Preserving Indigo and Woven Grass Practices in Northern Ghana

TAMALE, Ghana — Two remarkable journeys unfold amidst the gentle rustle of golden grasses as the first light of dawn illuminates the vast Northern area of Ghana. One group of natural dye artists embark on a ritual, venturing into the wild and delicately harvesting young indigo leaves. The other group crosses the White Volta River with a canoe to retrieve imported yarns to be transformed by age-old traditional techniques into narrow indigo-colored strips fit for loom weaving. One hundred and thirty miles further north, in the town of Bolgatanga, seasoned basket weavers eagerly await the arrival of elephant grass, harvested and dried in the central forest belt of the country. In these early hours, the pace is set for the artisanal skills ingrained in these communities to not only preserve cultural identity but also reshape the socio-economic landscape of the region for generations to come.

Northern Ghana comprises five regions: Savannah, Northern, North East, Upper East, and Upper West. The area is populated by over five million people, according to the last Population and Housing Census in 2021 conducted across the five regions by the Ghana Statistical Service. Nonetheless, Northern Ghana consistently records some of the highest unemployment rates in the nation. The 2016 Ghana Poverty and Inequality Report also concluded that the Northern regions have consistently experienced among the nation’s highest poverty rates with little improvement since 1992.

Some experts have labeled this situation an effect of policies targeting food production alone. However, Northern Ghana has adapted and remained resilient in the face of a lack of investment in infrastructure, industry, and educational resources.

Tijani Shaihu Muhammad Mudasir, an esteemed Islamic scholar in the town of Daboya located in the Savannah region beside the White Volta River, leads the rich tradition of indigo dyeing.

Descended from one of the three families renowned for pioneering indigo dyeing in the country, Mudasir spearheads the efforts to harvest indigo leaves, seeds, and flowers. This community-based enterprise — involving dyeing, loom weaving, and sewing — not only yields vibrant colors but also sustains the livelihoods of many of Daboya’s residents, Mudasir told Hyperallergic.

Working against the clock to preserve the plants’ pigment, Mudasir and his associate, Baidulahi Abdul Aziz, pound and shape the indigo leaves into balls after four-hour harvesting expeditions, which Mudasir says occurs almost daily. They leave the balls to the sun’s watchful gaze for two weeks and then stir them twice daily for four to five days with a blend of wood ash and mud balls until they achieve the desired hue.

Mudasir commented on minimal resources hindering the indigo dyeing industry’s ability to modernize and compete in the global market, particularly as unpredictable weather patterns and natural climate instability impact indigo plant growth, access to the community, and production output. He added that a “yarn manufacturing company and bridge over the river would attract more people to do business in Daboya.”

Meanwhile, in the Upper East Region’s capital city of Bolgatanga, stalks of dried veta vera, also known as elephant grass, are split, twisted, dyed, and knotted by men and women to create Bolga baskets, named after the city itself. Though traditionally used to sift and store millet grains, today these bio-degradable baskets are sold throughout Ghana and around the world in the form of interior decor items, planters, purses, baby carrier baskets, and shopping and laundry bags.

Farmer and climate activist Irene Konlan, originally from Bolgatanga and now living in the city of Tamale, is interested in highlighting Bolga bags as an alternative to single-use plastic. She told Hyperallergic that planting the veta vera grass in Bolgatanga would allow the weavers, who are forced to travel to nearby towns to source the straw, easier access to raw materials and change the economic circumstances of the city and the rest of the Northern regions.

“So many orders remain unfulfilled,” she explained. “And that farming angle could entice the youth who consider the basket weaving a skill for only the older generation.”

According to Konlan, the city’s three-month rainy period from May to August and the subsequent dry season from September to April supply a perfect case study.

“We enjoy the rainy season for a short while, and then the weather becomes so hot we practically have to sit under trees. Those periods slow productivity, especially as we are hit hardest by climate change and its accompanying heatwaves,” she said. “But, while the old people weave, others can plant, and the rest can sell.”

Putting her plan into action, Konlan has begun engaging the weavers she grew up around to plant the elephant grass themselves — a sustainable approach she believes will maximize the business model.

The revival of traditional crafts like indigo dyeing and Bolga basket weaving holds the promise of transforming the often overlooked and marginalized regions into vibrant economic hubs. By leveraging these local creations as avenues for sustainable livelihoods, and with the right strategic support and promotion, the centuries-old industries could emerge as key drivers of inclusive development, economic opportunities, and global investments in Northern Ghana.

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