The fashion movement inspiring a new vision of Africa’s future

The fashion movement inspiring a new vision of Africa’s future
Illustration copyright Daisy Harrison-Broninski 2020. Inspired by photographs published in Internazionale in January 2020.

Translated for The Civil Society Review by William Holmes, from Andrea de Georgio’s original Italian article in Internazionale.

Editor’s note: This Italian article spotlights an emerging entrepreneurial reality in West African, particularly Burkinabé, society. Young fashion designers are negotiating a new, decolonised identity through garments, and rewriting the rules of the industry. We were particularly interested in the paradox of wax, a fabric that is highly popular in the region but is produced and sold by foreign companies.

From Parisian catwalks to the New York, London and Milan fashion weeks, every elite fashion event has pulled out at least one “African” item of clothing in the last few years. The “made in Africa” fashion fever has spread across the West, above all thanks to wax being able to migrate from its continent’s borders. “Cerato” cotton is a term that has found its way into the English language and is used in thousands of designs and flashy colours. With designers and consumers pushing its spread into the United States and Europe, this material has recently reached new peaks of popularity. 

Wax is widely used in West and Central Africa but is produced in the Netherlands. It is also the springboard for a new generation of stylists who are looking, with difficulty, to bring back more natural, local and refined materials from their own countries’ textile traditions. Popular examples of these trends range from the “Faso Dan Fani”, bazin, batik, bogolan fabrics to the indigo, kita, kente and kôkô dônda fabrics.

A fledgling artistic trend, which is in confrontation with the weight of the (neo)colonial past and is inspired by Pan-African Futurism, is the driving force of creativity in a continent that is searching for its own original identity.

“Our vision of tomorrow”

On the Avenue du Général Lamizana, jammed between a panini café and a deli in the heart of the capital of Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou, is T Bonty’s showroom. T Bonty is one of the trendiest businesses in Burkina Faso. The creator of the brand, Fatou Traoré, 28, is alone in the shop, busy organising clothes after the fashion show that took place the night before. “Nothing special – just a little improvised event in a friend’s house”, explains the stylist modestly, as she delicately places clothes on the mannequins in the shop window.

In West Africa, carried by the growing regional market, fashion boutiques are popping up everywhere, with fashion training schools, dedicated events and young talented stylists like Fatou. “Unlike previous generations who were trained and established in the West, we are reviving local materials, styles and manufacturing techniques that come from different African traditions. We are returning to our roots to express our personal vision of fashion and of the society of tomorrow”.

Fatou’s look is original: it combines an eyebrow piercing and a headscarf, braids, high-waisted trousers and a brightly coloured top. As she is tidying up her workshop, she shows off some items from her latest collection: shoes, bags and shirts embellished with wax, and traditional garments transformed into eccentric and trendy patterns, stitched with parts of jeans and imported materials. She confesses that she has always had a love-hate relationship with printed cotton in her creative process. “We are all victims of the wax paradox.” The Burkinabé stylist’s ironic remark refers to a heated debate in the world of African fashion, as the authenticity of the wax fabric has been questioned for years. 

Wax and communication

Today, wax is undoubtedly a key part of daily life for millions of Africans. Men and women use it in a variety of different ways. Some use wax to make backpacks to carry their children, whilst skilful local tailors use it to sew tailored dresses and suits cheaply. Special designs are printed for weddings (offered as part of the dowry), baptisms, national holidays, sports events, political anniversaries, election campaigns and to raise social awareness. Women at the market come up with names for every new pattern, based on the shapes and on the stylised images printed on pagne (fabrics, both made of wax or not). For instance, “If you go out, I’m also going out”, “My husband’s got game”, “My rival is watching” and so on. Over the years, these garments have become a form of not only public, but also private, intimate and codified communication. 

From a sociological point of view, wax is “100% African”. However, it is Chinese and Dutch producers that profit the most from its trade, selling “le véritable Wax Hollandais” and forgeries all over the continent.

The frontrunner in the sector, Vlisco, which was founded in 1846, produces 64 million metres of fabric annually in Helmond in the Netherlands. It exports 90% of this to West Africa, for around 300 million euros (in 2014). This region, which is the largest consumer of wax in the world, first discovered pagne in 1836, when Ashanti soldiers (sent by the Dutch to fight in the Asian colonies) disembarked from their ships in what is today Ghana. Here, African businessmen started selling the batik, which had come from Indonesia, quickly profiting from such high demand that subsequently sent prices rocketing up to the same level as gold.

Bringing the “Faso Dan Fani” is an economic, cultural and political challenge to imperialism

Having got whiff of this success, a few years later the Dutch opened the first textiles businesses that specialised in the wax trade in Africa, producing an industrial variation of the batik worn on the Indonesian island of Java. 

Thomas Sankara, who in the 1980s as a young revolutionary President renamed the nation “the country of incorruptible men” (which is what Burkina Faso means), today would call wax a “colonial” product. In his famous speeches, he would repeat: “Imperialism is in the food that we eat and in the clothes that we wear”. In line with his campaign message – “Let’s produce and buy Burkinabé” – during the four years of his government (1983-87) before being assassinated, Sankara strongly encouraged weaving and the use of “Faso Dan Fani” (literally meaning “the woven fabric of the nation”) relaunching cotton – “Burkina’s white gold” – into the regional market. Sankara explained: “Bringing the “Faso Dan Fani” is an economic, cultural and political challenge to imperialism” and subsequently imposed the traditional fabric on all politicians and civil servants by decree. 

In accordance with Sankara’s ideals, the President Roch Kaboré and his ministers – who were democratically elected after Blaise Compaoré’s 27-year dictatorship had collapsed thanks to a popular uprising in October 2014 – along with young “sankarist” artists, like Fatou Traoré, started using the “Faso Dan Fani” again. They turned it back into a symbol of national pride, self-determination and independence of the Burkinabé people from foreign control.

Cynical realism

A few steps away from T Bonty’s workshop is the Avenue Kwame Nkrumah, the heart of the city’s nightlife. This little winding street, which is overlooked by hotels, cafés and restaurants, was attacked by an Al Qaeda-affiliated group from the Muslim Maghreb region on 15th January 2016. Today, Alex Zabsonré is sipping his bissap (a hibiscus tea) in the Italian café Cappuccino, the same place where thirty people were killed by the jihadist frenzy that evening. “I often come here. After it reopened it became the safest place in Ouaga” explains Alex with a certain cynical realism whilst looking at his reflection in the new armoured-glass windows that have been recently installed in the venue. 

He’s a thin guy with glasses wearing an ordinary outfit: he’s sporting a polo shirt, jeans and trainers, a bit like a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. He’s a successful entrepreneur at the age of 28, director of Alamod Magazine, the first online fashion news outlet in Burkina Faso. He is also the founder and artistic director of Ouaga fashion week. “Events like the second edition of Ouaga fashion week (organised in April with around twenty local stylists taking part, including Traoré) display that Africa is bursting with creative talent. High fashion is no longer a Western monopoly, but it has arrived here too”. 

The Dakar and Abidjan fashion weeks are nearby success stories that inspire Alex. Over the last few years both have succeeded in getting state funding, as well as important international sponsors. This is very different from the situation in Burkina Faso, where the sector is still in its early stages of growth. “Investors have shown interest in our market, but they are not confident enough to inject capital into it, although this would make us grow even more rapidly”, notes the young entrepreneur, who finances the Ouagadougou fashion week out of his own pocket, with the help of just a Dutch beer brand as the only sponsor. “If you look at the progress made in the last five years, you will realise the enormous economic potential that fashion has in West Africa today”, claims Alex.

The art of making people dream

Just like tourists, investors are discouraged from walking the streets of Ouagadougou by the lack of security and instability in the country. Patrols of armoured vehicles and heavily armed soldiers are still relentlessly patrolling the Avenue Kwame Nkrumah day and night. In fact, in recent times the region has become the new frontline for global jihadism, as groups linked to Al Qaeda and to the Islamic State in the great Sahara control the area.

Alex has a clear idea about the role that fashion must take on and, more generally, culture as a whole: “We must not allow extremism to kill our dreams. We cannot stop living, quite the opposite! We must show that they do not make us afraid, that we are stronger than them.” On this point, the young man adds brightly: “Africa is the continent with the most young people in the world. Therefore, I am asking my generation to stand up and fight, and to contribute to the development of our countries with dynamism and entrepreneurship. In order to succeed, however, we need to have the audacity to test ourselves. Only by doing this will we show that young Africans have something to say and give to the entire world.”
Alex finishes his bissap and, before leaving, comments with a smile: “What really is fashion, if not the art of making people dream?”.

Thank-you to Internazionale for giving permission for this translation. The original article, ‘La moda accende il sogno dell’Africa di domani’ was written in Italian by Andrea de Georgio and published online on the 10th January 2020. It can be read here.

Will Holmes is a modern languages undergraduate at the university of Bristol and a future trainee solicitor. He loves languages, translation and writing and has a particular interest in technology and law developing around it. Find his twitter here, and his LinkedIn here.


Don’t misread Orwell: 1984 supports Black Lives Matter

Don’t misread Orwell: 1984 supports Black Lives Matter
Copyright Daisy Harrison-Broninski 2020

Russell Square is a bustling and leafy area in the middle of London. It is home to many great institutions that in their own way represent British history, including the School of Oriental and African Studies, a university founded to train colonial administrators, and the British Museum, a beautiful collection of artefacts collected from around the world. Between these two institutions steeped in controversial colonial history sits Senate House, the striking building that Orwell modelled the exterior of his Ministry of Truth upon in his famous novel 1984. Its white art deco façade seems to rise endlessly into the sky, making it one of London’s most striking, and arguably austere, buildings. The proximity of these institutions to a building that plays such a key role in Orwell’s most famous work is prescient in times when 1984 is being invoked to criticise Black Lives Matter’s attempt to get the UK to recognise the legacy of colonialism, most notably in the toppling of slave trader Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol. In particular, the following quote from 1984 has been used by many on social media to criticize this act:

…every statue and street building have been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.

Those who have shared this as if it denounces the felling of statues like Colston’s have misunderstood 1984 and George Orwell. Orwell’s point is better illustrated by the fact that the statue stood for 125 years in the first place. The spaces we inhabit act as tributes to historical individuals whose true impact and role in history is often erased by foregrounding more favourable characteristics. Colston’s statue did not engage with his role in the slave trade, instead describing him as ‘virtuous and wise’. Where Orwell’s statues are “renamed” ours are recategorised so that Colston, and many others, are remembered by their virtue rather than their violence. 

This discussion has never been just about Edward Colston, or even statues. It is about why our society is so protective over the dominant, but incorrect or obscuring, narratives of history. The characters in Orwell’s two most famous fictional works, Animal Farm and 1984, are served narratives that reinforce dominating power structures through false tellings of history. This is what Orwell stood against: the protagonists of both Animal Farm and 1984 were not the people supporting the status quo but were instead subversive thinkers, in the case of Winston Smith of 1984, and revolutionaries, in the case of the animals of Animal farm.  

Winston Smith, the protagonist of 1984, rebelled by collecting parts of the cultural legacy cut out from the dominant narrative. The nursery rhyme line “Oranges and Lemons, ring the bells of St Clement’s” led to him learning about a history which wasn’t endorsed by the near-omnipotent Big Brother, from a small antiques shop in the proletariat area of the city. This simple fragment of history led him on a fateful journey to a showdown with authority in the infamous torture chamber Room 101. The experience of learning about history through fragments collected outside of the mainstream will be familiar to anyone who takes an interest in British colonial history, which is noticeably absent from the national curriculum and more jingoistic popular histories of Britain.  

Orwell was critical of the status quo and was no shrinking wallflower when it came to challenging power. His work is so often used to invoke the USSR and communist dictatorship, however, it is also evocative of some episodes in the history of the British Empire. A particularly famous example is the burning of documents relating to the detention of over a million Kikuyus in settlement camps in Kenya during the 1950s as a response to the threat of a small nationalist insurgency known as Mau Mau. This has left historians unable to see the incarceration from the perspective of the British government and prevented the extent of the atrocities from becoming widely known to the public until the mid-noughties. Only in 2011 did the government admit that they had continued to keep 200,000 documents secret from the public for over five decades, some of which showed that the government had covered up the systematic abuse in the internment camps. 

This nuance is lost on many. In the Daily Express Leo Mckinstrey writes

For most of us 1984 was a warning.
For radical agitators it was a blueprint.

McKinstry is right of course in saying that Orwell meant 1984 as a warning, but he is wrong that it is the ‘radical agitators’ of the left using it as a blueprint. It is not Black Lives Matter who present a threat to history; many have been very clear about their desire for a broader history curriculum and for more context to be given to British history. The people who are using 1984 as a guide are some of the politicians running our country. Our prime minister, Boris Johnson, a man famous for lying, has recently claimed ignorance over footballer Marcus Rashford’s campaign that forced a major government U-turn and had have his own words quoted back to him by the leader of the opposition to remind him of his original policy about COVID-19 and care home safety. This is not to mention his unconditional support for Dominic Cummings whose trip to Durham was painted as a reasonable decision by government ministers while most of the country was shocked by the audacity with which they revised the meaning of the lockdown conditions.  

This has been a persistent problem since Johnson became leader of his party: during the 2019 General Election an independent fact checker found that 88% of Conservative Party adverts contained lies, while the Tories rebranded their twitter as ‘Fact Check UK’, a fake fact-checking service. This enduring problem with truth from our current government recently led to an anonymous civil servant tweeting the following from a civil service twitter account:

Arrogant and offensive.
Can you imagine working with these truth twisters?

If social media existed in the universe of 1984 then Winston Smith, who was a civil servant tasked with rewriting history, would most likely have written something similar from his desk in the Ministry of Truth, given the chance. 

What many who are invoking Orwell seem to have missed is that those with power are the ones that control the narrative of history. The very nature of protest suggests that people feel they do not have enough power to influence the course of, and telling of, history. Orwell would not be surprised that his work would be used to smear protesters that Donald Trump has called ‘Anti-fascists’. He recognised that becoming part of the cultural canon was part of reinforcing the narrative of those in power; he is afterall the man who wrote that “who controls the past controls the future, who controls the present controls the past”. The crowning irony is, of course, that Orwell was a self-professed anti-fascist who went to Spain to fight alongside anarchists against the fascist armies of General Franco. This was the cognitive dissonance that Orwell sought to capture in the word doublespeak. A term in the fictional language of 1984 termed Newspeak which was designed to reduce the possibility of subversive thoughts. People are concerned that history is being re-written in front of our eyes. This is a valid concern. The phrase ‘history is written by the victors’ has always been true. However, in this epoch there are new challenges ranging from politicians who are no longer held to account for their pathologically clumsy lying such as Johnson and Trump, to the social media echo chambers that have seen fake news so successfully spread. One thing is for certain: against this backdrop it is unlikely that Black Lives Matter is the movement that will lead us into the world of 1984.

Jake Smaje works in data governance for a large INGO in the WASH sector and is the trustee of United Social Ventures, a livelihood charity in Uganda, having previously worked in a range of roles in the charity sector in Rwanda, Kenya and Bangladesh. Since completing his BA in History at the University of Leeds in 2016 with a specialism in African History, he’s held a continued interest in the political economy of the Global South.