Sahelian women know a thing or two about resourcefulness. How else could they raise six children (the national average) and live in one of the world’s harshest climates? Take Maryama Tamboura for example. Every rainy season, she grows three or four cotton plants. They provide just enough cotton to spin into yarn for fixing her broken calabashes (large bowls made from gourd). She brings a whole new dimension to the phrase ‘Make Do and Mend’.
Or Fatimata, who is pictured above spinning twine made from poli, a thick plant fibre which is sold in plaits and nicknamed ‘white women’s hair’. Here she is making string for fixing her straw mats. In case you are thinking of having a go, be warned – it’s not as easy as it looks (believe me, I’ve tried).
To turn raw cotton into yarn it needs to be carded first (as shown below, using a carder or karsogal) to remove dirt and debris. For spinning you need a spindle (kewel), which is a wooden stick with clay weight on the end used for winding on the yarn as it twirls on the ground or in this case in a bowl.
Women in the region used to hand spin cotton as often as they would find themselves sitting during the day. A missionary couple who have been running a hospital locally for forty years say their grounds used to be filled with mothers and wives spinning as they waited. But now nylon cord and polyester wool is available locally. Like with many traditional skills, younger women aren’t generally bothering to learn how to do it.
When I started researching local craft traditions I couldn’t find anyone who actually knew how to do it. Everyone I asked remembered seeing women do it but couldn’t physically introduce me to them. So I put out a local radio announcement asking for spinners.
The flood gates were opened and a tidal wave of over a hundred women, mostly over the age of sixty arrived on my doorstep. That was three years ago and since then I have worked with several of them, mainly in one village where there is a weaver too. Together they have been making the Fulani blanket-style cushions in the SAHEL collection.