By Mobolaji Olambiwonnu
So here’s my thing…Africa is not the motherland. Don’t go there expecting people to be any more happy you came to visit than any brotha or sista you meet on the street in your city. People have got lives, and yes, that includes Africans. They have no more memory of our history than we do of theirs. Or, even worse, like many of us, they don’t know history at all and could care less what happened in the past when they can’t make a living in the present.
I recently went to Accra, Ghana for the first time to set up my clothing business. I have traveled to many parts of Africa over the years since moving to the United States at the age of 9 from Nigeria. Before you think that my having traveled and lived in Africa makes me different than you, think again. The only differences between you and me are that I know how to prepare for what some would consider eventualities, and I know not to expect anything different from Africans than I do from black people anywhere else in the world.
That being said, Accra is one of the most inspiring African cities I have visited. Perhaps my expectations are low after having spent years dealing with disorganized and overcrowded cities in Nigeria. Either way, I was impressed.
I found myself walking the streets in most major parts of the city, even at night, and feeling safe. I can’t even do this in my neighborhood in Los Angeles. So much for all that talk about Africa being such a dangerous place. Yes, there are parts of the continent that are dangerous, but who talks about the parts that aren’t?
I chose Accra because I had heard about its reputation for safety, cleanliness and hospitality. I heard that corruption had not completely dominated their economy and that if you wanted to do business in English speaking Africa, it could be done there with some level of success. Still, this city exceeded my expectations.
I had a few thousand dollars, less than a handful of contacts, and roughly 10 days to make good on my promise to produce and carry home 100 shirts. How was I going to do this without knowing a soul? I mean, I am in Africa, where people are notorious for what I will kindly refer to as slow-paced living.
I wasn’t sure, but like many foolish believers in the “universal nature of the human spirit” (whatever that means), I was committed to having a go at it. I knew the first thing I had to do when I landed on Saturday evening was to call everyone I had on my list and begin to ask questions about who they knew that sold fabric and sewed garments. I soon found out that this is clearly a process that can get you in trouble. Why?
African standards and styles are different than what we expect in the West. I found myself with a glut of tailors that made perfectly nice traditional African wear, but not cowboy shirts. I needed people who could make cowboy shirts – African Cowboy shirts.
Besides the miracle of having people return my calls on the day of or by the next day when I asked them to (in a nice American accent), I decided that I would have to visit some of these tailors, see what they had made and test them out. First I needed fabric.
One mistake I made was taking a male guide. This doubled the amount of time necessary to find good quality cloth at the right price. Ultimately, his resourcefulness balanced this out (wink). One thing that you must remember when you are dealing with any country from the Global South, what some in the West call the “third world,” is that everyone can “get you what you want,” or will die trying just so they can be the one to make a buck off of you and not the next man. This can be a good quality, but in this case, time was of the essence.
Rather than get into all the details, let’s just say I chose a cross section of fabrics and decided I would let the tailor tell me what he or she thought was the best. This gave me an opportunity to test his ability to make western garments. The only problem with that strategy was that my phone calls had yielded me 16 tailors. I had 24 hours to get what some tailors would take two weeks to do.
With breakneck speed (in Accra traffic), I went to visit each of the 16 tailors over the next 2 days to see what they could do. As I spoke with each of them, I discerned that this was going to be a horrible waste of fabric and time if I did not attempt to read past the “Oh, sure I can do it…I’m the best” statements. The only weapon I had was my patterns. I pulled them out and placed them in front of each tailor to see if they drew a sweat. Any tailor worth his salt should certainly be able to read one of these patterns, I thought. Well, not quite. Reading a pattern and following it are apparently two distinct actions that are not necessarily related when you are asked to move faster than you ever thought was possible.
“Sir, they took the power all day yesterday and I couldn’t work.” “But my wife got sick and I had to take care of her.” “My cousin with the club foot didn’t show up to help like I had expected.” The excuses rolled out like water. Not that they couldn’t be true, but my Pan-Africanism was on a time schedule. I was down to 6 tailors and I knew that I probably need at least 10 under the best circumstances.
I’ll cut to the chase here and say that, with the help of the committed guide who knew very little about fabric, I was able to secure twelve tailors and 120 shirts by the end of my 10 + day trip. So, don’t believe the hype. Good things are possible in Africa, and while they may not have felt like I was their long lost brother, or believed in my idealistic dream of raising the consciousness about Africa through clothing, or creating sustainable models of capitalism in urban centers across the continent, they still got the work done and I still am able to make a difference.
Maybe someday they’ll have the time to listen to my theories on what would make a difference in Africa. Perhaps when I have provided them a means of making a good living they will understand. But, most essentially, I listened to what was important to them and discovered what was possible when I put aside my preconceived notions about Africa.
Mobolaji is the founder of “African Cowboy: Cross-Cultural Dialogue Through Clothing” and is committed to a new conversation about Africa that focuses on what works rather than what doesn’t. You can take part in the African cowboy or cowgirl experience at www.AfricanCowboyClothing.com.