Recently I have noticed some beautiful African wax printed cotton popping up in various forms across Sewing Blog Land.
As the above-linked beauties show, this fabric is brightly coloured, boldly patterned, holds shape well, is easy to sew with and makes some stunning statement clothing. I know this, not because I've sewn with it (yet) but because stashed away in my loft in England, I have 4 or 5 voluminous skirts that were made for me in Tanzania.
A few years ago I had the opportunity to live with a Maasai family in Longido, in northern Tanzania for a couple of months. My husband and I were spending close to a year travelling around South America, New Zealand and sub-Saharan Africa and whilst in Tanzania worked for a non-profit doing voluntary work. Ben taught English in the school and I carried out a small feasibility study for a UK based charity.
The purpose of the study was to ascertain whether it would be viable to set up a programme in the village, whereby a small grant could be given to people living with HIV/AIDS. The grant was to enable them to set up a business as a means to creating a sustainable livelihood for them and their families. And by viable I mean that there was sufficient economic activity in the village for people to make money and enough tolerance of HIV / AIDS to enable those living with it, and their businesses, not to be shunned.
I spent time trying to find out what was sold in the village so that we could identify any gaps in the market. It was stunning that a village can operate with 31 shops selling exactly the same things (rice, beans, washing powder, tyre shoes and kerosene) and 7 tailors get by despite the fact that the Maasai wear shuka and nothing remotely tailored! Incidentally, seeing Maasai in their robes, with their jewellery, their tyre shoes and their mobiles on strings around their necks - because, no pockets - is surely the biggest collision of traditional culture meets 21st century tech.
Then I concentrated on trying to understand the HIV situation. That was never going to be numbers or any in-depth sociological review (far greater and more knowledgable organisations than I are scratching their heads trying to do that) but more, trying to ascertain if people were able to be relatively open about their disease and how this would impact their ability to run a business people would deal with. This involved visits to health centres and a hospital to find out what services they provide; cloak and dagger conversations with a woman who supports nine women who have HIV - all out of her own limited pocket, and meeting numerous women (women, always women - it seems that men ignore they have the disease (so die) or abandon their families and run away) some of whom were completely desperate as, thanks to their disease, they had been ostracised by their family and community, they had no money and no way to get the drugs they needed, eat properly or take care of their babies and children - who were, heartbreakingly, also HIV positive.
Visiting a town where the programme was already up and running, I met women who had received grants and were running businesses and, thanks to the money coming in, they were staying healthy by being able to afford to eat properly (i.e fruit and veg and three meals a day); they were able to afford to travel to the hospital to get their anti-retrovirals and they were able to care for their children. All of this life-changing and lengthening stuff thanks to a £25 / $40 grant.
I could go on and on and on about how I learnt that culture and religion contribute to stigma; how the scale of HIV /AIDS in Tanzania and other African countries is completely unfathomable due to stigma and the remote remoteness of communities; how talking to a woman holding her baby and her explaining to me how her life was destroyed by her disease - she had no-one and nothing and her eyes were lifeless, hollow, distraught - will never leave me. The whole project was humbling, eye-opening and extremely emotionally challenging. But I won't go on, this is a sewing blog after all and my point today is African wax printed cotton.
I arrived at our homestay in Longido in my dreary travelling uniform of black cargo pants and t-shirts and was quickly told by Mama Judith - whose intention, she soon informed me, was to make me into an 'African woman' by feeding me endless Ugali and dressing me appropriately - that this did nothing for me and that I should go and see her friend who sold lovely fabric and could make me a skirt to my measurements. In order to not stick out like a sore thumb (who was I kidding - 6 foot tall white woman roaming around the bush) I duly went off and had my measurements taken, gave a rough idea of the shape of skirt I wanted, selected fabric, paid my money and went back the next day to pick up my new skirt. Which was always spectacular and always accommodated the BF bottom beautifully.
But the fabric. Even in this tiny village, where no one really wore clothes in the way we define them, and the tailors had their peddle operated sewing machines set up in front of their homes, the fabric they had in piles around them was incredible. I would spend longer trying to decide which fabric to use than it would take for the tailors to make the skirt. And when I went back to our abode with yet another skirt, Mama would smile approvingly whilst Ben would berate me out of the corner of his mouth, "How are we going to carry all this when we leave?" It seems fabric hoarding is a universal affliction / joy and it can strike anywhere and everywhere.
So if you'll excuse my indulgent little trip down memory lane; seeing all this beautiful fabric abounding the webwaves leaves me emotionally confused. It brings back wonderful memories of a challenging but incredibly fulfilling time; of all the spectacular things we saw and did on our travels; of warm, funny, caring, welcoming people; as well as my love for other sewing folk who are as drawn to this type of fabric as me.
It makes me kick myself that I left my skirts to get eaten by the moths in my drafty English loft when we moved to Brooklyn.
And it makes me hope that somewhere in or around Longido a mother living with HIV has received a grant and is able to keep herself healthy and support her family by making and selling clothes out of this glorious fabric.
See you soon. x