Kano holds numerous ancient treasures within its sprawling metropolis. Some of them, like its old markets, still serve the purposes for which they were created. Others, like the city’s old walls, have become tourist attractions, sights marveled at by adventure-seeking visitors. The Kofar Mata Dye Pit falls somewhere in between these two categories.
The Kofar Mata dyeing centre is a space that’s just off one of the city’s major roads. The dusty brown dullness of its location isn’t sharply different from what you’d find in a less well off part of a Nigerian town. That space is home to a trade that dates back half a millennium.
If you wander into the area on a given day, you’ll probably find men stirring and stabbing at holes that have been dug into the ground. These holes have been filled with dyes, and the men are preparing them for the next stage of their work. In a few weeks, those dye-filled holes will be stuffed with fabric, and new indigo material will be made out of them.
The men have been at this business all their lives. Their roles at the dye pits have been handed down to them by their fathers and grandparents; some can even trace their family’s involvement with the trade back seven generations.
It’s said that many of these workers are related in some way. In fact, the oral history of Kofar Mata suggests that it was founded in the late 15th century by one man, a certain Wali Dan Warna. He later migrated northwards to Katsina, leaving the pits in the care of his family members. This early group of settlers, along with others who joined the business, carried on with the trade and passed on the craft to their descendants through the centuries.
The fabric dyeing methods used by the workers at the pits haven’t changed much in all that time. The dye is a mixture of several ingredients. First, water is poured into the pits, and ash from burnt firewood gets hurled in as well. After a couple of days, indigo plants are added to the mixture. At the end of another three days, potash is poured into it. The mixture is stirred with a rod and left to ferment. It takes as much as six weeks to prepare the dye.
When it’s determined that the mixture is in the right condition for use, the fabric to be dyed is dipped into it. Immersions continue until the dyer is content with the colour and pattern he achieves with the fabric.
The hues attainable with the indigo dyeing process are basically shades of blue as well as plain black. Patterns on cloth are determined by the way the fabric is tied prior to being dipped in the dye. Tying usually doesn’t happen at the dye pits; it’s done by women who typically work in their homes.
The buyers of Kofar Mata’s fabrics come from across Northern Nigeria and farther afield. Some travel from as far off as Mali and Senegal to purchase the indigo cloths.
Unfortunately, those long journeys to Kano’s famous fabric colouring center may be the dying trickle of a one flowing trade. A couple of generations ago, the area was alive with activity as customers from all over the West African savannah and the Maghreb trooped in to buy the choicest blue cloths on display. Today, the numbers have fallen. There are at least two reasons for this.
An obvious challenge has been the scourge of the Boko Haram insurgency, which has cut off some of the routes to the area once used by visitors. The crisis isn’t as bad as it used to be, but the effects linger still.
But there’s a longer-term worry over the future of the dye pits. Local people aren’t enthusiastic about the fabric coming out of Kofar Mata. Many prefer to buy cheap Chinese imports. It’s not clear that everyone at the pits will stake their lives on the ancient trade either. The younger people seem less enthusiastic about preserving the old tradition just for the sake of it.
In the end, it will take more than an obsession with protecting ancient things to save Kofar Mata’s dye pits. Perhaps what they need is a merger of the spirit of the dyeing craft and modern improvements on its processes- something like the mixture of ashes and indigo plants that make Kofar Mata’s fabrics glow.
Featured image source: mysinchew.com