The Fabric of an African Woman's Life


I watched my Ghanaian friend, Christina, whip a long swathe of exquisite fabric around her arm, over her wrist and between her dexterous fingers. In minutes she had fashioned a headdress fit for any African first lady. She crowned herself with her creation and I clapped.

In most of the world, a woman of dignity, position and beauty can only make a social entrance when she has on the proper head wear. Witness the Royal Ascot, William and Kate’s royal wedding, or Russian first ladies in their ermine and mink.

I asked Christina to deck me out as well, but the lovely creation fell flat against my white skin. We both laughed hard; no wonder I wear mostly black.


Salome’s piece of tired faded Kanga fabric was slung over her shoulder and under the opposite arm. Bundled on her back, nestled into the fabric was baby Mary. A big knot across Salome’s chest held the baby secure and safe. The warmth of Salome—body on body—made this the perfect nest for little Mary. I could see that Mary was probably not the first baby to be carried in that faithful, old piece of cloth.


Veronica could have been on a catwalk as she swished through the mall in her Kikoy skirt. Men’s eyes followed her and her soft curves held tightly in the cinched and knotted piece of Kenyan fabric. One and a half meters of cloth, whipped around her and left to hang dangerously short. A slit on the side, up to the knot, made it an alluring package. All with a piece of cloth.


In the evenglow on the Masai Mara, we had the chance to sit on the ground, around the fire, with Maasai women and hear them tell their stories. As the sun got lower the women pulled their bright red and colored Maasai blankets over their shoulders and tucked themselves into their warmth. They looked like a circle of little red tents around the fire, each woman bedazzled in her beads and blanket.


Martha pays the city council every week to put her square meter of burlap cloth on the ground by the road. She sells plump red tomatoes and shiny white onions for just a few shillings. The city council seems to take the bulk of her profits. But each day, all day long, she sits on a corner of her cloth, knits, talks with her vendor-friends and hopes.  Just enough to feed her hungry family tonight is all she needs. She stacks her vegetables in little pyramids to show them off. Each day begins with hope.


An umbrella in the rain, a change purse in a knotted corner, a damp cloth for a sick child, bath towels, picnic carriers and so much more. The fabric of the African woman is everywhere and colorful. Like the women of Africa I so admire—ever resourceful, ever creative, always in service.


Celebrating strong women,