A fading future for Nigeria’s indigo dyers

Filed under: Culture,Lifestyle |

The Kofar Mata dye pit began trading in 1498

“I first came here when I was young and I enjoyed helping out,” says Haroun Baffa.

He comes from a long line of indigo dyers – for seven generations his family have taken up the profession here in Kano.

A sign on a freshly painted arch at the Kofar Mata dye pits reads “1498” – commemorates the year they began operation.

Dozens of pits are scattered across the compound, which resembles a giant honeycomb. Each contains a dye made from indigo plant, which is grown just outside the city.

Groups of men, young and old, sit around them, dipping fabric into the indigo hue, turning and wringing the cloth.

The material is dipped repeatedly into the dye, sometimes for up to four hours, with parts of it tied up with string to keep the colour from some sections in order to bring out the desired patterns.

This process is as meticulous today as it was centuries ago, although today the craft is barely surviving.

Indigo dyer at work in Kano, Nigeria
Fewer Nigerians now want their cloth dyed in the traditional way
Dying pits in Kano, Nigeria
Cloth is dyed in these pits and then hung to dry around the walls
Indigo dyed cloth drying
Kano’s indigo dyers refuse to use artificial dyes

‘Nobody to buy’

Kano, the main commercial hub of northern Nigeria, is bearing the brunt of the continuing insurgency in northern Nigeria, led by the Islamist sect Boko Haram.

This has kept away the tourists who used to come from around the world to see the ancient city and its monuments, including the dye pits.

For Nigerian buyers, the cloth serves a mainly ceremonial purpose, with sales now highest particularly during Muslim festivals.

Western tourists also use them as decorations.

Haroun BaffaHaroun says there are fewer buyers now for traditionally dyed cloths

“In the past we had so many buyers coming right round the year,” says Haroun.

“We would sell out in days, but since the violence began, we have some fabric that sits here for up to six months with nobody to buy.”

More than 100 of the original pits now lie disused, filled with earth and waste.

It is a similar picture for the rest of Kano’s once-thriving textile industry. Dozens of factories around the country have been sold or converted into warehouses over time.

Government policies favoured cheap imports from Asia, meaning local textile producers have struggled to keep up.

Their problems revolve around the poor supply of electricity and government policies around foreign goods.

The dye pits, on the other hand, do not need electricity to function, making them fairly cheap to operate.

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I first came here when I was young and I enjoyed helping out”

Haroun BaffaKano, Nigeria

But the dyers remain traditional in work, and refuse to use artificial dyes, which would give them different colours of cloth.

This strict style has affected their sales as many customers now favour the dynamic fashion they find in the markets over this old tie-dye style.

Even the popular Nigerian outfits have their own varying fashion trends, not to mention the prevalence of western-style clothes imported from around the world.

Ahmed, a worker at the pits, earns up to 600 naira (£2.25; $3.75) for each sitting, which is barely enough for him to take care of his wife and six children.

Unlike many others who have sought better incomes elsewhere, he prefers to stay.

“There are no jobs elsewhere and for now I enjoy what I’m doing,” he says, wiping away the sweat on his glistening head under the blazing sun.

Haroun Baffa looks on, aware of the threat facing his profession.

“I have no children yet but when I do, I hope they will be the eighth generation of dyers from my family.”

By Tomi OladipoBBC News, Kano, Nigeria

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