March 01, 2018 24 Comments on Ghana - a textile center in Africa
**Warning! This post is very long, so I’ve broken it down by category. If you just want to read about the fabrics and textiles, scroll on down. If you want to know more about Ghana culture, my experiences, as well as the fabric and fashion, you should read the whole thing!**
I am back from my trip to Ghana! I spent just over two weeks immersed in Ghanaian life on the west coast of Africa. I was a volunteer for Global Mamas, a fair-trade business/non-profit that sells clothing, jewelry, and home goods made by women in Ghana. For Global Mamas production, women batik cotton cloth (now organic cotton cloth), sew the clothing and goods, and make beads from recycled glass to create jewelry. Global Mamas sells the finished products world-wide, and the women are well-paid, have steady income, and attend free development and health workshops regularly.
It took a little time to get used to being in Ghana - the heat, the food, the trash, the open sewers, the language - but I adjusted quickly and enjoyed it. Most of the time I was in Ghana, I stayed with a Ghanaian family in Cape Coast (about 3 hours west of the capital, Accra). One of the seamstresses that sews for Global Mamas, Sarah, and her husband Red, were my hosts. Sarah is an amazing woman who could sew incredibly fast and well, with rarely any mistakes on a hand cranked sewing machine. She is a “master” seamstress (official designation), and she also sews clothing for other people, as well as graduation robes for the local university. Sarah sews nearly all the time - unless she was washing clothes (by hand . . . all of Ghana washes their clothes by hand), dishes, or cooking (which she often did over a little coal fire just outside the kitchen). She could put out amazing food in no time! But, still the vast majority of her time was spent behind her sewing machine. I got her to come out for a walk with me one day, and that was fun as she showed me around her neighborhood which included a hospital where we walked past the maternity ward and could hear women in labor!
I would often sit with Sarah across the table from her at her sewing machine at night. I would embroider (working on a yoke for 101 Gaza Dress) while she sewed on her machine. The Fante-dubbed India soap opera on in the background, and her husband on the couch chuckling at the show. We created a comradery over sewing and I enjoyed those evenings very much. We always finished the evening by eating fresh oranges (the only dessert I had while in Ghana) that Red had bought on the way home.
Ghanaian food is quite good and very important! A couple of things to know: 1) it is usually spicy, 2) it is always eaten with the right hand, using no utensils, and 3) there are usually large servings. It is also usually very cheap. I could eat a lunch from the stand on the street for about $0.50, and I could also buy a big meal at a nice sit-down restaurant for about $15. And, bananas, oranges, pineapple, mango, papaya, etc. can be found from vendors on nearly every street and are delicious.
My favorite meals were steamed plantain and cabbage stew, a kind of stir fried pasta with lots of vegetables, smoked fish, and eggs, and red red (red beans, red sauce, fried plantains). These were the only meals I could finish because portions were so large that I could rarely eat all the food served me. But those were so good (and portion size a little more manageable) that I could do it!
Fish is ubiquitous in Cape Coast. They come sun-dried, salted, smoked, fried, fried-and-dried, and ground into sauces, and they are put into just about dish you can eat. It seemed like the main fish used are small and quite boney, but by the time they are smoked, cooked, and stewed, or just ground into a paste, you can just eat the bones, like a sardine. The slightly larger fish can sometimes be very boney, but fish like red fish or cassava fish had quite a lot of nice white meat on them and are delicious fried. Sometimes a stew with fish in it (very common) also would have a little sand too because the fish are brought into the beach, laid in the sand and sold, then taken to compounds to be processed. The fish are washed before processing (gutting and drying/smoking), but often not all the sand gets rinsed off. I never minded it - it just reminded me of how fresh and local the fish was.
Above photo of fish being dried and smoked, ocean in background.
Other important national foods here are jollof (rice cooked in spicy tomato sauce to make a red rice), banku (fermented cornmeal and cassava mush), kenke (fermented cornmeal mush), fufu (pounded cassava and plantain), and rice balls (overcooked rice mush molded into balls). All of these starches are eaten by hand (right hand only) with some kind of stew - okra stew, light soup, red soup, green soup, groundnut soup, cabbage stew, palm nut soup, etc and maybe a little meat (goat, chicken, or fish). Each starch seems to go with one or two of those soups. For instance, I tried to get banku with palm nut soup and the waiter was shocked. He insisted that I have okra stew with it, and I insisted that I have the palm nut soup, and so he brought me banku with palm nut soup and okra stew mixed together in my bowl! He just could not serve me banku without okra stew!
Water is mainly drunk from a ½ liter plastic bag, costing about $0.04 each. Everyone does this, and many simply throw their empty bag on the ground when they are done (there is a lot of plastic trash everywhere in Ghana, though there seem to be recycling programs that people are starting to use). To drink water out of a bag, you bite off one corner of the bag and drink from that corner. You usually need to drink all the water at once as it is not easy to carry around and can easily fall over if placed down half-full.
People in Ghana were overwhelmingly nice, maybe especially to foreigners. Nearly everyone greeted me with a smile and a “good day”. As an obroni (or white person/foreigner), I stuck out significantly. Children thought this was hilarious and would often yell “obroni” until I looked and waved. Then they would dissolve in giggles and wave back. Sometimes children wanted to shake hands or get high fives or just touch me. People everywhere would ask where I was from, what was I doing in Ghana, what was my name, how long was I in Ghana, etc. Politeness is important and stopping to talk to a stranger was considered polite. I got invited to a funeral while I was waiting at baggage claim, before I’d even left the airport on my first day (funerals are big important parties) and was often invited to events or to visit people or places. This type of politeness also felt familiar as a Southerner because while I am sure I would have been welcome to all the events and places I was invited to, I was not really expected to show up or follow through with them!
My work at Global Mamas was to focus on product development and social media content. But, after arriving it turned out they needed a presentation on organic cotton production for education for the office staff. They recently switched to organic cotton fabric for their products and there was an issue with the batik wax staining the fabric during the dewaxing process (batik process outlined below). They were trying to solve this problem while I was there, working out new de-waxing techniques that the batikers could easily use, as well as educate the staff on why they were changing to organic cotton fabric. The batik problem is likely due to the different finish (and possibly processing) of the new fabric and was a concern with many of those who worked for Global Mamas. Doing education on organic cotton was right in my wheelhouse, so I was happy to do that. I did have to figure out how to make it simple enough that people who don’t have English as a first language nor any background in agriculture could understand it. It was nice to integrate my agriculture background with my newer work in textiles and sewing.
After making the presentation, I focused on product development. I drafted patterns and sewed samples for several new garments and home good items that have potential to be added to their product line in the next year. Pattern drafting in Ghana was a bit different than in the US. I did not use much paper (it is a much more precious commodity). I taped together office paper with masking tape, piecing it until I had just enough to draft with - using scraps and cutting paper in half to use as little as possible. I am sure those patterns will need to be drafted again, but I wanted to do it quickly and efficiently for those first couple of drafts.
Pants and kimono sleeve top, drafted and sewn samples (un-hemmed):
I sewed my samples on two machines: a hand-crank Butterfly (the same kind as Sarah used) “Made in the Republic of China” machine and an industrial machine. Neither machine was very easy to use (I was rightly relegated to those machines as the only other one was often used for trainings for workers). The tension didn’t seem right in the hand-crank and I couldn’t figure it out and the industrial machine spit oil every time it was run and both machines immediately broke thread as soon as I tried to backstitch. But, they were both fun to use . . . for a short time!
The hand-crank machine was also useful when we had a “lights out” event which only happened twice while I was in the office, for a several hours, but does occur fairly often. I was able to keep working through the power outage with the hand-crank machine.
Global Mamas office - quality control.
Sewing and Fabric in Ghana
It seemed like there are seamstresses, sewing shops, tailors, or fabric stores on every street in Cape Coast. Men and women are sewing in open air shops, mostly on hand-crank machines, everywhere. Often these little shops also have at least one industrial machine and/or serger to use when appropriate (like when finishing seams, hems, or when a little extra strength is needed in the seam). You can get a dress or pants or skirt or shirt made in any of these shops for anywhere between $2 and $8 (USD). A fellow volunteer, had two dresses made with fabric she bought. The seamstress took no measurements and was only given a description of the desired dress, and she made a cute fit and flare dress and an A-line dress and short sleeves. Both fit wonderfully and were finished within a day or two. It is quite impressive!
Seamstress shop - only about this big. They were working on a wedding dress too.
Finishing seams on the dress because no alterations were needed.
Fabric is also impressive in Ghana. A lot of African fabrics are printed in China and they are cheaper, very colorful with good designs, but the quality of the fibers/weave/feel is lower. Ghana has several of its own manufacturers. Akosombo Textiles (ATL), GTP (Ghana Textile Prints), Woodin (upscale shop with slightly more modern prints), and Printex are all printed in Ghana and are high quality. GTP and Woodin are associated with Vlisco fabrics (Holland-based company). Then there are batik fabrics which are batiked locally and sold in the local markets. There are no brand names for these fabrics and I enjoyed finding them and looking at the different prints and designs that were created - everything from symbols and plant shapes to stripes to plaids. Fabric was also fairly inexpensive. The cheap Chinese fabrics were about $2/yard. The nicer Ghana-printed fabrics were about $3.50/yard and Woodin fabrics were about $4.50/yard. The local batik fabric was around $2.00/yard.
Traditional Ghana batik (read more about process below)
African Wax Prints, or Ankara. These circle designs were very popular and symbolize a well.
Everyone in Ghana will dress up. Church is a suitable place to show off your fashions and women and men were decked out in their finest prints and designs, but everyday-wear was amazing as well. Seamstresses and tailors come up with their own clothing designs. Ruffles, flounces, pleats, gathers, interesting sleeves, small cold-shoulder looks, skirts of every size and shape. You can see different designs everywhere. I enjoyed looking at women’s and men’s clothing in the street every day. I love a man in a plain t-shirt and tailored Ankara/African Wax Print pants or shorts. I loved the high, tight-waisted A-line skirts, the wrap skirts, and the long and flowing skirts in Ankara prints. I was constantly people watching - often for their fashion - and it was so rewarding! I wish I had more pictures of people in their clothes, but Ghanaians are sensitive about having the photos taken and I didn't feel I could stop people and ask them if I could have their photo.
Sarah at a wedding. Black and white is traditional for wearing at weddings and funerals.
Ghana, is of course, also known for its kente cloth. It was harder to find kente cloth in Cape Coast where I was staying because it is woven in the Ashanti region which is about 4 hours north. Kente cloth is woven by men and the colors have symbolic meaning. It is woven on a small narrow loom in strips about 5” wide. The strips can be sewed together to create larger cloth. Usually cloth is in combinations of orange, red, green, and yellow. I found some with pink in it (which is symbolic of love) and I like those a little better. In Accra, I found a small shop in the Arts Center where a man was weaving kente cloth. I attended a wedding one weekend and a few of the elder men wore kente cloth wraps of about 6 yards. The bride’s gown was also made of kente cloth made in a very modern way - high-waisted fitted skirt with a mermaid tail to the ground and a lace and beaded bodice.
Wedding dress with a kente cloth skirt.
Traditional men's wear for special occasions, like church or wedding (as in this case). Gentleman on the right is wearing handwoven kente cloth (strips sewn together), and on the left a black and white (also traditional for weddings) print.
I also fell in love with the traditional Ghanaian tunic, called a Batakari, or Fugu. This sleeveless tunic is made of handwoven fabric of simple design and has a keyhole or star neckline that is embroidered. Sidenote: I was told Ghanaian sewers/seamstresses do not like to embroider or do handwork and I found that true. They admired my embroidery but showed no interest in learning it or doing it. All the tunics I saw were machine embroidered, i.e. machine zigzagged, at this point. Still beautiful and still possible to hand embroider, but not done in recent times). The tunic fans out to a large pleated skirt just below the chest area. The women’s versions frequently have elastic at the waist to draw in the fabric and make it more feminine (accentuate the waist). And, these tunics usually have pockets with embroidered openings below the underarms.
Women's Tunic (sometimes the waist is lower, at natural waistline)
Batiking fabric has been a traditional way of creating designs on fabric for a long time in Ghana. For more of this history, read this article. The women that batik for Global Mamas also make batiks that they sell at the markets, or they may also screen print school and business logos onto wax print cloth for uniforms. The process the women use is to heat paraffin wax and dip a block print in the wax, then place the print on fabric, repeating the design for 6 to 12 yards of fabric at a time. The fabric can be dyed first or not. The blocks for printing were traditionally made of wood, but now are made of foam mattress pieces. Foam mattress are everywhere in Ghana and make great batik tools because they are so easy to carve into shapes. After the wax has dried, the fabric can be carefully dyed so as not to crack the wax and let in the dye into the design. The wax keeps the dye from penetrating the waxed area, thus creating an area that resists the dye.
Batiked fabrics drying in the sun.
The dyed fabric is dried, then to get the wax out of the fabric, the fabric is set into a simmering cauldron of water. The wax floats out of the fabric and to the top of the cauldron, where it is skimmed off to be reused. After simmering for 10-20 minutes, the fabric is placed in a large bucket of cold water and a woman quickly goes through the fabric to make sure all the wax is off. Then, the fabric is hung up to dry and when dry is brushed with a piece of foam to get off any wax clinging to fibers. Then, if the cloth needs to have another design (for instance, different color dots on top of a floral design), the process is repeated, with different blocks and different dye baths. This batik process can be repeated several times to get the colors and designs desired. Many of the batikers cook their wax and their hot water cauldrons over wood or coal. Only a few use gas. Quite intensive (and pretty hot) process!
Dewaxing the fabric in hot water (note the waxed batiks to the side waiting for their turn in the cauldron).
Washing the batik.
Other Ghana Fashion of Interest - Beads
Bead making in Ghana is also important. Most beads are made in the Ashanti and Volta regions (central and northern regions). The tradition dates back a long way but has evolved to using glass that is ground up by hand, heated, and shaped into beads. The beads come in all shapes and the larger ones are also often hand painted. The beads are made into necklaces, bracelets, earrings, waist beads, and anklets. Beads are worn for many reasons, some symbolic of status or feeling, but mainly now for adornment. Men and women wear beads, though men usually wear them as bracelets and anklets. I loved the beads in Ghana and bought quite a few.
I had just over one day to visit Accra, and a fellow volunteer decided to join me. We headed from Cape Coast to the capital on a bus and made it to Accra in about 2.5 hours - our driver was a fast (and a bit scary), but we made it safely by early afternoon. We checked into the Olma Colonial Suites, a lovely little hotel with apartments that are spacious and beautiful and a pool.
My morning workspace at Olma Colonial Suites. So beautiful and peaceful (and they serve a great breakfast too).
Once settled, we got a bite to eat at Burger and Relish (probably the most expensive meal of my trip, but very good) and took a taxi to historic Jamestown and walked from Nkruma Memorial Park to the Jamestown Lighthouse. There are a few colonial buildings in Jamestown: an old British slave fort cum prison (in which Nkruma, first president of Ghana, which was the first independent country in Africa, was imprisoned for a time) cum tourist attraction, a Dutch slave fort, some homes, and the lighthouse are some of the most important. At the lighthouse, we met Daniel, a Rasta teacher at the school in the fishing village below the lighthouse. He offered to take us on a tour of the village, which was very interesting - fishing boats, kids swimming and playing, football games on the beach, crabs drying, men swimming to their boats, chaos. It was beautiful. We also stopped at a café in Jamestown (Jamestown Café) which was a fun spot of literature, art, music, food, and drinks.
Back at the hotel, after a dip in the pool to cool down, we headed out to probably the best Thai restaurant in Africa. Food was cooked right in front of us and it was absolutely delicious and fresh! Then, we headed for drinks at Republic Bar & Grill where we had a local palm spirit-hibiscus cocktail that was delicious and listed to Ghanaian hip hop.
The next day we did some major shopping. Starting at the Arts Center, near Nkruma Memorial Park, we toured the galleries of contemporary art and sculpture, then headed to the many artists booths selling all the traditional crafts of Ghana: beads, instruments, clothing, carvings, textiles, leather bags, paintings, and woven baskets. I could have spent a lot of money here, but had to remind myself I did not have a way to get everything I would have wanted home (nor enough money to get all I wanted!). I settled for a beautiful old Ewe weaving, a pair of beaded salad tongs, a couple of bead strands, and some carved elephants (for my children). Just browsing everything here was a treat.
Contemporary Art Gallery at the Arts Center
Kente cloth weaver (traditionally men) weaving a strip of kente cloth.
Then, we headed to Makola Market, the largest market in Accra, selling everything from vegetables to toiletries to fabric to enormous live snails! We navigated a maze of vendors, awed by all the goods being sold.
A fabric vendors stall in Makola Market.
I did buy some fabrics from the market. Then, we headed back to Uso, the neighborhood where we were staying. We walked to Elle Lokko, an awesome little store with well-priced locally designed clothes, jewelry, and accessories. And, came across the Art Institute (ANO) located just next to it. ANO had a beautiful small exhibit on the Ghanaian fashion designer, Kofi Ansah. It was beautiful and interesting. These kimonos were stunning.
We also made it to The Shop Accra which also had some beautiful bags and clothes and had a great selection of consignment vendors in the outdoor café area. We ate dinner at Chez Clarrise, an Ivorian Coast dinner place where I had an amazing dish of Chicken Yassa. Recommended by the waiter, who was from Ivory Coast, it was chicken cooked in a lot of caramelized onions, with rice on the side. So good!
So go my recommendations for visiting Accra. I know there is lots more to do - more great art galleries, a nice theatre, fun shops, good restaurants and music venues.
February 14, 2024