Thirty years ago it was commonplace to see wooden looms in villages across the Sahel. Like horses, they were an essential part of everyday life that has all but disappeared from the region. Nowadays it can take a four wheel drive and a GPS to find one, as I found out recently while seeking out a new contact near to where I live in Burkina Faso.
Eventually I found the place – a huddle of grass roofed mud huts surrounded by millet fields. In the centre of one field was a small shelter with a single loom beneath. It stood solemnly empty, unlike the one in the middle of the village where an old man sat weaving black and white bands for making a blanket.
The narrow cotton woven bands that characterise traditional Fulani textiles are rarely used for clothing anymore, and all the traditional weavers I have met are around sixty years old. The young men aren’t inspired to learn as it isn’t usually lucrative enough. They want a job that will bring them prestige, a motorbike and an iphone. Those jobs are few and far between and they don’t see a future in weaving.
I hope that the success of the SAHEL design will help change that perception. Ussman Tamboura, who currently weaves all the textiles in our collection is passionate about his craft. He is not a rich man and his skill is his most valuable legacy for his children. It is some skill too – he is renowned in the region for his expertise and has had experience in teaching weaving and dyeing techniques before.
The bands he is weaving in the picture above are used in the cotton/leather tote bags and are his own take on tradition. He has other ideas too but there is only so much one man can do. It has long been his dream to run a teaching centre where the young men in the village can learn his skill.
This month his dream became a reality as a large shelter for housing five looms went up in the village, funded by profits from cushion cover sales. His son has already begun learning on the first loom and others are waiting their turn. SAHEL design isn’t just about providing work for these men; it is about turning a skill on the edge of extinction into something that will be desired and treasured by generations to come.