The Nana Benz Movement
Togo, West Africa
From the moment I landed in the Gambia back in 1989, I was mesmerised by the vividness of the textiles and the elaborate styles worn, so elegantly, by women and men. I remember spending a morning with Aminata searching the Banjul market for just the right wax print and the afternoon listening to her and Abdou, her tailor, deftly design an intricate new style for a special occasion.
It took me some time to learn about the history and economy of textiles in West Africa, its links to colonialism, the role of the Dutch, the connections to Indonesia and, unsurprisingly, China, and – more importantly – the powerful leadership of Togolese and Ghanaian women in the textile trade and their national economies. Today, African wax prints are showing up in markets and on fashion runways well beyond Africa. I see them everywhere in my local market in London, sold in shops owned by Indians from Africa, worn by people from all backgrounds.
The story of the legendary Nana Benz women who have powered the textile trade in the small West African country of Togo since independence is both inspiring and illuminating. It charts the history of the ‘pagne’ – the wax textiles that are the pride of West Africa women, the story of colonial rule and independence, international trade and economic controls, and, above all, the role of these women entrepreneurs in their country’s development.
The France 24 video gives the short history but if, like me, you want to delve deeper, I highly recommend the Culture Unplugged film which is excellent.
As an aside, I am particularly fascinated by how fabrics that women wear have been used for centuries in so many countries to tell the story, identify, remember and reflect. From Togo, to South Africa, to Palestine, to Myanmar to Guatemala and Peru, many of the same themes recur, in places where history and identity are particularly treasured in the face of oppression.
What reflections or questions come to mind as you watch this?