🇺🇸 Why Ankara, the “wax print” is INDEED an African fabric ?

Oct 29, 2018 · 10 min read

Following numerous articles and videos “revealing” that the “wax print” or ankara fabrics “is not African” (but Dutch or Indonesian or Chinese, whatever), we looked, stunned, to the uprise of this position. Despite the fact that , in our humble opinion, it is a useless debate, the recurrence of it forced us to recognize the interest it sparks. We are going to expose why we think the wax fabric is indeed African from a symbolic, historical and even more economical point of view!

However, we would like to point out that we had to join this debate for several reasons:

  • by pure subjectivity: because those who “denounce” that the wax is not African are, generally, not African themselves or simply make their business to distance themselves from an African fabric which “they are tired of ” and / or who reflects an “unauthentic, dated, appropriated endlessly” image of Africa, and OVERALL only worthy of the popular plebs, not “the true enlightened connoisseurs ”. Being ourselves notorious servants of the plebs and promoters of a majority of sellers using Ankara print… we had not much choice, actually 😅
  • by intellectual honesty: because the simplified sophism of “an origin = an identity” irritated us for far too long on many other subjects. It is therefore time to attack head-on with arguments and pragmatic reasoning.
  • because most of the value of this “controversy” lies, as often, in the “sensational surprise” and “shock value” that produces the “revelation” of the origin or the domination of “foreign” brands. So hang in there, we will punching heavy too!
  1. The “origin” argument and associated symbolism
Do you see a German 🇧🇪 OR an Amercian🇺🇸recipe ? ©Buger Joint Edmonton

A bit of history is needed then, taking the example of the famous Hamburger. This dish is today undeniably the spearhead of the “fast food” culture and by extension of the American “gastronomy”. However, the Hamburger is a dish originally created in Germany, so German by origin!

Like the Berliner for Berlin, the “Hamburg-er” refers to the city of Hamburg in Germany. It was then probably brought by German immigrants and subsequently popularized in the USA. A bit like the Ghanaian soldiers were the first to bring back Indonesian batik, which they simply liked and were popularized in Africa.
The mere revelation of this may make you look like a scholar (or a boring “know-it-all”) but proves an important point: the “initial” origin or even the propagation mechanism is today nothing more than an anecdotal discussion point, and certainly not a basis for defining identity. This is true that we talk about gastronomy or textiles, even more when we talk about individuals. Simply enough, I invite you to try to convince anyone around you that a burger is a German dish, good luck! It’s just like trying to limit a Malian who grew up in France in a “box” as “native Malian”, “non Malian”, or “toubab” for the most affectionate in Africa. It is possible, explainable but simplistic because it is very far from the complex reality of an identity.

To come back to our subject then:

“The Wax fabric is just as Dutch/Indonesian as the Hamburger is German”.

And this historical / gastronomic anecdote goes beyond a mere fortuitous comparison. Our dear Rokhaya Diallo has developed a similar argument, but with the French ratatouille, on the same subject of the appropriation conversation behind the wax print!

We took the example of the “Burger” because today it is the unofficial emblem of American culture, just as the wax fabric is becoming that of African culture. It is not only a matter of thinking historically, but of recognizing the preponderance of usage and the association of an object and a culture in the mind. It is therefore important for anyone who wants to value the African culture to recognize, respect, and even use the undeniable place of the Ankara fabric in the minds of everyone around the world, not just in the West but also in Africa and everywhere else. It is likely that if you showed a wax loincloth to a Japanese, he automatically thinks it’s an African fabric. This may be disputed from a historical point of view, but can not change the image associated with the said fabric. And it would be a pity to ignore or worse snub such an advantage into the common spirit. Because, yes , history can serve the constitution of an identity. But history alone can rarely fight daily associations in one mind.

It is just as fruitless to ask an African to disown Ankara fabric because “it comes from Holland” than to tell an average American that McDonalds is appropriating German gastronomy!

Our position at Afrikrea.com is that it is worth using this association to easily mark the spirits. Then, once we have enough “brand equity”, we can work to expand this place and what is associated with it. Change comes from the inside far more often than from the outside, no matter how violent or repetitive the stimulus. So let’s work to have a company as important in the minds of consumers as McDonald's, to expand the symbols associated with our culture.

Of course, you will say, “but McDonalds is an American company while VLISCO is a Dutch company” … which brings us to the economic argument.

2. The economic argument

This is how most detractors of Ankara fabric generally represent Dutch or Chinese companies selling this “non-African fabric”: neo-colonialists manipulating poor alienated Africans (who do not know their history and culture) … 😏
First of all, this vision omits an important reality: not all wax fabrics are made in Holland or China, but some are made in Africa, by African companies, with African employees.

One can certainly mention UNIWAX in Côte d’Ivoire and GTP in Ghana (although the companies belong to the VLISCO group), but also, CICAM in Cameroon, SOBETEX in Benin, SONITEXTILE in Niger, or BATEXCI in Mali. And these companies suffer in their development, not only of the Chinese import (which also kills the group VLISCO), but most often of an insufficiently regular consumption by the population.

So there is Ankara fabric made in Africa, by Africans for Africans, that become collateral in the current witch hunt.

In the case of BATEXCI, that we know best being Malians, we learned the regularity of the purchases were such a subject that the wax fabric that were selling the most were those made for the events: elections, international women’s day etc… This demonstrates how much these industries need support through stronger and more regular consumption, not the other way around.

Therefore, a general “denunciation” of the wax fabric will harm even more the rare and struggling African initiatives.

And as we promised “shock value”, let’s continue the reasoning by the absurd: imagine a world where nobody buys wax print, specifically Dutch or Chinese Ankara print.

It is important to remember that these companies, being very industrial, often have more employees in Africa than elsewhere. For example VLISCO has TWICE the employees in Africa (1800) than in Europe. If the company were to disappear, there would be mathematically more victims in Africa than in Europe.
And that is without counting another reality: these industrial groups rely on an extremely wide network of wholesalers, semi-wholesalers and resellers. For instance, think of “Chateau Rouge” in Paris or the Dantokpa market in Cotonou. And then you visualize that most of these resellers are original or based in Africa, and have been doing this job often for decades. In this hypothesis of the end of the “neo-colonialists”, we therefore want the loss of income and jobs by thousands of Africans, on the continent but everywhere else in the world!

Unfortunately the figures are not public, but it is objectively impossible not to realize that although the product of foreign companies, most of the Ankara value chain is African.

From employees to customers through wholesalers, boycotting the Ankara wax print would hurt Africans more than any other people.

Incidentally, it is good to remember that “boycott” does not work economically, let alone without a movement of change to carry it, as Freakonomics has shown.

But, if you persist in boycotting Ankara fabric made products, simply for reasons of taste , no worries! We have nearly 300 products for you in our selection “No Ankara Allowed” on Afrikrea.com, enjoy :

A little sample of the “No Ankara Alllowed!”selection on Afrikrea.com

3. The tradition and usage argument

Any African who has grown up in Africa, even partially, can illustrate the complex but deep relationship that binds her or him to the wax print. For me it was omnipresent and necessary to smooth the social machine or give my aunts a little economic freedom. But I must recognize that outside the holidays, I was not comfortable wearing it for many reasons. Personally, when I was in Bamako, wax was an “old popular fabric”, compared to our national treasure: the Bazin (which is also made in Germany, most often). However, the day I learned that wax was not made in Africa (just because everyone wanted the “dutch”one), I was angry.

Angry that “they are still stealing what belongs to us”. Angry that I could be called ignorant when I wore a garment wearing a bit of wax, even if I found the outfit superb and that I was covered with compliments. And it is this anger that resurfaces every time I am told today that Ankara (or Bazin for that matter) is not African. Because yes, these fabrics are part of my traditions and I felt proud to be African by wearing them. And I hope someday to make sure these fabrics allow more and more blacks to be proud and enrich themselves!

It is then out of the question that, for some historical technicalities, someone gets to deny or denigrate my attachment and millions of Africans’ to our traditions around this fabric.

Ankara was, is and will always be our fabric, period.

Anyway, let’s go back to “objective” and “rational” arguments, shall we ?

There is a recurring and partially relevant argument that also irritates the hell out of me: “Ankara snuffs the life out of traditional local fabrics like the Bogolan of Mali, the Kenté of Ghana (close to the Kita or the Baoulé loincoth of Ivory Coast), the Faso Dan Fani of Burkina Faso, the Ndop of Cameroun, the Aso-oké or Gelé of Nigeria, the Raphia of Madagascar, the Chiromani of the Comores Islands, the Masai’s Shuka of Kenya, the Kilim of North Africa or the Xhosa knitwear or the Shweswhe of South Africa.”

The argument is relevant because no one would oppose massive usage and re-appropriation of these local tissues. It is true that we must support, by buying for example, these traditional fabrics. Therefore, if you click on any of these names you will have a selection on Afrikrea.com of products containing these fabrics (or inspired by it) ! 😉

The relevance of the argument is however relative because this noble quest is “the tree that hides the forest”, for several pragmatic reasons:

  • first of all, these fabrics are generally very onerous and difficult to realize, just in man hour and raw material. Therefore, most of the time, the few purchases of this traditional fabrics are ones made on other materials or just imitating the pattern of the print , not pure authentic ones !
  • next, we have to accept and say again loudly that the wax fabric is now woven in the African traditions and habits. As a Malian, I can harly imagine how my mother, my aunts and my cousins would do at each wedding or social event if they could not offer or buy wax fabric. This symbolique is especially important today that for a lot of Africans, the most popular Ankara patterns often echoes to memories of the parents or grand parents, including in the diaspora.
  • finally, the wax print has an inherent advantage compared to the other African fabrics: the versatility of its patterns. The bogolan for instance, even printed on other materials is quite limited in patterns to be recognizable, contrarily to the wax that has this ubiquity of patterns that makes it recognizable and memorable no matter the fabric.

This versatility has also another advantage shared by Anne Grosfilley (doctor of anthropology, specialized in textile and fashion in Africa): the “pan-African” federation that allows Ankara !

Whatever one does, at some point Kenté will always be associated with Ghana, Bogolan to Mali etc …

It is because it is not anchored to one country or local culture in particular dans the Ankara/wax fabric manages to have this identity strength and echo, throughout the whole continent, and even the diaspora !

If you want to know more about all the meanings, subtleties and rich history of this famous African fabric, we invite you to read Anne’s Wax & Co! For instance, you can read our favorite parts about the meaning given to the different prints by the Nana Benz and other African women, showing that the appropriation of wax is so deep that we made an African language support !

Finally, trying naively to push Africans or blacks to consume them simply by “conscience” or “solidarity” is to ignore the practicality or just the tastes of everyone in the name of the supposed “black or African consciousness” … good luck as well !
The best summary that can be found to conclude this point is one of the answers to this useless debate by one of the spearheads of African fashion, our dear Maureen of Nanawax :

To conclude, in our opinion, the wax fabric is indeed African because it is one of the most vibrant examples of appropriation by the Africans, which has a worldwide echo. The Ankara print is African because it is made for Africans, sometimes by Africans(sometimes not), but almost always sold by them. And as a bonus, the whole world associates it with our culture ! So it would be suicidal from an economic point of view to denigrate it and fallacious to the possible to deny it an Africanity that was built over the decades.

There is still a long way to go to ensure that this ownership benefits Africans entirely, but this will only happen if we consume and sell more wax, not the opposite.

As with music, it is up to us to fight to ensure that this global trend of “Ankara fever” is not an ephemeral fad that we are moving away from, but a wave that takes African culture as a whole to new historical, economic and symbolic heights.

- — — -
Thank you for reading, and if you liked these words, or just found the perspective interesting, you can “clap clap” up to 50 times to show it , and share it around you!

Afrikrea’s Blog

Le Blog Afrikrea.com : opinions, analyses et conseils sur la mode africaine l’entrepreneuriat créatif et les startups


Written by

Cofounder @Afrikrea aka “Kal-El”, African, casually French, aspirant Japanese and doing what he can to live up to his ambitions.

Afrikrea’s Blog

Le Blog Afrikrea.com : opinions, analyses et conseils sur la mode africaine l’entrepreneuriat créatif et les startups

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade