Ancient indigo dye pits barely survive in Nigeria

KANO, Nigeria (Reuters) - For 500 years the dyers of Kano have crouched over circular pits near the mud city wall, plunging fabrics into water infused with indigo.

A boy rests is front of shops in the old market of Kano April 24, 2007. Many working children in towns are engaged in different activities like street traders or apprentices to artisans and most start working between the ages of five and nine and continued into adulthood. REUTERS/Radu Sigheti

The purple cotton of Kano was once famous throughout Africa’s arid Sahel belt, in the days when the Nigerian emirate was a center of trans-Saharan trade in salt and gold, rivaling the fabled riches of Timbuktu.

Now more than 100 pits have fallen into disrepair and many of them are clogged with refuse and stones.

“Before it was much busier here,” said chief dyer Hamidan Uba Zango, a glassy-eyed 80-year-old who has worked in the pits since he was six.

“There is foreign competition everywhere. Before there was no foreign cloth in Africa, but now it comes from China, England, Holland.”

Founded in 1498, the Kofar Mata pits are said to be the oldest in Africa and are the only survivor of Kano’s dye trade -- which once included 13 pit complexes. Close to the royal palace, its colors have adorned the fabrics of Kano’s traditional rulers for centuries.

Zango inherited the traditional title Sarkin Karofi, or chief of the dyers, three years ago. He still believes there is a future for his trade because the hand-woven local cotton is much stronger than imported machine fabrics, he says.

Squatting on the far side of the pits, two lean blue-robed figures, their faces swathed in black turbans, haggle with one of the dyers. “The Tuaregs still come. They remain good customers,” chuckles Zango, nodding towards them.

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Known as the blue men of the desert, Tuareg of Mali take their nickname from their billowing indigo robes.

“For most customers we soak the cloth in salt and vinegar to fix the color, but for the Tuaregs we leave it natural so that when it is washed, it dyes their faces and hands blue,” said Yusuf Sani, a guide. “That is how they got their name.”

The dying process has not changed in centuries: water and ash, to give the dye a glaze, is mixed with potassium, to fix the color. Finally, dried indigo twigs are added and the whole mixture is fermented in a six-meter deep pit for four weeks.

The garments are then dipped in the dye for between 30 minutes and six hours, depending on the depth of color desired. Every minute, they must be taken out so that oxygen can aid the coloring process.

On a good day, one of the sixty dyers who work here could earn 2,000 naira ($15) dying five garments -- a good wage in a country where most of the 140 million people live on much less than a dollar a day. These days, the workers also have chemical dyes to produce different colors such as red, orange and brown.

“When you have used the new dyes once, you have to throw away the water, while the traditional dye you can use for a year,” said Sani. “The new dyes are poisonous, but the old ones you can use as medicine.”

Once an indigo pit has been exhausted, the sludgy residue at the bottom is dredged out and burned: the ashes are used to alleviate pregnancy pains and make other traditional remedies.

Despite the stiff competition from abroad and changing materials, Zango believes Kano’s dye pits will always find a niche for the discerning customer.

Yo Palisdan is one such man. He traveled hundreds of miles from the dunes of neighboring Niger in search of Zango’s fabrics.

“The materials here are better than what you find in Niger,” he said, only his eyes showing behind his black headgear.