Category Archives: West Africa

African by Any Other Name? A Note on Origins

Over the past few days, one of my facebook friends has been delving into the study of African textile arts, after years of loving, wearing, and creating the beautiful headwraps used by African and Islamic women throughout the world. Zarinah also teaches women how to create the incredible cloth crowns, a modern Michigan Johnny Appleseed, enthusiastically sowing the seeds of this ever-changing and beautiful women’s art.


Women praise-singers, La Lutte, Dakar, Senegal, 2009

On reading a well-researched article by Julia Felsenthal on Slate, The Curious History of “Tribal” Prints, Zarinah was crushed. What? All those lovely African printed fabrics are not really African? Instead, they are Indonesian! Or are they? Perhaps they are Dutch? Or Anglo-Indian? Or Chinese? Or all of the above, and more?


At the Mayor’s election party, in the suburbs of Dakar, 2009

It is exactly that multiplex, tangled, snarled, inter-woven history that makes these cloths such an apropos metaphor for artist Yinka Shonibare.


As Duryodhana says of Kano in the Mahabharata: “Birth is obscure, and men are like rivers, whose origins are often unknown.”

How can we, in the United States, speak of origins, we whose ancestors all but eliminated the original custodians of this land? We whose antecedents tore millions of Africans from their homes, insisting they “forget” their origins? We who laugh and sneer at  people desperately seeking to come here to work without forgetting their families, their homelands, their origins? We who refuse to study “history” and who prize today’s three-letter text message over dusty old books or sitting at an elder’s knee? We who would rather spend $10,000 on Disneyland than on a trip to Morocco or Nigeria or Mexico or France? We who refuse to memorize ancient poetry, or learn even one other language? We who have no idea that the very chocolate and tomatoes and corn and potatoes we eat were planted, developed, and named by the earliest Americans thousands of years ago?

Does that history make cornbread, hoe cakes, or spoon bread any less traditional Black Southern food?  Does that mean the fresh-roasted ears of corn I buy in the markets of Cotonou are not “African”? Since Coca-Cola has (or used to have) kola nuts in it, does that make it “African”?


Coca-Cola sign, Ile de Goree (Dakar, Senegal), 2009


Selling kola nuts in Dakar, 2009

Perhaps kente cloth itself is not “African,” since cotton (named from an Arabic word) was first cultivated in India (although most kente today is made of European-manufactured rayon). The bright-colored silk in older kentes was unraveled from cloth imported from China since about 1500 CE (original kente was only white and indigo blue). As for looms, a “loom” can be as simple as a tree-branch to hold tight the warp threads, with the other end tied at a person’s waist (a simple backstrap loom). We have several drawings of both horizontal and vertical looms from ancient Egypt, the earliest, from the tomb of Chnem-Hotep, is dated about 4500 BCE. But we have no idea if either horizontal or vertical looms were invented once (it’s unknown where) or in many places and times.


Drawing of Egyptian (KMT) loom from tomb of Chnem-hotep


Model weaving studio, tomb of Meketre, ancient Egypt (KMT), 1975 BCE

So, is cotton African? Are looms African? The idea to dye with indigo & other natural plant and mineral colors? Certainly modern aniline dyes and rayon are manufactured, not “traditional.” But, ironically, the word aniline, coined in 1843 by a German chemist to name the chemical base used to manufacture artificial dyes, is a loan word from Portuguese anil for the indigo-bearing shrub, from the Arabic word an-nil (indigo), taken from the Persian nili, and ultimately from the Sanskrit  nili, indigo, and nilah, dark blue.


Selling hand-dyed indigo cloth in the HLM market, Dakar, Senegal, 2009

So does that make kente cloth not “African”? All humans are ultimately African, and it is inherently human to travel far distances to find new things, to learn from each other, to pass on wisdom, knowledge, and skills not only within our own families and communities, but all over.  In brief, over my lifetime, I have learned not to romanticize “origins,” especially since that quest often implies a search for something that is aboriginal, unsullied, pure and pristine but also primitive, archaic, or undeveloped. Instead, I revel in untangling and following, at least for a while, the amazing pathways people, ideas, and things take as we re-create ourselves, our ideas, and our societies over and over.