White Gold: Tracing Cotton and Fashion in Africa
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White Gold: Tracing Cotton and Fashion in Africa
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Mali: Small Loans, Big Impact

African fashion entrepreneurs are attempting to breath new life into Mali's declining cotton industry. Mali is one of the largest countries in Africa and also one of the poorest; the country is dependent on money from cotton to pay for food and basic social services like schools and housing. But could traditional cloth-making skills hold the key to a more prosperous future?

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By Amanda Martinez.

Originally featured in the ViewChange Online Film Contest.


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Segment 1

Johannesburg, South Africa
A glittering global event, Joburg fashion week promotes an industry that brings USD$4 billion to South Africa alone. Here, African designers show new versions of traditional cloth, creating collections that appeal to local and international markets. The result: garments that are modern but rooted in an African way of life. Traditional prints have put Africa on the fashion map, and the developing textile industry promises to do much more: become a lifeline for one of the world’s poorest countries, Mali. On the streets of Bamako, the capital and fashion center of Mali, local craftsmen turn backyards into makeshift workshops. Using techniques passed down through generations, Malians make one of the best-known African cloths around the world: bogolan. Artisans like Bakary Diallo make large quantities of the cloth purely to be sold in tourist markets.
SHALWAH [Reporter]
Who usually comes in to buy pieces like this?
Foreigners buy this. Among them, Americans, Europeans, all over the world. Even Arab countries.
But, for some, it’s far more than tourist souvenirs.
AWA MEITE [Fashion Designer]
I wanted to find a link between my two favorite materials.
Awa Meite is one of Mali's leading designers.
This is handmade, this is unique, so this is really the identity of Mali, and we want to share what we know how to do with people from here and people from elsewhere.
Mali has the design and the materials, so much cotton they call it "white gold." As one of the largest exporters of cotton in Africa, the sales fund everything from schools, hospitals, and agriculture. Moro Diakite, development director for the state's cotton company, is fighting to keep cotton in high production.
MORO DIAKITE [Development Director, Cotton, Mali]
Helping cotton in Mali is like fighting poverty. I think that cotton is the main product of development in Mali.
So, what’s the problem? There is little infrastructure here. With little equipment or capital to build up the industry, fabric dyers are forced to buy back cotton cloth from China, Germany, and Austria. Awa Meite had an idea: produce cotton cloth inside the country using small-scale, traditional techniques.
Now, they are transforming it, they are not just growing it. They are being trained to weave cotton, and I will get that cotton for my collections.
Awa hired Bourama Traore, an experienced weaver, to teach the women the skills.
Those who do the work on the farm normally don't benefit from it. We will produce cotton here and transform it here in different forms. That's the reason why we are transforming cotton to make clothes and other things.
All these women you see used to produce cotton, but they didn’t know how to transform it. When we are here, the women are happy to learn weaving. We do not come to play here. This is a working place.
We will make clothes and sell them. Now all we need are the customers.
American designer Brenda Winstead uses Malian cloth for her Washington DC-based fashion label.
BRENDA WINSTEAD [Fashion designer]
For me, it's very important to deal with the source, to come back to work with an artist that does everything natural, and here the women are so pleased because it gives them income when they work on my order, and I’m happy, I’m happy about that.
If we could transform 30 percent of the national production, it would be value added.
We want to be part of development. We want part of a process in order to show another face of Africa and Africans.
It’s a process much in need on this continent: sustaining traditional cultures, celebrating artistic genius, and building a truly African economy.