Kenya: Years of history and symbolism woven into Kitenge fabric

By Kang-Chun Cheng

Posted on Wednesday, 13 April 2022 15:29
Ruth Abade at her open air studio in Kisumu, where she is working to revive the process of hand-printing batik textiles. (photo: Kang-Chun Cheng)
Ruth Abade at her open air studio in Kisumu, where she is working to revive the process of hand-printing batik textiles. (photo: Kang-Chun Cheng)

African fabrics come from countless sources across the continent, including that of colonisers. They are unmistakably bold and colourful, yet the true identity of such fabrics such as Kenya's kitenge, remains vague. How did items of such cultural significance become watered down in the machinations of globalised trade?

Underneath the sprawling limbs of a glorious African olive tree, Ruth Abade has set up her own outdoor studio. All day, she painstakingly paints wax onto cotton fabric by hand, inch by inch. A jiko (charcoal burner) by her feet keeps the pot of wax heated and fluid. The painted wax will then resist-dyeing, allowing for selective colouring as the wax is removed by boiling water later on. The work is methodical yet creative, time-consuming in a way that requires not only patience, but a vision.

Abade trained in design in Milan. Her tailoring shop, Black Fly Design, riffs between Nairobi’s Kibera slum and the gentrified Kilimani neighbourhood, tucked away in the depths of the famous mitumba (second-hand clothing) Toi Market. She is dedicated to her craft. An opportunity to step away from her self-made business led her to Kisumu, a relaxed town on the shores of Lake Victoria. Nyanza Province is not only the county of her upbringing, but also a historically vital axis where imported goods earmarked for Western Kenya’s rural markets were consolidated for taxation by the colonial government.

Distancing herself from a frenetic Nairobi allows her to wholly focus on fabric printing, a technique known as batik. She has also begun hosting workshops to train other local artisans from across East Africa as a way to encourage independence so they don’t have to rely on imported fabrics, which can become prohibitively expensive after taxes and import fees. For Abade, batik is not only about formulating a livelihood, but preserving a cultural tradition on the verge of slipping into disuse.

Ruth Abade at her open-air studio in Kisumu, where she is working to revive the process of hand-printing batik textiles. (photo: Kang-Chun Cheng)

Significance beyond trade

Kenya’s apparel and textile industry is an important sector of the nation’s economic development. It is one that has played a critical role in developing cultural identity since the country’s independence in 1963. By the 1980s, the textile industry was Kenya’s top manufacturing sector, making up 30% of the manufacturing workforce, yet the growth of domestic textile manufacturers was ephemeral.

In addition to market liberalisation and national mismanagement, the legalisation of imported second-hand clothing in the 1990s contributed to the collapse of Kenya’s local textile industry.

China doesn’t really see itself as a trigger or driver of development in the European traditional sense.

Domestic production ceased altogether in 2001, as the importation of mitumba increased by 32% from 1998-2002. A 2015 report by the World Bank found that of Kenya’s 52 textile mills, only 15 are currently operational at less than 45% capacity. Deepening ties with China has meant cheap items from there have flooded foreign markets.

 The origin of African fabrics

Kitenge, one of many different types of coloured African print textiles (whose names are dependent on origin, production process, and fabric), has a complicated history.

Despite its strong association with Kenyan identity, kitenge was originally imported from Holland. Akin to batik, kitenge also originates from Indonesia, an island country with its own layered history of acculturation as well as cultural and linguistic amalgamation. Dutch colonisation facilitated the export of these textiles abroad, marked by the Berlin Conference of 1885 when European nations segmented East Africa into disparate spheres of influence.

Africans are realising that African print is not only worn by old people. It’s diversifying into more European styles.

Even within the textile industry, there is also the history of immigrant competition. Many indentured Indian labourers who were constructing the Kenya-Uganda railway in the early 20th century opted to reside in Kisumu upon project completion. In due time, they moved up into the textile trade while they passed along their vocational skills to locals.

This eventually led to a brown – black divide. There were even discussions of designated trading centres to separate Africans from Asians. Kitenge was largely imported from Europe, and then India, until Kenya’s independence in 1963. To this day, tangible rivalry exists between Asian and Kenyan tradesmen.

Changes in global regulation

As regional trade in Africa was restructured, the economic environment allowed for the expansion of export apparel industries in Kenya. The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), enacted in 2000, has been the core of US economic policy and commercial engagement with the African continent.

It advocates growth through free markets and offers most sub-Saharan African firms duty-free and quota-free access to the US market. Such preferable changes in the global regulatory environment allowed for a boom in export apparel production, increasing from $8.5m in 2000 to $332m in 2014. The AGOA’s strategy is estimated to drive 95% of Kenyan textile exports.

In the meantime, China has not stepped up to engage trade policy as a development tool and is generally wary of a generalised system of preferences of production from developing nations, says Elijah Munyi, an assistant professor of International Relations at Nairobi’s United States International University-Africa. “China doesn’t really see itself as a trigger or driver of development in the European traditional sense. Granting such trade preferences might affirm its developed country status, which China isn’t ready to accept yet.”

Kitenge in the public space

The cultural symbol of kitenge in Kenya has undergone a winding journey. From the bygone days of colonial rule when colour was deemed inappropriate for formal space, to the modern days of keeping alive a traditional method, kitenge is finding its way into mainstream style.

Abade sees such a return to the traditional way. “The fashion dynamic is changing. There’s a newfound appreciation for slow fashion, which requires transparency. You can only know the origins of fabric if you do it yourself,” she says. By passing on printing knowledge, artisans can create their own value addition.

Batik, made from resist-dyeing fabric, is beautiful yet time-intensive when done in the traditional manner. (Photo: Kang-Chun Cheng)

“Style in general has changed. Africans are realising that African print is not only worn by old people. It’s diversifying into more European styles. Japan is starting to embrace African print, which wasn’t the case when I started working in this space 10 years ago,” Abade tells The Africa Report.

Reasons for China’s rise

Munyi believes that current local preferences of Kenyans and its deference to China’s domination in the global production of kitenge have not been solely driven by nationalistic ideals.

“The question for Kenyan textile production for domestic consumption is […] more about Kenyan agnostic policy on promoting consumption of domestically produced clothes rather than about China. If we can be competitive in producing clothes for the US market, how come we cannot have these similar producers competitive at home?”

China has firsthand understanding of market segmentation in a way that traditional Western powers don’t.

At present, Kenya’s textile exports constitute only between an estimated 6%-8% of all exports, yet is the only East African country projected to experience major export growth over the next decade. In 2020, China exported a total of $4.86bn to Kenya, with ‘synthetic filament yarn woven fabric’ being one of the top three products at $107m. The annual increase rate of exports is 16.6%.

Research has found that with regards to the nature of trade between Kenya and China in terms of manufactured goods (where China is currently Kenya’s leading source since overtaking India in 2014), the East Asian country has a high comparative advantage and does well in complementing Kenyan import needs.

The lack of comprehensive trade policy and strict rules of origin were identified as ‘serious challenges’ to trade, yet China’s own recent developmental history can explain why it is adept at filling niche market needs. Andrea Pollio, a researcher specialising in Sinofinancialisation and urban change, says: “China has firsthand understanding of market segmentation in a way that traditional western powers don’t.”

“As much as everyone blames the Chinese for everything, if the African market cannot keep up, we shouldn’t blame China for taking over,” says Abade. “I hate it when people complain that it’s ‘made in China’, but we still buy it. If it bothers you, do something about it.”

Defining African

The authenticity of kitenge and batik boils down to the question of what African print really is. Abade sees it both ways. “If it’s made in Africa, by Africans, the fabric is African, but the symbolic meaning also depends on the context. If someone needs 10,000 metres for a wedding, it would likely be foreign made, so not African by definition, but by context, but wouldn’t that mean that other fabrics like chiffon produced for the African market should also be African?”

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