Kente

Young man weaving Kente cloth

When we lived in Burkina Faso we were introduced to strip weaving. Using simple looms, hand-made out of branches and strips of home-cured leather, men wove beautiful strips of cloth which are then sewn together to make cloth. Weaving, it turns out, is a man’s job in Burkina Faso. The cotton is dyed before weaving, and the intricacy of the design depends on the skill of the weaver. I still have a garment made by a man who won third place in a national weaving contest. It is a beautiful combination of blue, black, silver and white.

Here in Ghana, there is a very special kind of strip-woven cloth called Kente (pronounced ken-tay). It contrasts other strip woven cloth in Africa by its vivid colors and geometric shapes. A room full of Kente cloth can be a bit overwhelming.

Kente cloth shop near Kumasi

Traditionally, Kente cloth was only worn by the members of the royal court. The weavers worked for the king. Now days, it is freely available. You can buy it at the airport as well as in many markets. But for the really good stuff, you need to go to the source. I had the opportunity to visit the town which is home to the weavers for the royal court. We visited a small shop stuffed with the brightly colored fabric while a young man sat at a traditional loom in the street outside making even more.

Nawuri Chiefs in Kente Cloth

Nawuri Chiefs in Kente Cloth

The most common use of the cloth is as men’s wear. A large piece is draped in a specific way over the left shoulder leaving the right shoulder bare. I’ve tried it. I learned that I need a lot more practice before I try wearing it in public! The men who wear it all the time make it look so easy. The men in the photo wearing kente are traditional cheifs among the Nawuri people of Ghana’s Volta Region.

If you liked this, you might also like Cloth and Meaning, Festooned with Signs, Fancy Caskets. or Mobile Colors.

 

Cloth and meaning

In West Africa, the cloth you wear carries a message, but not at all in the same way that it might in the USA..

Assistants to a seamstress

Assistants to a seamstress

While some people wear western cloth and western-style clothes, most people wear cloth made in their country, or a neighboring country. It is light weight cotton, printed in bright colors and sold in stores and even little open-air markets in rural areas. New designs are constantly coming out. When they do, they often acquire a name packed with meaning. Few clothes are ready-made. The cotton cloth is quite inexpensive. Plus, there are tailors and seamstresses everywhere. You can hear the sound of their treadle machines (from China) in the most remote areas. Tailor-made clothes are cheaper than store-bought! So men and women pick out a cloth they like and have it sewn into a design they like.

Some people will choose cloth specifically because of the meaning of its name. So a young woman vying with another for a young man might get an outfit made of cloth named “I will win over my rival.” Her friends and family, and more importantly her rival for the young man, will know exactly what that means and to whom it applies. I learned this when a neighbor pointed out the meaning of a cloth I had just bought for my wife. The colors and design were nice, but the meaning did not fit. (I cannot count the number of things I have learned about Africa by making a mistake!)

Cloth of the Ladies of Charity of the Association of Chadian Churches

Cloth of the Ladies of Charity of the Association of Chadian Churches

The designers working for the textile manufacturers are constantly at work. If you are willing to pay for a modest-sized run, you can work with one of their designers to produce a design you like. So a company, or a church, or a civic organization can have cloth made with its logo. Because cloth has meaning and because you can have it made with your logo, it can be used for advertisement. You can have thousands of people walking around displaying advertizing your brand, your church or your organization.

Cloth for the Shalom University of Bunia in the Congo

Cloth for the Shalom University of Bunia in the Congo

Even people who do not know how to read can identify which cloth is associated with which church or other organization. People like to buy the cloth associated with their church or civic group. So the women’s organization for a church denomination might have cloth made and all the ladies who have the means will have an outfit made of it. It shows solidarity. Because of this, having cloth made for your organization is a source of revenue. The textile manufacturer will sell you a whole run at wholesale and you resell it to your members at retail. They pay no more than for any other cloth, and you get money for your activities.

Chairman of the GILLBT board in the 50th Anniversary GILLBT cloth

Chairman of the GILLBT board in the 50th Anniversary GILLBT cloth

The Ghanaian organization I work for is celebrating its jubilee year. Of course, this could not be commemorated without 50th anniversary cloth. Staff worked with the textile company to produce two potential designs which were shown to the staff and a winner selected. All of the staff bought the cloth. At the first 50th anniversary celebration, people were dressed in almost as many different styles as there were people, but made of the same cloth. Over the coming months people who want to show their appreciation for GILLBT’s work in Bible translation and literacy in Ghanaian languages will buy the cloth and have outfits made so that they too can make a public statement of support.

 

I have had fun imaging what might happen if we did the same in the US. One might see Republican and Democratic party cloth next to each other in the checkout line.

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