By Abimboa Adelakun
She picks the piece of cloth, ties a tiny twig around a part of it tightly in several places. The tied up parts, when dipped in the big pot of indigo dye, will not be permeated. The material is dried and then the twig is removed in some parts. It is dipped in another pot of indigo dye and by the time this process is repeated in several pots of dyes, the parts tied up with twig and removed gradually have formed several colourful patterns.
The women of Kenta village have been in the trade of adire (tie and dye) cloth making for as long as anyone can remember. In Nigeria, the Kenta family compound is synonymous with adire making. Even the oldest of the women, Falilatu Soetan, bent with age, who puts her years around a 100, said she was taught by her mother. Many times, learning the trade replaces formal education.
Adire is designed through a manual process. In times past, the process could take two weeks of tying, dying, drying and ironing before it was deemed ready to be worn. These days, due to demand and economic downturn, the women have introduced some innovations to make design easier.
However, ironing and wrapping the finished product is still done the classical way - by beating the cloth with a shaped log of wood over a wooden slab. This is the part that men sometimes come in. The manual labour makes the process long and tedious. With the various shortcuts, they can complete the process in less than 48 hours if they need to. Even then, they still find it hard to meet demand sometimes.
The Adire, over the years, has produced a variant – the Kampala cloth. The difference is that the former is made with dye generated from a local plant called elu while Kampala is made from imported dye. The older women stick to adire making while the younger women make Kampala
When retired president of Nigeria, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, was in office, adire was his sort of official attire; wearing it to local and international functions - a factor that boosted the profile of the material internationally. It became the trend to dress in adire for social occasions. Since he stepped out of office, adire has not received a similar boost.
Today, both the young and old women of Kenta are highly protective of their art and will no longer permit researchers, journalists or even students near their drums of dye. They claim that their trust has been violated by the so-called researchers, who take pictures of them at work, study the way they produce their various designs and patterns and go to mass produce them in their countries.
Subsequently, they flood the market with it and at a cheaper rate. “See,” they display their designs and the imported ones for comparison. Indications that the women’s designs could have been imitated are there truly. “These are our designs. These people came here and stole it from us.”
They do not agree that it could be a coincidence that various patterns matched. They insist that it had occurred repeatedly over the years. The designs, which they say are ‘divinely inspired’, almost always spring up in foreign materials after a visit by these ‘white men’.
The object of their fury, which they describe as ‘white men’, usually come with cameras and recording equipment claiming they want to make a documentary. The advantage of machine production over manual and the various economies of scale make the imported ones more affordable. Not just that, the imported ones come in attractive packages.
“It is affecting our business,” they complain. “The imported ones are only cheaper but they are not as good as ours. They don’t last, but many times buyers don’t mind. Once they see it smooth and glossy, they choose that over our own.”
On the imported ones are ‘Made in Mali’ tags and are sold in the same market as adire and Kampala. The traders say they have no choice: they stock what the buyers demand.
To protect their designs, they restrict outsiders from seeing them at work. That has not been totally helpful because the imitation of their designs have not stopped.
“What they do now is to buy various designs in bulk and take it back to their country. What they don’t know is that they cannot make adire like us. If you are not born into a family that has a pot of dye, you cannot make adire successfully.”
Not just that, they have resorted to curses and they are sure the imitators cannot escape them.
“Whatever they do with it,” one young woman shouted, “will not be successful. They will not make headway in life with it.”
The rest of the women shouted ‘Amen’.
Handmade Adire and other African fabrics can be found here.
Originally appeared on Africa Review.