Heavenly Hues of Africa

The continent has long offered an incredible variety in wearable textiles and designs.

The continent has long offered an incredible variety in wearable textiles and designs.

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Mostly very colourful, African outfits and accessories can vary according to the nation or area in Africa from which they originate. Here are a few examples of the wondrous weaves and designs worn and sold by different African nations and peoples.

Madagascar Melding

The island people of this east coast island offer a great example of how worlds collide. Lamba, which means clothing and cloth in literal Madagascan language, is a highlands-originated fashion often seen sported along with modern wear such as clogs, tennis shoes and baseball caps. It is usually worn as a matched two-piece outfit by women, with the same fabric in both the top and bottom sections, or as a single unit for men. It is also called simbo in some regions.

Worn with a long rectangular cloth made of silk for auspicious occasions, lambas are often reserved for important occasions: worn at a family ceremony, when visiting a friend or relative, and also exchanged between men and women when they get engaged. They are also worn at key diplomatic meetings; or, for burials, by visitors, even to wrap the dead. The lamba worn daily are made of bast, raffia or cotton material, and might be solid white in colour or come in distinctive striped red, black and white designs.

Varieties of name and style for this clothing depend on regional dialects. A ‘lambahoany’ is the most ubiquitous lamba and has a border design surrounding a central image of everyday life. A popular proverb, such as ‘Family is everything’, is typically written along the bottom border, for easy viewing. Hand-woven Madagascar patterned materials are believed to manifest magical powers and tie people together. Exchanges therefore build bonds.

‘Lamba akotofahana’ refers to the distinctive coloured weavings worn by the aristocrats of the Merina people. Visitors can go to Anananarivo’s many exquisite art galleries to purchase the best of these garments. Everyday lamba, however, are used for carrying heavy items atop heads, wrapping infants or providing shade from the sun and can be bought in any market, or better ones in town-centre shops.

Multi-coloured Mozambique

Cultural differences are expressed through clothing everywhere, and Africa is no different. In the primarily Muslim northern nations, the normal garb consists of white head coverings and long robes. Over the shoulder wrapping of brightly hued, lengthy fabrics is the norm for most other Mozambicans. In pastoral areas, men still wear daishikis (colourful, loosely fitting shirts with vibrant designs), but loin cloths have been replaced by Western shorts and pants. Women still wear the turban, or head scarf.

In major cities like Maputo, Nampula, Tete and Beira, you’ll see many more people – primarily the younger ones – clothed in Western gear. The children in cities, but also in the countryside to a great degree, are inclined to wear foreign fashions bought from import shops. Women wear today’s modern dress styles, but with native cloths of interesting and lively colours added for cool effect.

Revered Fabrics in Togo and Ghana

Hand-woven ‘Ashanti Kente’ is a popular clothing material that speaks of prestige and class in Africa’s Atlantic coast nations, so it is worn for special events. Commonly worn by the Ashanti King and courtiers, it carries an elevated and important energy and appearance, wherever it is worn. This is partly due to the long time required to weave Kente cloth. I’ve seen patchwork pieces that are more hypnotic than mandalas; this is partly due to intense colours, and also how patterns are arranged.

Originally produced by Ghana’s Fante people, Kente has been around since the 12th century. It is woven in 4-inch-wide strips, and full pieces come in roughly 3 x 4m size. Each colour has its own significance, based on different peoples’ beliefs. For instance, gold stands for long life and is worn by chiefs, as is yellow for wisdom and high standing. Worn by the queen mother, blue signifies love, while girls undergoing puberty rites wear green to show life-giving power. At a political rally, I once spotted a lot of reds to match the fiery rhetoric, as the colour represents blood spilling or death. It is best to keep moving when coming upon such events in Africa.

Silk-woven, genuine Kente pieces, prized for their higher quality over cotton pieces, can be purchased for between US$ 400-2,000. Look for uniquely intricate thread-work to know you’re getting the best. Some beautiful pieces can be found in southern Ghana, although such ‘Ewe Kente’ (made by the area’s Ewe people) are largely made of cotton and is not as wildly hued and distinguished in look. Kente can be bought in any area market or dedicated store – for higher quality pieces – or even online.

Sturdy Weavings in Sierra Leone and Liberia

Western African nations offer some of the most interesting pieces of cloth, mostly from Liberia’s interior (known as Lofa County). Widely varying in designs, with more muted colours than Kente, “Country Cloth” can be found in Mali, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast.

Rugged weavings of ruff-hewn cotton comprise sometimes white, sometimes indigo- and kola-dyed cloth. But, it is always exciting and engaging in both its natural appeal and beautiful statements. Also made in 4-inch strips, the cloth comes in long bolts if you want to make your own fashions, but trust the indigenous people. They add stunning embroidered trim to necklines, pockets and women’s sleeves that are often tasselled for extra effect. Mali’s Dogon people and Burkina Faso folk use ‘Dogon Cloth’, another natural but lovely material that is as durable as its native wearers.

Wrap-On West Africa

Women are often seen wearing traditional outfits of Dogon that has indigo blue hues in western regions. Worn as wrap-around skirts, the ticking of the material is very interesting, and regional flowers and leaves make the distinctive dyes. Ladies in Liberia, Mali, Guinea and Sierra Leone especially love these eye-catching designs, and so will you. A well-constructed piece sells for between US$40-60.

Tie Dye is known worldwide as a popular fabric. However, I’ve personally never seen more original and extraordinary designs than in the markets and shops of West Africa. The above countries, in addition to Benin, Gambia and Ghana have authentic individually created tie-dye processes use to create differing patterns on top of others. The fabrics’ colours don’t bleed from one section into others, thanks to ingenious ways of binding when dyeing. Also, top-quality brocade cloth, known as “basin fabric” is well worth the US$10-15 you’ll pay for a 4 x 5 foot section.

Tips and notes in African fabrics and clothing

When buying Kente fabric, be certain that the colours match on the front and reverse sides. Authentic Kente fabric from Ghana shows the hand-woven technique with consistency, whereas Chinese cloth is merely printed with designs. Africancraft.com has some good choices.

Ebay sells many African fabrics, but check the sellers’ profiles to be sure you’re getting the best. While some modern-day materials are used by indigenous peoples, you do not want to boast about hangings or clothing as original, only to find out it is a cheap imitation with an original’s cost. Dogon wallets are often faked, so be sure you’re not buying a copy.

Many African ethnic groups produce particular cloths for important life events, such as wedding celebrations, hunting ceremonies, and even modern-day graduations. Teaching the production skills to daughters, native women proudly pass on this tradition. Men traditionally wear certain cloths for hunting. Dogon shirts have brown and tan hues as well as sewn-in amulets and special medicines to make the men stealthy, hidden and lucky in their hunting.

Ice Age Africans were likely the first to wear clothing in what was earlier a cool climate, unlike today’s continent. Animal skins were first worn, then, pounded bark fibres, and eventually, fabrics woven from linens and grasses. ‘Mud Cloth’, seen in West Africa, derives from bark, leaves and other parts of M’Peku, Wolo, Bougalan and other trees. Muds are painted on, dried, washed and altered.

Many non-profit Western organisations sell used clothing to African groups that profit from reselling to locals. Such Mitumba (or, “white man’s clothes”) are embraced by many rural Africans as a natural leap forward into the modern world. Of course, some are critical of the loss of income it causes to local fabric and clothing producers. Also controversial is the trend away from using traditional materials and skills to make clothes.

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