Textiles and Economic Development in Ghana

This month Jackie Abrams is our guest blogger. She writes about her work with textiles and economic development in Ghana and how it has impacted her basketry.

 

My earliest recollection of being intrigued with Africa was in 3rd or 4th grade. I built an African village as a class project. I remember one of the huts – cardboard wrapped with raffia. I kept that hut with me for many years but somewhere along the way it got lost.

 

In the 1970’s, I started to collect African baskets, and books of West African painted mud homes. They spoke to me in so many ways. Both the colors and the designs started to influence some of my work. One piece in particular caught the eye of a good friend and fellow WARP member, Steve Csipke. We recognized our mutual interest in Africa. He was the man who helped my dream of working in Africa become a reality.

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My first trip was in 2005. I had the incredible good fortune to make eight trips to Africa, most often to Ghana, primarily for the purpose of helping to develop micro-craft industries with women. My last three trips, in 2008 and 2009, were in the town of Pokuase, Ghana, teaching women to crochet bags using discarded plastic bags. The goal was for their crocheting enterprise to be sustainable and for them to be able to sell their work without being dependent on me. This project was possible because of the existence of Global Mamas which is a wonderful organization that supports women making handmade products. I would say we were moderately successful in achieving our goal.

 

I learned an enormous amount about fair trade, cultural mores, and how much I will never understand about Ghanaian culture. These trips changed my life and my (art) work. The word, “simplify,” best describes these changes. I could plainly see that having any kind of joy in one’s life was not dependent on ‘stuff.’ We need enough, but we don’t really need more than that. (Who can define ‘enough’?) I feel the same about my work. I have moved away from complex forms and techniques, challenging myself to express what I want to express with more simple / straightforward techniques and materials.

I was most intrigued by the women I worked with. Informed by their lives, fabrics, and stories,  my “Women Forms” series began to develop. Each vessel tells the story of a woman. Some of them stand alone, either in strength or in sorrow. Others rejoice in the company of other women – daughters, sisters, mothers, friends. The forms contain and are shaped by the woman’s layers of experience. The inside of each piece reflects her inner strengths – strengths not always visible, that may require careful looking.

 

Textiles and economic development in ghana
Jackie Abrams

I went to Africa with the hope of enabling the women I met to create better lives for themselves and their families. In the process, they did the same for me.

Jackie Abrams just ended her term as a WARP board member. After many years as a travelling instructor, she now focuses her time on her studio practice.

Please enjoy more information about Jackie’s beautiful work at- www.jackieabrams.com

And many more stories at- http://www.jackieabrams.com/africa.html

The Value of a WARP Membership

Jackie Abrams in Nambia
Jackie Abrams with Frieda Nakanyala, who works on her baskets every day, until it is dark. As a child, she made them to sell so that she could buy clothing. At age 75, she makes baskets for gifts, trade, and for use in the homestead.

When Jackie Abrams stumbled upon the WARP booth at Convergence, the biannual conference of the Handweaver’s Guild of America, she knew she had found her tribe. She joined WARP right away. A contemporary basket weaver, Jackie appreciated the value of working with your hands. “My first trip to Ghana, Africa, was with a Cross Cultural Collaborative. I was entranced, but I wanted to be more than a tourist. My daughter was in the Peace Corps in Nambia. When I visited her, I was delighted to see that Africa was a basket makers paradise.”

It was not long after that that Cheryl Musch, WARP’s administrator at the time, was going through the directory looking for someone to recommend to SERRV to help with project evaluation in Africa. “It doesn’t hurt that my last name starts with ‘A’ “, said Jackie, who was thrilled when Cheryl got in touch.

Janet and Mercy practice their crochet skills
Plastic bags litter the countryside in Pokuase, Ghana, home to the KamiAmi people. Two local women, Janet and Mercy, practice their crochet skills making the most out of the resources they have.

That connection opened an entire world for Jackie. Since that time, she has traveled to Africa many times, mostly in Ghana. Jackie is interested in using reclaimed materials in her own work. In Ghana, plastic bags litter the countryside. Jackie experimented with different craft techniques and found that crochet was an excellent way to use this abundant resource.  “The bags were primarily black, which is unusual in the United States. For one project we created totes made from the uniquely colored bags.”

Through WARP Jackie is able to commune others that share the same kind of passion for working with with women where craft work is a way to provide for their families.  “Not every program works, with each experience I learn a little bit more about what it takes to be successful—strong in-country leadership, connections to markets, and quality control, are all vital.”

Jackie is now on the board of WARP.  “The small amount I pay every year for this extraordinary organization is worth every penny.”

To read more about Jackie’s work as a consultant visit her website.  To purchase your own Ghanian basket and read about one of the projects Jackie worked on with SERRV, click here. To join WARP or renew your membership, visit our website.

A Connecting Thread

Joan Ruane has championed cotton spinning for decades. A chance e-mail from a local woman in Uganda created a connection between Joan and a group of crocheters. We asked Joan if she would share her experience with us.

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Allen Nansubuga, founder of Crocet4Life in the small village of outside of Kampala, Uganda, took a chance and e-mailed Joan Ruane, an avid cotton spinner and educator in the United States to ask if she could assist them to utilize their native cotton. Using only the internet, they found a way!

Allen Nansubuga, founder of Crocet4Life in the small village of outside of Kampala, Uganda, e-mailed me in in February of 2012 to ask if I could assist them in utilizing their native cotton. She had stumbled upon my website and thought perhaps I could help her solve a supply problem. 

Allen, a cancer survivor and an electrical engineer by training, works with School Net Uganda and World Links for Development as a technology specialist. Acrylic yarns were all the women had to work with, but cotton grew all around them. Allen wondered if I could help them turn that cotton into yarn that they could use for their crochet projects.

My first step was to mail Allen ten takli spindles and my DVD called Cotton Spinning on the Takli. Within less than two weeks of receiving the spindles, I received photos of the yarn Allen had spun and said she was ready to teach others!

With the support of many fiber friends, the group now has workspace that boasts five spinning wheels, cotton carders, two rigid-heddle looms, and a variety of other tools and equipment. The group meets every Saturday.

About every other month, I send out a package of supplies. What we take for granted like masks, gloves, dye equipment, and buttons are all treasures to them. I wrap the supplies in children’s clothes, cloth bags, or old towels. Everything is used and appreciated!

Allen keeps me abreast of what is happening and sends weekly photos of the groups progress. It is so gratifying that, via e-mails, I can still teach the women the skills they need to be successful. For instance, when Allen first started to ply her singles, I recognized that she was plying in the same direction as the yarn was spun causing the yarn to be unusable. I quickly told her to ply in the opposite direction. She once complained that it took so long to weave. I realized that she was not using the rigid heddle to lift and lower the warp yarns. You can feel the smiles come through my e-mails with each new skill they master!

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The women of Crochet4Life at work in their new space.

It has been a wonderful journey with Allen and her Crochet4Life group. In June of 2013, Allen’s group was approved as an official non-governmental organization (NGO) associated with the United Nations. Since Crochet4Life was started using one fiber technique, but now also incorporates spinning and weaving, Allen wanted all fiber artists to be welcome. The official NGO name is Fiber Your World Uganda. The group has grown to 30 women and still expanding.

Who knew how one email would change my life and theirs for the better.

—Joan Ruane

To learn more about this group and how you can help, e-mail Joan at spincotton@yahoo.com and put Crochet4Life in the subject line. Like to hear more stories about the connections being made between fiber enthusiasts? Like our Facebook page! WARP’s 2015 membership drive is underway; click here to become a member today!