African but not anymore: How the Chinese captured the kitenge, and other unique things we have lost along the way

Mass production, globalisation and modernisation have taken away some of Africa's most precious treasures.

The left column of the website was titled “country of suppliers”, and never had the list looked more baffling. This was a search for various African artefacts yet the country that consistently featured at the top of the list was China.

While we all know that China is mass-producing anything that you can think of, in Africa’s case it gets particularly sad when the products are those whose history is steeped in cultural heritage. These objects’ existence was closely intertwined with the traditions and lifestyles of those who carefully crafted them – but now they have been cast aside by cheap replicas. Traditional beads, drums and textiles are just a few of these that have been “lost along the way” due to mass production.

But mass production is not the only way things have been lost along the way. Modernisation and globalisation have, like everywhere in the world, fundamentally shifted our environment, the way businesses operate and people communicate. This has reverberated throughout African societies usurping ancient languages and cultivating new ways of doing things.

Over the past 100 years a lot has changed, but these are some of the most poignant losses to the African continent:

The Kitenge
December 2004 marked the end of the Multi-Fibre Arrangement—a 30-year old quota system for textile and garment exports from developing countries to developed countries. Across Africa, textile producers and exporters reeled as the sector was opened up to market forces. By the end of 2005, the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers’ Federation reported that more than 250,000 jobs were lost, leaving more than a million family members without stable incomes. One textile that particularly stood out was the kitenge. Worn by women throughout eastern Africa, the kitenge is a brightly coloured attractive wax-dyed garment which is worn as wraps, head scarves and fashioned into various clothes. Even though the material continues to be hugely popular in the region, the vast majority now comes from far away lands. 

Local print-cloth industries, which were once the backbone of post-independence manufacturing sectors in Africa, are today in steep decline throughout sub-Saharan Africa. For example in Kenya, by  2001, the domestic manufacture of kitenge ended. This was largely due to the importation of cheaper Asian kitenge, and the country today relies on the importation of the cloth from Asia to meet its export apparel manufacturing needs.

For thousands of years across the continent of Africa, beads have been used as elaborate adornment for the body, prestigious trade items and were also used for royal regalia. They played a role in communicating various messages on social status, religion and for aesthetics. Today, China has the monopoly on 21st century bead production. Even though many of these beads represent intricate forms of unique symbolism, today they are churned out to meet international and local demand. One example of this are coral beads, popular in West Africa. These beads are traditionally worn for marriage and are also as an indication of social standing and power. Nigerian women have been known to spend up to $9,000 for a coral bead necklace. Now imitations, with synthetic beads, can be purchased from China, available for between $5-$20.

Similarly in Kenya, when a 10% excise duty on jewelry was scrapped, the market was flooded with cheap finished Chinese beads that hurt some established small traders by undercutting prices. Today, when walking through Nairobi’s open-air “Maasai Market”, thousands of bead products are on display but locally made beaded jewelry is being displayed side by side with the imported ones.

African drums are not just associated with drumming or entertainment; they hold a deeper more symbolic meaning. They are almost always an accompaniment for any manner of ceremony and historically they were even used to stir emotions in a battle or war. One of Africa’s most basic drum, yet one of the most influential and popular, is the Djembe drum. Created during the Malian Empire, it went on to span countries right across western Africa. It is traditionally carved from a single piece of African hardwood and topped with an animal skin. 

The making of the drum was a spiritual process with offerings made to the spirits of the trees cut down. The Djembe was originally created as a sacred drum to be used in healing ceremonies, rites of passage, ancestral worship, warrior rituals, as well as social dances. Today, the traditions of the drums have been lost, the djembe is used as an accompaniment in western music and the “African” drum is really made in factories from Bali to China or Pakistan. Those who buy the drum today are usually unaware of the traditional use and purpose of the drum because it’s history is hardly documented.

Traditionally used as fishing boats, pirogues are a type of wooden dugout canoe. Perfected over decades, this lightweight craft was designed to allow it to move through very shallow water and easily tipped over to empty out any water that might get into it and light enough to pull onto land. In Madagascar the pirogue was traditionally made using long tree logs or pieces of wood from mountain forests that a soothsayer would have identified. The making of the pirogue would then be carried out by two male relatives or ‘blood brothers’. At times a route was carved through the forest down to the sea by which the big pieces of wood would be transported. Once there, the work would begin all carefully crafted by hand. Today because of extensive deforestation that has seen original forest cover reduced to only about 12%, fewer pirogues are made this way and are increasingly replaced by fiberglass models.

According to the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), Africa is the most linguistically diverse continent in the world. People speak close to 2,000 different languages which is a third of the world’s linguistic heritage. This high quantity of languages means that not all of them will have high numbers of speakers – up to 300 of these languages have less than 10,000 speakers which puts them on the UN’s endangered list, 37 are “critically” endangered and likely to die out completely in the next few years. To date, 51 African languages have already gone extinct.

The oral tradition of storytelling has always been a part of African culture. It has made it possible for a culture to pass on knowledge, experiences and history from generation to generation. While it still exists in some West African nations such as Guinea and Burkina Faso, it is slowly dying in other parts of the continent. As societies modernise and change, storytelling has slowly ebbed out and people have less time to listen to a person perform and orate fantasy images of the past. There have been some attempts to preserve the tradition – stories are recorded and translated for consumption by a modern audience –but as a result it has lost the fluid spontaneity that distinguished storytelling.


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