Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Dutch Wax as a Symbol of African Identity

Colourfully ornate Dutch Wax or Wax Prints are big business for women traders appropriately referred to as Nana-Benz in West-African countries such as Togo, Benin, Nigeria and Ghana by virtue of the affordability of the German car. The intriguing history of these mobile canvases of art-work ubiquitously reputed to be the quintessential African fabric and a proudly-adorned symbol for African solidarity / black consciousness is perhaps not that well recognised. Originally a cheaply produced imitation of Javanese batik by the Dutch in the 19th Century in a bid to penetrate and in an oh-so-colonial way take over the market, and unsuccessfully so might I add, the Dutch Wax prints landed a more favourable market in the Gold Coast (as the Europeans called it then). The rest as they say is history. Today, in West and Central Africa and further afield in metropolises like Nairobi or Cape Town, Wax Prints have been embraced as a fashionable, back-to-the-roots attire, effortlessly reflected on the streets, catwalks and glossy women’s magazines.

Interestingly (well, at least for the techno-enthusiasts), the misleading name Dutch Wax or Wax Prints was a fabrication (excuse the pun) intended to compete with the hand-made Javanese batiks that were laboriously depicted with the use of wax. Apparently the Javanese women drew the motifs on woven cloth as a form of meditation – how beautiful is that! Conversely, the European machine-made fabrics used dye-resist resin to design the motifs. The Dutch Wax "brand", however, is used to this day and sought after in colourful stacks of folded textiles in market stalls as a symbol of quality. Initially a unique commodity as the sole European production purely for export to the African market, this is now changing with production as far as China and closer to home in Ghana and Nigeria. Naturally, the lower prices of the Chinese-made fabrics have raised a lot of concerns for local producers as has the contestable quality in some instances, for consumers.

What is fascinating is that this once upon a time purely European production was quickly appropriated, embraced and integrated as a means of self-expression. It is a possibility that this was only so because the Dutch were viewed as well-meaning traders as opposed to colonial masters in their West-African niche. Therefore trading with them as opposed to the British for instance, was probably a rebellion of sorts. Regardless, despite its history, this style of fabric has been integrated and achieved local meaning in the design and hierarchy of its styles that it is unquestionably African. This is perceptively asserted in an interview with Nina Sylvanus, a social anthropologist from UCLA, simply but ingeniously with the phrase “the use is its meaning”. An example to illustrate this is that spaghetti’s origins are inarguably a copy of Chinese noodles since the days of the Italian explorer Marco Polo. However, no one would query spaghetti as authentically Italian. On a complete diversion, I was intrigued to stumble across Dr Sylvanus’ work and can not imagine the looks I would have got from my parents had I proclaimed I would be embarking on a PhD to research The Fabric of Africanity. Actually, who am I kidding - even if I knew people were actually researching this, I would not have dared. It simply would not have crossed my mind as an option...And then we are left wondering why non-Africans appear to be more interested in examining and documenting our culture? Alas, that is a topic for another day.

Friday, 9 November 2007

When Old is Not Gold

Since early childhood, as I suspect in any African home, we grew up with the mantra “respect your elders”. This has been inexorably engrained in my brain, like a moulded figure in dried cement, and frankly is a decent code to live by. Whether aged 10 or 40, no well-mannered younger person would hesitate to give their seat up for an older person or allow them to be heavily laden with luggage. When speaking to an elder (with exceptions of course e.g. playful grandparents), the eyes along with the tone of voice drop and a humble posture adopted. In later life, when the younger person is of working age, they tend to the elder ones’ needs with love and respect. A connection to Ancestral veneration is apparent, which is characteristic to African Spirituality, widely practised prior to the bush fire-like spread currently dominant religions such as Christianity and Islam. In traditional communities, upholding elders with high regard was standard practice - not only did they possess wisdom from their many years on earth, but they too would soon be joining the realm of the Ancestors in the spiritual plane. (I will address African Spirituality in a separate post)

My great disappointment in my nurtured idealist views when I became an adult, was the realisation that older people in my circles that I was supposed to respect by virtue of their age, were making judgements or carrying out actions that were in conflict with my own values. How then could I respect such a person? As an African in the Diaspora who is a statistic of migration patterns and globalisation that have reasonably contributed to the creation of multicultural societies, the pluralism of my identity - and I suspect for others in a similar situation - can be as much of a blessing as it can be a curse. There are certain overt traditions that we continue to live by whilst others that remain tacit, that can be a source of conflict, both with yourself and with people in your circles. Some of these traditions that I am alluding to are not explicitly defined; they are implicit in people's demeanour and responses. In some instances I tread with caution and figure it out as I go along. One of my dilemmas has been how to handle interactions with older people who demand respect when I feel that they do not deserve it based on their discourse or behaviour. Interestingly, respect may be defined in a myriad of ways, depending on your environment. For example, not speaking unless you were spoken to was a code of conduct that my high school teachers during my eventful stint in a Kenyan national boarding school sneeringly enforced, and got me into trouble numerous times until I learnt that the definition at home was not in tandem with the one at school. Although it is so clich├ęd to dwell on hindsight as the best teacher, I can look back with 20-20 clarity that those teachers were forcibly demanding respect as opposed to gaining it from us. The concept of a Kenyan boarding school is far too complex to go into, but although it wasn’t apparent at the time, it was certainly character building! Someone must be blogging on it before lights out…I digress.

What then is the answer to how to uphold your own values without being ostracised in your community for speaking your mind, which is (wrongly) translated to being disrespectful of your elders ? How do you handle Auntie or Uncle so-and-so who grates you with racist / tribalistic / sexist / homophobic / just plain ignorant comments that proliferate one of the many –isms and does not allow room for an open discussion? After a number of failed attempts to respectfully explain my views to an apparently disinterested elder, my strategy is now avoidance at all costs. And if we happen to bump into each other at an event, family or otherwise, I say a quick hello and exchange nicieties (if at all), followed by a swift exit. Shame isn’t it?