9 march: Cotton weaving & texile industry in Mali

Awa Meite is a fashion designer. She draws her inspiration from African and Malian craft traditions, and has a strong preference for working with locally produced materials, which she uses as a basis for her contemporary designs. She has been described as a designer who ‘loves to dress women and make them feel bold, free and beautiful’, which seems like an accurate – if somewhat cheesy – description of the effect her designs can have on you. She has designed clothes for, amongst others, Salif Keita and Dee Dee Bridgewater.

Mali is the leading cotton producer in sub-saharan Africa. Awa Maite developed a strong love for it and is using it for instance to make cotton jewelry. At the same time, she is bent on improving the position of women in Mali and on working in an environmentally responsible way. These intentions combined resulted in her establishing a foundation called l’Association Routes du Sud. It aims to encourage production and processing of organic cotton, to empower women, and to promote high-quality local products. For a little over a year now, the foundation has been running a pilot project in the village of Chô, where they have set up a weavery which is operated by the women living near it. In addition to that, once a year the festival “Rencontres autour de coton” takes place in Chô. The festival is to be an annual meeting point in Mali for designers, producers, craftsmen, and buyers.

While in Bamako we have seen a lot of contemporary design being made using local products and production methods in inventive ways: Playfully stylish inventive furniture by Cheik Diallo, or fabrics made by Aida Duplessis which smell really good because fragrant weeds are woven into the fabric. l’Association Routes du Sud however seems to be the only producer who visibly makes the wellbeing of the individuals who help them produce their work not just a concern but one of the reasons for their existence. Making a good product and improving life on a socio-economical level in a small way really do seem to be interwoven here.

We went to visit the weavery, which is about two hours driving away from Bamako – our first glances of non-urban life on this trip so far. I was amazed at the size of the mosques on the way, which are the smallest ones I’ve ever seen – shed size, really. When we arrived at the weavery, all the women who work there were present to show us what they were doing and how. Personally, I get a bit awkward when a visit turns into a demonstration. It’s not a dominating feeling, just something you feel glide by from a corner of your head. I think it is because the demonstration setting makes one of our least-favourite group identities stand out: that of a white, wealthy group of visitors who point their lenses at a bunch of things, try to figure out a little bit how this thing we are visiting works but fail, and then jump in their bus again to disappear amidst a cloud of totally undeserved gratitude.

My perception of our group identity shifts depending on the kind of visit we undertake: We can go from eager students to critical colleagues to curators or sociologists and back all within one day easily. The visits we do often involve quite some preparation for the institutions who receive us, and all of us I think are eager not just to find the information we are looking for but also to engage as much as we can with the places we visit, to get the most and also to return the most, to find entry points in each others occupations. And because when we are mainly watching a demonstration we remain relatively passive, we are also less able to give something back in a direct, personal manner by interacting. (Not all of us respond in the same way of course; Bas for instance will often just wander away). Visits which revolve around or wind up as conversations are different: Conversation goes both ways, and throwing yourself into a conversation and genuinely exchanging questions and ideas is an excellent way to give all kinds of stuff to each other in exactly a direct, personal manner.

Having said that, it was great to watch all the bustling energy in the weavery. Most women work here one day a week, yet now they were here all at the same time so it was crammed with ladies and babies.

the weavery in Cho

The hand-made machines were intricate. Most women work here one day a week, and it must be a good meeting point for them. Some of them have families, others don’t: The weavery isn’t geared toward a specific group.

While it is set up in order to empower women, the supervisor was male. I wonder if he feels like a chef or if he merely spends his days being slightly intimidated.

At this point the process is mastered from the cleaning of the raw cotton to the weaving of the fabrics. The idea is that the same group of women will also learn to die the fabrics and to sew clothes. That does mean it will take several years for production to really take off; I wonder if the women involved would have the stamina to continue for so long without clear results. Maybe there are small projects in between, it was hard to find out how this works exactly.

A little bit more about the cotton itself: The foundation is also producing its own cotton, and is doing so in an environmentally correct way. For instance by using natural pesticides (goats pee! Powdered Neem!) and by making sure they rotate the patches of ground they use for growing it so that the ground doesn’t get exhausted.

After the visit we drove back slowly, making a long pitstop for extraordinary chicken and generally taking it easy. In these surroundings, it was impossible to do otherwise.

driving alongside the Niger river

– Jantine Wijnja

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