In December 2011, I visited the Gambia for the first time along with AFG Guest Contributor Donalea Scott of GetAPerspective blog. And I was highly open minded, very expectant and excited too. I profess to be having a growing love affair with Africa that I don’t wish to end right now as I am having fun finding out about the jewels and the hidden secrets this beautiful continent has to offer.
From the moment I stepped off the plane to seeing the red soil, the green nature the welcoming smiles I knew I was in Africa – the true Motherland. The smiling coast lived up to its name for sure and the sunshine….what can I say!
My focus was to engage with those who were involved in the textile industry however big or small as well as to learn more about the heritage and the culture and the history of the country.
The Gambia is the smallest country in the African continent, though it surely does not lack any slender or rich history. A former British colony, Gambia played an important role in the slave trade; the River Gambia was used as a hub for the exporting of African slaves, first controlled by the Portuguese from 1456 then by the British in 1661. Gambia won its independence from the British in 1965 and has since been relatively political stable.
The country is filled with happy and friendly locals, with my coach transfer to and from the airport greeted with kind waves from the local people. Tourism is said to be Gambia’s biggest industry, though I don’t think this alone is the reason for their friendliness, we found the Gambia people to exhibit much pride in their country, culture and a contentment for their lifestyle.
Gambia is a Muslim country with the percentage said to be 70% Muslim 30% Christian. Though unlike stories I’ve heard of Arab countries such as Dubai, said to be somewhat intolerant to the behaviours of western tourists, Gambia is welcoming and very accommodating.
Staying in the Senegambia region, a popular tourist destination due to its nightlife, bars and restaurants, I was impressed to find out that these facilities were also used by the locals, particular the clubs. Though interestingly, since much of the youngsters are Muslim not drinking and smoking doesn’t affect their ability to have fun. Music is very important to Gambian youths, though they appreciate their traditional music; they also have an interest in international offerings. Though again to my surprise, it’s not pop or hip-hop that they are crazy for but the conscious sounds of old school Jamaican reggae and I mean ‘old skool’, the type of records I remember my parents playing in my childhood. It was amazing to see music make such a positive impact, to know that the message laden music of reggae can transgress culture, language and religion.
We found out the hard way that one week wasn’t enough time to visit the country, though I managed to cram a lot into my short stay. We visited the capital Banjul, Serekunda Gambia’s largest city, Bakau and its crocodile park, Dippa Kunda the batiking district, Tanje a fishing district and home of one of the many museums we visited and of course Jaffureh, a small town whose history is tied with the slave trade.
The museums sadly were not well funded yet they contained some of the most interesting and amazing artefacts that we have ever seen (see photos above). In all Donalea’s years of researching into slavery she was presented face to face with whips, branding irons, shackles and neck chains that were used during the slave trade and was told facts about slavery that books would never share (such as local Africans resistance to the taking of its people, a historical inaccuracy!) and we visited James Island, a small island situated in the Gambia River where the British had a holding fort to house slaves awaiting the journey on the middle passage. Overall it was an extremely emotional experience since we are both of Caribbean descent therefore our lineage is inevitability tied to this destructive historical event.
We met with a few weavers during our trip. The first at the crafts market. He told us that he makes the loom himself and inherited the skills and his culture from his dad, highlighting that weaving for the Gambian is a family heritage and tradition. He is using 7threads in the photos but he can make it softer by using less threads in the ‘dadugal’ – this is a Fola word which means ‘small boat’.
On delving deeper into the source of the materials he tells us that he used to be able to source the cotton yarn locally from The Gambia as his seller no longer gets it anymore making it quite difficult to source it in The Gambia at present. The main source has been Senegal for the cotton which is from a Senegalese cotton farm and is also processed in a factory in Senegal.
He goes on to show me cloth and garments made from bogolan and bark cloth from Mali sold at the crafts market. Bogolan manufacturing is a long, painstaking process and one that is quite laborious. It is known to have begun in the Beledougou Bamana which is north of Bamako and was seen as a type of peasants cloth but now has been transformed into a perfect symbol of national identity in the West Africa country of Mali.
I enquire more about local textiles as a tradition asking who is doing it now and the weaver tells us:
‘it would be better to have a factory…there used to be lots of people doing it but it is very hard work. You sit all day long doing it and once its done for an order people don’t always buy it. So more people stopped doing it.’ He says that ‘sometimes yes it is boring but he is used to it now.’
This is not only a great art form but a labour intensive craft in the aspect that it can take 3hours of labour to make 1m30 piece which is just good for a scarf for example. Though he doesn’t work on a friday as he is a muslim and its a religious day, he still puts a lot of hours into this craft. I wonder if it is a growing or a dying craft and he tells us that where has been weaving since he was a child at school his sons don’t want to learn and he doesn’t want to force them. The problem is when he dies so does the skills too. “If there was more business then more people would do it ” he stresses.
Images from our visit to the Tanje Museum was enlightening and very much showcased the skills, crafts, traditions the country has to offer. In relation to weaving this is part of he fabric of Gambian life as it ranges from the growing of cotton to the colours and patterns and their social significance to the methods of conserving fabric. In the Senegambia region weaving is a man’s job but the family all pay a part in the preparation of the cloth. This woven cloth is important and very valuable so is looked after due to this value. In the past families had their own weavers who made cloth for the whole family for special events such as weddings, etc.
We venture into a local neighbourhood called Bakau Kachilally. We meet a very talented tailor called Alagie. Many of his customers he tells us are from Nigeria, Ghana, Freetown in Sierra Leone and Guinea-Bissau. They buy from him here as it’s not as expensive and they can buy in bulk.
When it comes to customers and getting new business Alagie and his trainee tailors will wait for them to pass by or call in and he tells us he can get sometimes 5 or 10 or more, every week. When it is Eid or another festival period it is very busy and they only get around 3hours sleep in a day during that time.
Many customers will pay cash which is important as for business to run and be sustainable Alagie and other tailors need cash up front in order to sew as they need it to buy materials. This may be why it can take two weeks to make something when they say they can do it in 2 days. He tells us also that many people will come the day before they need meaning they need all the resources straight away. Also for business to run well they tend to focus on their regular customers as they will pay on time and so they will make more time for them over the passer-by customers.
The sequin piece shown is an amazing creation – in my eyes – piece of art by Alagie who will originally draw the design and even make one up, then a group of women he has working for him will then repeat the design and sew the garment together. As expected the beads are sourced from China or India or many of the suppliers will go to Dubai and bring the beads back. These such large embroidered pieces are made for events like Eid or naming ceremonies etc. In my opinion it would be great for wedding dresses.
We visit the batik factory in Serakunda in the region of Dippakunda and see a community of batikers working together in the outdoor factory.
On enquiring we understand that the batik dyes are from the USA. According to research at Tanje Museum the origin of dyes were first obtained from the soot that accumulates on clay or metal pots used for cooking food. The soot was scraped off, mixed with water and the solution used to dye clothes. It s this process that later developed into the present techniques of dye making. As a lovely of crafts and having visited batik printers previously and made my own wax print batik fabric, I, of course, decide to purchase a piece that I feel sums up me and my natural afro – the lovely piece with the afro combs (see photo above).
Secondhand clothing markets is called “fookijaay,” which is the Wolof word for “thrift market,” There is a huge market in Serakunda that we visit and this is the way most people will shop. We will go into this further in another article but if you have read the book by Pietra Rivoli, called The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy, it (as well as Karen Tranberg Hansens book “Salaula” reveals the relation of SHC to Africa. An issue quite close to my heart and interest. It highlights how the supply now far outstrips demand and according to the Office of the U.S Trade Representative used clothing was the 5th largest import to Senegal (Gambia’s neighbouring country) from the U.S. in 2009, clocking in at $7 million.
This has definitely raised more discussion and we will continue to report on.
Author: Jacqueline Shaw and Donalea Scott