Sunday, December 30, 2007

Mali: A country with a Ministry of Artisan Arts #2

Yes, Mali does have a ministry of artisan arts and it's an honest-to-goodness government office. It's complete name is Ministère de l'Artisanat et du Tourisme. Every year, the ministry even mounts a festival of Malian artisan arts at the Bourse de Commerce in Paris -- only five hours away from Mali by plane -- and last October, over 18,000 people came to visit. Click on "galerie photos" to see the local marketplace.

La Bourse de Commerce, Paris

Moreover, the Malian artisans get support from the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and other donors, Japanese and European. How cool is that?

I met Sidiki Ouattara, national coordinator of the UNIDO pilot project called Tissutèque which was started in the early 1990s jointly by the governments of Mali and Japan -- both aware that West Africa has a rich heritage in artisanal textile, but the dyers were abandoning the trade because it was becoming less and less profitable.

National Center for the Promotion of Artisanal Arts.

Sidiki Ouattara, Tissutèque project coordinator

So far, the seed money provided has produced 10 spinning wheels, 500 pairs of handcarders, 100 weaving looms, 20 woolwinders, 20 warping boards, 10 new types of fabrics and training of 100 people. There are also three manually-operated dyeing machines and two electric ones that have been converted to gas power. (Electric power is expensive, but gas is subsidized by the government!) Over the years they have developed 50 repeatable dye recipes using scientific instruments and have trained 300 women in the art of dyeing.

Instruments for measuring dye solutions.

The various dyeing machines.

Looms at Tissutèque.

I had a lively chat with Mr. Ouattara in his office while an info tech person was installing his webcam to enhance his Skype use. I talked of Charkhas for Africa and the equipment that is available to spinners in the US.

He was very excited and as soon as the webcam work was done, he asked me to show him the works of American spinners and the equipment shops available online. And then he turned to me and said, "Madam, you coming so late in the game. We could have used your advice when we were starting."

He went on to explain, that though they had financing, they didn't have technical advice. He said that the donors wanted to provide heavy-duty machines, but he said, that wouldn't have worked. "You have to start from the bottom and work your way up to find a sustainable solution. First you have to build the capacity of the people before you give them sophisticated equipment."

As I left, Mr. Ouattara gave me a list of things that he wanted assistance with: a quote for 1000 pieces of carding cloth, a sample of a spinning wheel made of PVC, and information on a small dyeing machine or a large washing machine that is gas-operated. He was concerned that the women who dye the traditional way with just rubber gloves and masks were not adequately protected from the toxic effect of chemicals.

The sample Babe spinning wheel, I'm happy to report, has be sent off to Bamako via DHL. The super-durable carding cloth from Strauch turned out to be out-of-reach despite donor financing; thus, they are going for the cloth that is locally available. I've started the research on the dyeing machines made in China and India. However, I have not seen one that is gas-operated. If you have any suggestions, please email me.

When I returned home, I received this email from Mr. Ouattara. He wrote: Following your visit to Mali, I'm writing to say that I look forward to our partnership in our common passion: the promotion of artisanal textile.

A very nice way, indeed, to end year 2007 and begin a new one.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Mali: A country with a Ministry of Artisan Arts

Work was going to take me back to Bamako in early December and -- having found a new job that was to start at the beginning of the 2008 -- I wanted to make wise use of my final(?) trip to Africa.

Since making the trip to Mali in September 2006 I had resorted to commercial courier service for sending tools, equipment and supplies to Ethiopia and Mali. So, I only needed to pack a few things that were ready to take. Once I established new contacts, sending more stuff would be easy by courier.

I was leaving Bamako at midnight of Dec. 6 this year and in the morning I decided to explore the Artisan Market. I figured, if I didn't meet spinners or weavers at the market, I would drop by the DHL office downtown and send the hand carders and dye powder to the two fiber guilds I had visited previously.

Ready to DHL, just in case.

The Artisan Market

It turned out to be a lucky day for me as I checked out the weaving studio of the Artisan Market. I met Bina, an old man working on a floor loom.

Interesting touch: Bina adds a stick of broom material every several row of cotton thread.

Broom on the floor.

I asked him if he had handcarders and could he show them to me. He very nicely did. I said I had three pairs with me, could they use them? He replied that the handcarders would be welcome. As he opened the box that I had packed, he delightedly leafed through a Japanese book on rigid heddle weaving and then he saw the plastic bags of dyes.

At that point Bina invited me see their dye lab and the spinning wheel that he had built. We went out of the market and walked some blocks to a fenced-in building. Outside, women were dyeing bazin (like damask) fabrics to sell in the market.

Bazin cloth from Holland. They can cost anywhere from a few dollars to over 10 dollars depending on the thread count. The top-of-the line is called "bazin riche", while the lower quality kind is called "bazin moins riche."

To be continued.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

And that is how Charkhas for Africa began #2

My project to introduce charkhas to Africa spinners acquired a name and gained momentum thanks to two spinners from Pennsylvania: Angela Place and Reenie Hanlin of Material Whirled. They had brought Lexi Boeger to Harrisburg, PA for a two-day workshop and I had signed up. That was how we met.

We kept in touch and when they learned about my having gone to Ethiopia, they offered to help with a fundraiser. I'm not a go-getter and am squeemish about handling money donated by other people. We made an arrangement where I would procure the equipment and Angela and Reenie took care of paying off the suppliers with proceeds from donated yarns.

With the fundraising momentum in full swing, we bought 10 Indian box charkhas, a few Babe wheels and lots of hand carders from Otto Strauch. I redeemed frequent flyer miles and arranged a visit to Segou -- noted for weaving -- three hours away from the capital of Mali. On the way, I stopped in France for a spinning retreat with francophone spinners who also pledged yarn to sell for the project.

The trip was not easy. First of all, traveling on my own, I did it on the cheap and lugged everything through train stations in France. In addition, the Little Gem was also traveling with me. Upon arrival in Bamako, arriving passengers have to take their luggage to an x-ray machine and the customs people saw the charkha boxes. I was being asked to pay taxes on the items! I had to explain they were donations to spinners in Mali. Eventually, they let me through without having to do anything else.

I hung around in Bamako a couple of days while I waited for my friend, Dr. Youssouf Diallo, to finish his office duties during the week. I had requested for a driver and a car, but he wanted to drive me personally so we planned to go on a Saturday. He said, "You've done so much for my country; it's the least I can do".

Youssouf was thinking of driving to Segou leisurely and driving back the next day. I said I wanted to make it a day trip. He then accelerated his speed. He wanted to avoid being on the road in the dark on the way back. Problem was, the road was filled with potholes and it was only a matter of time before we hit one that badly damaged the rim of one of his tires. The damage produced a loud and alarming noise, so we had to stop. At this point, we were in the middle of a forest reserve.

Youssouf tried to phone for help, but his cell had lost signal. We tried to flag buses and other motorists; no one wanted to stop. Then we heard a shot. "What was that?" I asked. "Oh, hunters," he replied, more concerned about the tire than the presence of poachers. I got nervous as I was reminded of Dick Cheney and his well-publicized hunting trip.

We had no choice but to ignore the wheel noise and just drive on. Eventually, we left the forest reserve and commercial activity resumed along the highway. There were shacks serving as phone booths and bottled liquid for sale like vinegar or oil. I asked what were in those bottles and Youssouf said nonchalantly, "Gasoline." Needless to say that was a concern for me, but we soon found a car mechanic to change our tire and we were back on the road.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

And that is how Charkhas for Africa began

Spinners who read my blog invariably ask me in person or by email, "You seem to have traveled extensively and go to Africa repeatedly. What exactly do you do?"

True, I never talk about my day job, but that's because it has nothing to do with fiber. After all, it's a day job.

Well, okay. A large part of my day job is handling the logistical arrangements for conferences and workshops in Africa. That goes from identifying the hotel, requesting bids, securing contracts, engaging interpretation services and equipment, arranging airport transfers, planning meals and banquets and, finally, settling the bills. On top of that, I look after the well-being of 150 traveled-exhausted participants who may sometimes lose their luggage or get sick.

It's not uncommon, either, to find at the very last minute that the hotel has overbooked and, therefore, the management announces that a number of the participants will have to be taken to another hotel, at least for one night. That is never acceptable to the team I work with. Therefore, with all sangfroid, I go to the hotel management and tell them calmly, "it's in your best interest that you keep all of us right here". That seems to work everytime. Talk about the bottomline.

At the end of the day, I would spin on my Little Gem for a cool down. When colleagues would insist on a drink at the bar, I would take my knitting along. One time someone quipped, "I've never seen a woman knit in a bar -- it's the last place you think you'd see someone knitting".

Then on the last day, I'd make a quick trip to the market to see crafts and fabrics. Then, even more knitting -- at the airport this time.

After three years, I started to get tired of the whole routine. Plus, I'm really scared of flying and my anxiety would show up two weeks before departure. Skin rashes would appear and my suitcase would be packed and ready at about the same time. Strange and conflicting behavior. However, the team I belonged to was almost like a second family and my colleagues were a pleasure to work with.

But if I had to continue doing the job, I felt I needed to find a way to make the trips less predictable, more worthwhile, and even more interesting. And that is how I thought of starting a personal project of buying with my own funds spinning wheels made of PVC and bringing them to Ethiopia. It didn't have a name. It was a diversion and form of sharing spinning experiences with women who I would not -- but for my job -- have the chance of meeting.

Caption: Our first workshop: Nairobi 2002. How could I leave such a warm bunch of people and the coolest manager (second row, left) ever?

To be continued.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Back from Bamako & Yarns from Lyon for Africa

The moment I took my seat in the airport shuttle at Washington-Dulles last Saturday, I felt a sore throat. Two days later, I was experiencing a number of the symtoms of malaria, including chills, perspiration and diarrhea. A couple of more days later I'm still sick in bed, but I begin to recover and open my laptop to catch up with email. At this point I learn that two other colleagues fell ill: one of them back in DC; the other, still in Africa wondering if it's not malaria.

Anyway, on to more pleasant news. While in Mali I received an email from my friend, Muriel from Lyon, France. She had just finished spinning two skeins of yarn for my project, Charkhas for Africa. Muriel has mailed off the yarns and I will put them up for sale on Etsy once they arrive. Email me and I will reserve either of them or both, if anyone is interested. The yarns are lovely and I would understand if the buyer will take her time before knitting any one of them up. At any rate, there is one request from Muriel: that the buyer please send her a photo when the project is done.

"Lingerie" is of silk-wool blend handdyed in pink, navajo-plied and embellished with strips of tulle of burgundy color. Length: 218 yards. Price: $60

"Frou-Frou" is of merino and plied with yarn from Houard, the famed manufacturer of novelty yarns in France that closed down in mid-August. Length: 73 yards Price: $40