08.12.2021 Feature Article

This Whole Thing Began With Textiles

This Whole Thing Began With Textiles
08.12.2021 LISTEN

It’s a shame really. This acquaintance of mine, approaching me, complimenting my African print, implied, ‘It’s a shame.’ It was a Friday, and she was dressed European, and I, African. She has no African attires in her closet, she explained. “Because I don’t want to go through the trouble sewing all these African prints, only for my bosses to tell us we can’t wear African prints to work once again.” Too bad, erh? That to claim Africanness in something as mundane as clothing, one, being African and in Africa, has to have some sort of law, regulation, allowing one to dress as they should—African. One could swear that 1957 and 1960 never happened! One could swear that Ghana, as we have her now is just a front, having, lingering behind her facade, a still bound Gold Coast. You see, the White folk, they never have to go through this nonsense—to be crippled as we are, with another’s identity, ideology, culture.

The Bannerman’s Done Her Job, But the Flag Up is Wrong

It’s a shame, but our peculiar history has necessitated it. So, in November 2004, the Kufuor government did what was then (and even now) a very revolutionary move. Although inherently mundane, the ‘National Friday Wear Programme’ initiated by the government and headed by the Ministry of Trade, Industry, and the President’s Special Initiative, was a very revolutionary move. It was ‘an initiative aimed at projecting a unique Ghanaian identity through the extensive use of local fabric and designs as business wear,’ and was part of the government’s programme to ‘promote made-in-Ghana goods and to revitalise the textile and garments industry.’

The textile industry being then “the third most important [sector] in the world economy after tourism and information technology,” and with “the current global value of trade in the sector [standing] at approximately 342 billion dollars, this initiative was set to offer “tremendous opportunity [for] developing countries [such as ours] to transform our economies—through the development of the textile and garment sector to create employment, generate income, and reduce poverty.” These are the paraphrased words of Mrs. Cecilia Bannerman (bannerman, carrying the flag for the President, if you will), then Minister of Mines, as she launched the programme on behalf of President Kufuor on that eventful November day.

Riding on public-private partnerships, all Fridays from that date, were to be set aside as the one day out of the seven days of the week where the Ghanaian worker—both in the public and private sectors, were to wear ‘locally designed garments produced from locally manufactured fabrics.’ But this was not to be misconstrued as implying that these African prints were to be constrained for wearing only on Fridays, Mr. Allan Kyeremanten warned when he took the stage. ‘It does not necessarily mean that the dresses should be worn only on Fridays, rather they can be worn any day of the week,” he cautioned—I paraphrase.

But you see that’s where the problem is, a revolution is incomplete if its intended end is not captured in its defining chant, headline, or name. ‘National Friday Wear Programme’ was the name of the revolution, hence African prints on just Fridays, it was. At least that is what these bosses of this acquaintance of mine heard. So no, she could not wear that African print of hers to work on any other day aside from Fridays. And in these bosses’ particular cases, their mental slavery not totally defeated with this one-day wonder initiative—the National Friday Wear Programme, their employees were per their order, barred from wearing African prints to work.

It is a shame, really. Because what prevented us, being in our own country, a country we tirelessly fought to gain repossession of, what prevented us from saying, “You know what, we have had enough of these thick suits, which from all indications, were not made for our weather—so sankofa—we are returning back to our heritage, one which had within it, a clothing system, one which was yanked from us by our colonial tyrants. With our fight for independence, we are reclaiming too our independence of thoughts, of being, of existence… and of clothing. So ‘National Wear Programme’ it is. Not just Fridays, but each day of the week, the Ghanaian is to dress Ghanaian.” What prevented us from saying these words. I am not saying that word-for-word this is what Allan Kyeremanten, and Kufuor speaking through Cecelia Bannerman should have said. But this important revolution the Kufuor government initiated, it could have been more thorough and sweeping in its end.

Taking it Slow
But we had to take it slow, no? I took a minute to reflect on this sentence I just typed. I beg that you do same too—'we had to take it slow’. Otherwise, what? So as not to offend (whose?) sensibilities. I am struggling coming up with a good reason why I just typed that nonsense—'we had to take it slow’. If you have been successful coming up with any, kindly let me know. Because the only reason I can find for those words is this: mental bondage. And this mental slavery, it persists still—invisible, yet steady and forceful in its approach. It is a bondage our kinsfolk in the Diaspora—particularly those in the West—face on a very real and tangible level. For instance, the very hair that grows from their very scalp are censored so as not to offend the White man and woman. There have been (and still are) real laws guiding and restricting their inherent Blackness. This is an issue we will touch on in due time. But back to us… what inhibits us?

One cannot deny, in the ranking of the most consequential government initiatives, this initiative by the Kufuor government places very high. Afore this initiative, the Ghanaian, still fresh off Western indoctrination, was woefully biased against the African print, our own home-brewed way of dressing. So that should one, find themselves on any day spotting an African wear, one might hear whispers behind them or be teased quite bluntly, “Adjoa Yankey, w’ashia wonua!”

But what we have ensuing now, following that very eventful last quarter of 2004, is a Ghanaian who wears the African print proudly—reclaiming, perhaps without being particularly conscious of it, their sense of self, their culture; lending credence to their mind—their way of thinking; manifested in a mode as mundane as dressing. Such influence! This is what governments are intended for. To spark such a positive change in the lives of the people, not just on an economic front, but on a sociological one too—one that re-socialises an entire generation. Such influence!

But this influence could have asserted itself more prominently, more thoroughly, so that right here in Africa, starting from Ghana, the acclaimed gateway to Africa, there would have prevailed a very apt situation whereby the African culture is regarded as the default, with any semblance of Western culture remaining deemed rather as ‘other’. Sadly, what we have still ensuing instead is the opposite—Western culture regarded as the default, with our own African culture seen as ‘other’ on our very own continent. We see this dynamic unfold in the clothing and apparel segment of our society—four working days of the week the African is Western, one day of the week he/she is African. That is the very embodiment of an incomplete revolution. It’s a shame. But time being, we can only argue, infinite, we have the opportunity to further remedy this. The government, once again, please show your power!

The AGOA Quickie
The plan, then, was to also take advantage of the AGOA. The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) was a legislation passed in 2000 by the US government intended to help ‘strengthen relationships between the United States and sub-Saharan African countries by improving trades between the [parties]’. It was set to provide ‘opportunity for over 6400 eligible products, including textiles and garments, to be exported duty free and quota free to the USA.’ Like every relationship we have had with the West, AGOA was couched as intended to ‘assist our economies.’—to help us, the ‘akoas’ if you will, with America, being some sort of everlasting Santa Claus, the saviour—look at it—it says so right there in the name of the Act, African Growth and Opportunity, not a two-way benefits affair, but supposedly one-way, with our good, the intended end of the Act. ‘Everlasting’ may just be an error on my part, for upon its enactment in 2000, its initial expiration period was to be 2015. But it was extended later, to 2025. ‘This relationship is rife with uncertainty’, having an expiration period—we don’t need experts to point this out, but experts have done so. This helping hand extended to sub-Saharan Africa is rife with uncertainty.

But do you know what may just be a very viable relationship, when tended to with care? Not AGOA, but AfCFTA.

We discussed this: Kwame Nkrumah and other African leaders cut from the same cloth as him, had this dream of not just attaining individual African liberations, but of an integrated African economic liberation. And this liberation was only truly possible after Africa reversed the ills done by the very ruthless Berlin Conference, and referred back to a borderless Africa—if not geographically so, economically, at least. Trade was the very sure way of making this togetherness and economic liberation possible for Africa. So, in the very early days of our individual independence, conversations were being had, efforts being placed towards an integrated Africa. Attempts failed every time, but interestingly, immediately after a global pandemic, African countries crippled by the effects of this pandemic, met aptly at Accra, Ghana, and right there and then, on the 1st of January, 2021, the African Free Continental Trade Area was launched. Not even a global devastation could stop Africa this time around.

It is not just to mine historic coincidences—the fact that the ‘National Friday Wear Programme’ was instituted to take advantage of AGOA—that I am calling for a ‘National Wear Programme’ be instituted to take advantage of AfCFTA. Being a sucker for history and of the fishing out of repetitions in history, I admit, this would be a great reoccurrence for the books—for future generations to look back on fondly. This is not just for history buffs, but a very important national move. To really appreciate the urgency of this, let’s run quickly through the history of industrialisation. We have done this severally before, in ‘Generational Clubs, ‘Forging a Quota’, etc., but today’s piece calls for a quick revisit.

This Whole Thing Began with Textiles
The orchestrators, inventors of the very early days of the First Industrial Revolution never thought of a day when humankind would be traveling to the moon or to Mars. No, no, many minds didn’t wonder that far. Inventions, they began with the very mundane—the bare essentials of living. And famously, they began with the textile industry. You see, British people like all people of the other parts of the world, were plagued with the necessity of having to cover their nakedness—not just because it was aesthetically pleasing that way, but also because of the weather—the weather could be harsh to the bodies of humankind. So, since time immemorial, the British found ways of coming up with clothing for themselves. And before the Industrial Revolution they did so by hand, in their very tiny cottage industries.

The human mind, being not disconnected from the human body, and thus feeling the strain placed upon the hands in this tedious, manual process of textile making, ingenious minds set to work, looking for mechanised solutions to this otherwise manual process. In 1733, a certain John Kay invented what was termed the ‘flying shuttle’, a devise that sped up this manual hand-intensive weaving process—a single weaver could now do the job that afore that took two to do, and at more times the speed. Inspired by this ingenuity, James Hargreaves invented the spinning jenny in 1764, a multi-spindle spinning frame, a device that even further reduced the amount of manual labour needing exertion in the weaving process. Richard Arkwright came through in 1765 with his water frame invention, an improvement on the spinning jenny, offering much stronger yarn than that produced by Hargreaves’ invention.

Thomas Newcomen invented the steam engine, a mechanised solution using steam as energy source. James Watt made advancements on the steam engine invention in 1769, and just like that mechanisation had kicked off, having spill-over effects in cotton mills, mines, steamboats, factories, the railway system, etc. Human beings were done with physical labour. Aboard, machines!

So, the Industrial Revolution, one which has placed the West in comfortable leads for centuries—in such consistent places of economic power throughout the whole world, began with textiles.

Take Ghana…

  • A country that kickstarted its national journey over some sixty years ago;
  • A country that placed the realisation of its own version of industrial revolution in the attainment of hydroelectric power and the realisation of the creation of a large market—an African market…
  • …can it be said that with this African economic integration achieved with the launch of AfCFTA, Ghana’s journey at industrialisation has, with this free trade area been given yet another start? And can it be said that once again textile is to play an indomitable role in another country and continent’s journey at industrialisation—as it did Britain and the rest of Europe?

    Won’t we be kickstarting this industrial journey of ours amiss, if we pay little attention to the textile industry? Because talk of large market—you have right there in the mix a demand as indispensable as the demand for textile—filling in the basic human need for clothing. Isn’t it a shame then that in meeting this basic human need, we have right here in our liberated country and continent, the West filling this demand with their endless supply of Western clothing? And we, in our bid to reclaim our power, we have since 2004, chosen rather to do so, one day out of the seven days of the week. So the rest of the six days, from morning to evening, the Ghanaian, is a consumer of Western supply. It is indeed a shame

    Let’s talk more next week.
    [Published in the Business & Financial Times (B&FT) - 8th December, 2021]

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