but if so the Ghana Mafia was in big trouble. He almost gave us three times the amount we were entitled. It was now very hot. Susan was making a frustrating effort to buy a local SIM card for our phone. She became uncharacteristically agitated: “Why is this taking so long?” I told her this was West Africa. That seemed to calm her.

With our more than 800 cedis, we drove to Sirigu, site of SWOPA (Sirigu Woman’s Organisation for Pottery and Arts). Susan knew of it through an American friend, for whom we were carrying a $100 contribution. SWOPA provides basic accommodation in several circular huts. Electricity from 6:00 p.m. to 9:00. Huts have private bathrooms with plumbing but no running water. There is a barrel full of water, however. A bucket flushes the toilet. Another bucket may be dumped on you for a very welcome shower (it seemed even hotter here than it had in Mali and Burkina). The huts are colorfully painted outside in a style that reminded us of the village where we had briefly worked in South Africa. Another hut was occupied by a couple of Dutch women. They were traveling in style: not only car and driver, but their own cook. We saw the four of them at dinner, popping open a bottle of champagne. The next day we met two young British volunteers from nearby Bolgatanga, the big town of the region. He was a science educator, she a veterinarian. Her sister was paying a visit; she had spent seven hours having her hair braided in a complicated style.

We paid a visit to the modest mud palace of the local king. He has six wives and 36 children. Sirigu town, population a thousand or more, is a few miles away. Much market activity, as is typical of the region. It does not abound in restaurants, but we took a couple of suppers at Big Joe’s Spot. We ate in the expansive back yard, which we shared with pigs, goats, guinea fowl, dogs and a kitten. We ordered fufu and chicken stew. It was delicious when it arrived over an hour and a half later. (Note: It is wise to order in advance, especially in small places.) We also had a beer and two big bottles of mineral water. Susan was so delighted with the food that she touched the cook’s belly and asked when the baby was due. She wasn’t pregnant, but smiled anyway. We took our breakfasts at SWOPA: still Nescafe, but fried eggs and toast instead of the nutritionless white bread of the previous countries.

After two nights, we continued south to Tamale (accent on first syllable). We checked into the Gariba Lodge, which was inconveniently several miles north of town. An enormous conference center was under construction, with incongruous white columns. We drove--that is, Eric drove us--into town and walked around the teeming main street. Later we sought the Relax Lodge, said to have a good Indian restaurant. We could find it on the map, but Eric was not a map-reader and had to ask for directions. Ghanaians, genuinely obliging, don’t like to confess ignorance in such matters. They will wave their arms right, left, and sometimes up, with assurances that the place you seek is really very close. Thus we spent an exasperating 45 minutes inadvertently seeing most of the town. Finally, for five cedis, a taxi driver led us to the restaurant. We had pseudo-curry, along with the inevitable beer and water. A better destination is Swad Fast Food, with a big menu that seemed a lot more Indian.

From Tamale we made a morning excursion to the village of Daboya, one of Susan’s prime objectives, because of its indigo dyeing. It’s a relatively short drive west, but the road is intermittently awful, dirt with ruts and rocks. Eventually you reach a river. There was a bridge here once, but a flood washed it away. For a cedi per person, you cross on a pirogue. The village was dusty and hot, but it did have a lot of indigo dyeing. Susan was thrilled to dye two scarves that she had woven in Brooklyn. As in Mali, weaving here is a man’s profession. Our guide was surprised to hear that in the West it is otherwise.

It took five hours the next day to drive to Kumasi, the country’s second city. Road work in progress may help, but now it is horribly congested. We had another of our vexed searches for our destination, the Sir Max hotel, which we knew was somewhere on the far side of town. We reached it in triumph, only to see that it was actually the Rexmar. This time we did not surrender but kept looking for Sir Max; we found it twenty minutes later--comparatively luxurious, with swimming pool and very good restaurant. Among the guests were Cynthia and Barou, leading a Ghana tour. We kept running into them. In characteristic style, Barou welcomed us with a big hug, Cynthia with a handshake.

Next day we visited a village which produced kente cloth, the country’s most famous textile. There we met Mark, Christine, and Alex. Mark is Belgian, his wife of Philippine descent. Alex is their daughter, almost three and in the throes of toilet training. They live a few miles from us in Brooklyn, but had just embarked on a tour of more than a year in Africa and Asia. While waiting for the kente folk, the five of us had lunch at a real bush restaurant. Fufu and unidentifiable meat in gravy. Utensils not provided, but you get a bowl of warm water, liquid soap and towel. After the meal, another bowl of water appears. (I mostly stayed with beer.)

On the return drive through an endless suburb, the car suddenly spewed steam. This coincided with a downpour, the first rain of our trip.We waited it out with concern--grateful that the breakdown had not occurred somewhere in the bus, but wondering whether it could be remedied. A few hundred feet away we found an auto repair shop, full of rusting car hulks. Somehow a mechanic made a temporary fix that let us get back to Sir Max. But the fan had to be replaced; we had no idea how long that might take. The market was being scoured for a replacement. “I am not spending any extra nights in this hotel,” Susan declared. So the next day we continue our agenda by taxi.

First stop was the market, by some accounts the largest in West Africa. Some visitors won’t tour it without a guide. We blundered along, bargaining for an occasional item, while being pleasantly ignored by most vendors. Later we made an emergency stop at a bookstore, the first we had seen in the country, and returned to Sir Max. No red car was waiting for us. Another taxi took us an hour away to Lake Bosumtwi. This anomalous feature was created by a meteor strike. The water is still rising; it has submerged several lakeshore villages. Its maximum depth is about 300 feet, but near the shore we found the water shallow, warm and unrefreshing. We stayed at the Lake Point Guest house, which has 9 comfortable chalets and feels like a modest resort. The dinner was the best we had: prawns--marsala and pasta, or with rice. We were tempted to stay another night, but the next morning Eric appeared with the repaired Galaxy. We headed for the Volta region, the eastern part of the country.

Eventually we were established near the Togo border at the Wli Water Heights Hotel, a small, comfortable place where we met a number of other westerners. The big attraction here is the waterfall, said to be the highest in West Africa. From the hotel they are a hike in a protected area that exacts a fee. Off we went with Eric and a guide. The lower falls is reached by a level path a few miles long. But just before you get there, another trail branches steeply to the left. The day was (of course) hot, and the terrain was full of rocks and tree roots. It was steadily up. Eric said he had done nothing like this since he was 14. He was on his cell phone, telling his wife in Accra how hard it was. He paid us a memorable compliment: “Your bodies are young,” he said, “even though your faces are old.”

After more than an hour and a half, we reached the upper falls. They are gorgeous, dropping 300 feet or more (no one seems to know the exact distance). The pool at the base provides a very welcome swim. It’s worth the trip, but be prepared for a workout. The lower falls, which we reached later, are quite similar, and famed for their bat colony of half a million. We also discovered some barely clothed young white females, giggling and shrieking in the pool. They turned out to be Russian, some of them doing volunteer work in the region. Ghana, we found, is a major destination for foreign volunteers, especially from Germany and the U.K.

The Water Heights Hotel was a lovely little place with a good restaurant. As elsewhere, it was advised to order dinner an hour or two in advance. We treated ourself to a bottle of wine (white), our first on the trip. We met several Danes and Germans, including two Danish women who tried to use their Mastercard. Lots of luck. Most places, only Visa (if anything) will do, and a debit card is strongly recommended. There was also a young pre-med student from Wisconsin. He was dedicating his career to community health in poor communities. He had spent some time in a hospital in Mexico and was doing the same in nearby Ho, the regional capital.

With the approach of our final week, we headed for the ocean. The first hotel had a charactererless room with a great view of the Atlantic. Unhappily, it had also a view of a bandstand that was blaring music for a reception. We were assured this would soon stop, but it was clear that the ceremonies had not even started and would go well into the night. Next we sought a place well recommended by the Bradt guidebook. After the usual direction-begging, we found ourselves on a paved road right by the sea. But the pavement suddenly deteriorated and became sand, in which we became seriously stuck. Amid much clamor, people and a station wagon hauled us out. The station wagon offered to get us to our destination for 50 cedis. I incautiously offered 20, which was refused. For the only time on the trip, I sensed a slightly menacing atmosphere. An hour later we were comfortably settled, though by the Votal River rather than the ocean.

The next day’s itinerary took us west through Accra to Cape Coast. We had heard of the horrors of Accra traffic, so were not surprised at the chaos and delay, even on a Sunday. A big new ring road is being built: the George Bush Highway, which may ease the congestion, at least for a time. While we inched forward, I noted posters of a religious character: “Open Heaven Revival Chapel”--theme: “My Time to Prosper”; “Hope Generation Ministries (Computer Man)”; “Worship with Us in our Power Packed Services.” After I had stared at these for 45 minutes we were finally past the city and, in another hour or so, in Cape Coast. Next stop, the Green Turtle eco-lodge. But after receiving bewildered responses to our inquiries, we realized that the place was another 90 minutes west. So we went to anther ecological spot, the Stumble Inn, in Elmina, adjacent to the super-luxurious Coconut Grove. It was indeed ecological, with a composting toilet and electricity only three hours a day. The menu was limited: red-red (spicy beans and fried plantain, which I much liked) or chicken with vegetable. Banana pancakes for breakfast! Brewed coffee! The Atlantic was only a hundred yards away--warm, but too rough and risky for real swimming.

Eventually we found the Green Turtle. It was similar to Stumble, but bigger and more elaborate. It is very popular with visitors, so book ahead. Its name derives from the big turtle that give birth along the beach. A guide took us looking one evening, but the turtles must have been busy elsewhere. We also took a pirogue up a nearby river, hoping to see monkeys. They too were uncooperative, but a number of birds did show up. The GT guests were all of course younger than we. A number were volunteers. One was a young (20) German girl who had spent five months living with a local family near Accra. Finding that poor sanitation was sickening many children, she launched an internet fund-raising campaign that produced enough money for composting toilets. Recreational note: There was a ping-pong table with paddles and net, but the only ball had been crushed. The cook immersed it in boiling water and it emerged completely restored. Remember this.

Ghana’s biggest attractions along the coast are the old slave-trading forts, even though most of them are currently inaccessible to the public. We visited two, at Elmina and Cape Coast. The latter is particularly oppressive. Slaves being held for sale were confined in horribly dark and crowded spaces. These dungeons were a contrast to the beautiful ocean views and the high rooms occupied by colonial administrators (Danish and British). Among the tourists were several Nigerians, the only ones we met on the trip. One was working at the University where I had taught so many years ago. There was also a young African-American man from Chicago. Susan told him that she had been born there, but he seemed uninterested. He was in fact the angriest person we saw, extremely bitter at his treatment in the U.S. He did not want to hear the Ghanaian guide say that Africans had been complicit in the slave trade.

Eric had been a splendid driver. He was cautious and polite. (Ghanaian drivers seemed remarkably restrained compared with the speeding and horn-blasting that I recall from Nigeria.) He was an amiable companion with a sense of humor. Also of indignation. When angered he would burst out with a local version of “Oy”--something like “Ai--eee.” When we were charged a cedi (which he resolutely refused to pay) for entering a market parking area that we meant immediately to leave, he shouted, “You are a wicked man! Ai-eee. Wicked, wicked, wicked!” He resisted several extortionate efforts by traffic police. He was an elder in a Pentecostal church and a very moral man. He didn’t know what Judaism was, but said the country had some Hare Krishnas. We were extremely flattered to be the first tourists Eric had invited for a meal in his Accra home. He had part of a small compound. We saw only one room, which had a television and refrigerator. We met his charming wife and two youngest children. “They are all brilliant,” he told us. The eldest, a girl, is studying physics in secondary school. One can only hope that she can continue into higher education--not easy in Ghana. In addition to meat and fufu, Eric had thoughtfully provided a bottle of Star beer for me.

Accra is the capital, with a population population of two million or so. It has a reputation for terrible traffic, but we saw little of it. We spent our final two nights in the Royal Blue hotel in the lively Osu district. It was Friday, and the main drag, Oxford Street, was noisy with celebrants. We had a treat--smoothies at 4.5 cedis each. On the last night we found the Bella Roma--an Italian restaurant, exepensive by local standards, but very good. Half a block way, people were raising goats and chickens. Accra is in transition.

We are glad that we made the trip, but even Susan found it tiring. Heat, poverty and general confusion take their toll. As noted, life expectancy in Mali is 48; in Burkina it is 53, and 57 in Ghana. This an indicator of their states of development. Prospects are mixed at best, especially in Mali. Population growth is 2.6% annually; schools, when they exist, are usually poor; natural resources are scarce. In 20 years there will be more people and more heat. A college-educated Ghanaian told me that global warming was God’s will. I told him that he had better pray hard. I was too discouraged to make a more educational response. More happily, in Burkina we visited a place where the ubiquitous plastic bags were being recycled into very attractive handbags.

Susan’s textile addendum:

There are several well-known textile traditions in West Africa: dyeing with indigo and with chemical dyes (very little natural dyeing being done these days), mud cloth and, in Ghana, kente cloth, batik and Adinkra printing. The weaving in all these countries is done by men, almost always on narrow looms producing strips about 5” in width. In Dogon country, in Mali, women still spin cotton on drop spindles. In Ghana we were told that, because of decreased availability of local cotton, the fiber is bought from China, though there is some factory-spun Ghanaian cotton available.

One of the most striking things on the trip, other than the poverty, was the colorful dress of the women and, often, the men. As we moved into Ghana many more women and men were dressed in a western manner but in Mali I don’t think we saw any women dressed in other than local cloth. My favorite was, in Mali, what I called “message” cloth; could be AIDS prevention, or family planning organization. Zach and I now have matching shirts saying Parti pour le Developpement Economique et la Solidatite,” and I have a dress commemorating Woman’s Day, 2010; this seemed to be the most popular fabric for the year. I’m sure it will be quite a hit in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. The Festival on the Niger had its own special cloth and even USAID had a cloth (which I thought was kind of ugly) for the Festival.

On our first day of travel in Mali we went to the local market where we bought bazin, a German or Chinese made cotton, which we stitched or folded to dye later in the trip. I also bought some dyed bazin which I had made into a skirt and top – very beautiful and very elegant – though what I can only imagine wearing to the opera is what local women wear shopping! Steve took the easy way out – he paid about $1.00 to have the professional in the market fold his piece for him. I spent hours doing not as good a job as the professional did in ten minutes! But it was fun. Their techniques are certainly similar to Japanese shibori with some very similar results. We also visited a textile school where women are learning the art of dyeing bazin; it was a busy place where, sadly, there was no effort to protect the women from the chemicals they were using.

During our time in Mali we visited two different mud cloth studios, in one of which we did some mud cloth painting – a lot of fun. In Dogon country there is indigo dyeing being done in a traditional manner – though some mysterious “chemical” is added at the end and we couldn’t get anyone to tell us what this was; same thing in Ghana. Though the weaving is done by men, the stitching and dyeing is done by women. The pieces they make, using cotton strips sewn together, are fabulous. (Of course, I have one piece and wish I’d bought more!) We also visited the only place in Ghana still doing traditional indigo dyeing, in the north of the country. (In Ghana it is men who do the dyeing and sew the pieces into men’s tops called “fugo” – one of which we now own; Steve has so far refused my entreaties to wear it publicly (or privately even.) When they saw a silk scarf of mine on which I had done some stitching one of the men said that “his ancestors” used to do that but they had lost this process.

One of the great things in traveling in West Africa (as in Nepal) is the opportunity to have clothing made that really fits! I had some clothing made in Mali and a wonderful dress sewn in Accra of locally made batik print. We also visited Ntonse, the home of Adrinka printing, and did a small piece. Adinkra cloth is printed with locally made natural thickened dyes, using carved calabashes (or, these days, carved sponges) with different symbols. We saw men draping this beautiful cloth over their shoulders as they were on their way to funerals and were told that, even men who generally dress in Western dress, will have Adinkra cloth to wear for important tribal events.

We learned in Ghana that there are two “schools” or styles of kente weaving – Ashanti, which is better known, and Ewe which is woven in the area called East of Volta, the least visited part of Ghana – and our favorite part. We visited Adanwomse on the outskirts of Kumasi, to tour a small village of Ashanti weavers. There is an excellent NGO that arranges walking tours and has a small display; there are also shops where one bargains but it is not a real “hard sell” as it would be in a market. This was a very well-run operation (though there were, as usual, no road signs on the very back roads we took to get there so we had to stop many times for directions). Sadly, some of the other towns that had had well-functioning tours when the guidebook was printed had programs that had disappeared or fallen into disarray. This is certainly one of the issues facing developing countries – well-meaning groups help develop programs but without a tremendous amount of community involvement and commitment – and money – the programs fall apart.

We visited also visited an Ewe village, Kpetoe, to see kente woven there. Visually it was hard for me to discern the differences in the style but I have read that the Ashanti weavers maintain traditional patterns and colors, while the Ewe weavers have their own tradition of greater leeway in patterns. By the way, we saw very little kente cloth being worn in Ghana in contrast to the wearing of Adinkra cloth.

Bernhard Gard, Woven Beauty: The Art of West African Textiles
Peter Adler, African Majesty: The Textile Art of the Ashanti and Ewe
Doran H. Ross: Wrapped in Pride: Ghanaian Kente and African-American Identity

--January-February, 2011

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