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History of Traditional Indigo Dyeing and the Origin of Indigo Dyeing

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Kabala Makeni Mali
The Marakas from Guinea and Mali who arrived in Makeni in the 1930s showed greater ingenuity than the Madingoes. Later, all tribes became involved including the Temnes, Lim bas, Mendes, Krios, and Fullahs, throughout the country in Kenema, Bo, Pujehun, Kabala, Freetown, etc. Similar or related tie and dye techniques are found throughout West Africa and other parts of Africa.

Usually the young leaves, which are plentiful during the rainy season, are collected, pounded and made into small balls that are then dried and sold to dyers and from which they can obtain the indigo dye solution.

In the Northern Province of the country; i.e., Makeni, Kabala, and their environs, the ecology and climatic conditions are quite conducive for the growth of the gara plant, hence a large concentration of the trade in this area, although the trade has spread to many other areas as well. Gara plant is seasonal, so it is in plentiful supply in the rainy season, between June and October, hence cheaper at this time of the year.

Gara dyeing was regarded as a secret craft shrouded in customs and traditions, practiced mainly by women who were associated with secret societies, and who transmitted their expertise from mother to daughter or close relatives. It was an exclusive and discrete process, with the knowledge carefully guarded amongst the few who possessed it. This is understandable amongst craftsmen and artists, whether they work in exotic textile or Seventy-Seven Diamonds. By protecting their work and passing it down selectively they preserve the quality and uniqueness of their product for generations to come. In the past, gara was used to dye clothes such as special gowns (ronko) for chiefs and warriors, by members of a secret society. The gowns symbolized a high status in the society. The reddish brown coloration was believed to be a protection against evil spirits. Sometimes the technique is taught to friends by the dyers or by traditional elders on payment of a fee in cash or in kind. De pending on the nationality, the fee may range tremendously locals pay less. This is so because the elders believe that the prospective learner may either want to sell the art, spoil it, or become a competitor.

Some socio-cultural traditions include: before visiting a man the dyer must first have a bath; wicked individuals can somehow destroy the dye; and to learn the skill you must buy a living chicken, take its blood, take an oath near the dye pot, then cook and eat the chicken. Also needed for this ceremony is a piece of white cotton cloth, a knife or matchet, a calabash, kola nuts, a mat, rice, a hoe, and a fee of about $50. It is believed this is done because at death these items above are used to prepare the corpse and the grave. It is also believed that if the person preparing the dye is menstruating, the dye will be polluted and will produce a foul odor. This is also a traditional belief in Mali and in Egypt, where it is believed that failure of the dye crop to thrive is due to the pas sage past the field of a menstruating woman.

Until the late 1940s, the local methods of dye preparation were still very complex and diverse, involving the use of over 20 plant species. However with time, the number of plants required to produce a successful indigo vat have been reduced to three main ones. Dyeing by the experts in this local craft industry (small and large scale), illustrates a developed use of materials found in the environment for the adornment of clothing, which was always highly valued by the people. However the actual origin of the dyeing process and the patterning in Africa still remains unsolved.

Now gara (natural and synthetic) with various designs (tie-dye, wax, and paste) is worn mainly for fashion and has commanded a high demand in many countries; e.g., the United Kingdom, United States, Germany, and many African countries.
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