West African fabrics a form of expression

January 31, 1991|By Robin Washington

Every form of black cultural expression has its roots in Africa, and many blacks have embraced their ancestry through the wearing of West African fabrics. Most popular among these fabrics are the Kente and mud cloths.

The Kente cloth comes from the Asante people of southern Ghana. It is usually made of cotton or silk that is weaved on a narrow horizontal loom. The loom creates strips of cloth two to four inches wide and to any desired length. These strips of cloth are sewn together to make blankets, wrappers and clothing.

Authentic Kente cloth is considered a prestigious item because of the skill and time it takes to weave. Those that create the cloth, the weavers, are an elite society of Asante men who believe it is an honor to belong to this group. Each has been personally selected by his village and family to learn the craft.

The patterns in the Kente are inspired by many things: political events, the birth of a child, family tradition, proverbs, holidays, etc. But one thing not found in these colorful patterns is symmetry. Though barely noticeable, the patterns are not usually the same and the colors don't always match.

The asymmetry of the fabric, according to Edna O'Connor, special school community liaison for Baltimore County, gives it the creativity. Her 20-year study of African history and culture has given her a deep understanding of the traditions of West Africa. She says the Asante are not wasteful people. A weaver will use whatever he has until it is gone.

At one time, Kente was a fabric only the rich could afford. It is still expensive. But as African-Americans have become more aware of their ancestry, the fabrics have become easier to find. Authentic Kente cloth costs from $17 to $25 for a strip less than two feet long. Less expensive cotton fabrics onto which a Kente-inspired design is stamped can be obtained for about $9 a yard.

While the Kente cloth is inspired by many life events, the mud cloth, also from West Africa, is inspired by one major life experience; the coming of age, or passing into adulthood.

The proper name for mud cloth is Bogalofini (bo-go-lah-fee-nee). It is from Mali, West Africa, where the Bambara and Malinke tribes use it in excision, a ritual surgery much like circumcision.

Mud cloth is made by applying tape or some other wax-resistant material to whatever part of the fabric that is to remain white or off-white. Natural dyes are used for colorization. The cloth is then placed in the ground, where natural dyes and algae in the mud give the cloth its color. Mud cloth can be found in either black or burnt red with circular, straight or zig-zag patterns.

There are two types of mud cloth; the Basiae mud cloth, which has circular designs, and the N'Gale, which has straight off-white or zig-zag designs.

Edna O'Connor explains that the Bambara people believe that everyone is born with a harmful power or spirit, called nyama. Nyama is not harmful to a child. However, it does become harmful when a person comes to the age of reason. The Bambara people believe that if a person has the evil spirit of nyama in him or her, along with the ability to reason, the nyama can be harmful.

Excision is a ritual that is done to exorcise nyama from a young person. It is performed on girls between the ages of 14 and 16, and boys 16 to 20. The ritual lasts about four weeks. Girls and boys are taken from the village to a secluded place to receive the ritual surgery and instruction necessary to becoming a respectful adult.

For girls, the Basiae cloth is used immediately following excision. The procedure is necessary to exorcise nyama, which flows fTC through the blood onto the Basiae cloth. This cloth is washed and reused during the first week of excision. At the end of the four-week ritual, the young woman gives the Basiae cloth to her zeman, a female guardian past the age of menopause, who instructs her during excision. The zeman then gives to the young woman the N'Gale cloth, which is worn throughout her adult life.

Ms. O'Connor says that she is excited about the cultural renaissance that is occurring in the African-American community. "We are becoming aware of the beauty in the African tradition," she says. She wears African-inspired clothing every day.

Authentic Kente and mud clothe can be found at Everyone's Place, 1356 W. North Ave., 728-0877, and Nubian Brothers, 222 N. Paca St., 783-1340.

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