Readers may have noticed a new set of icons used in the page tagging in Travel Africa, introduced in issue 85. These were created specially for us by the team at Tribal Textiles, a wonderful enterprise based in Mfuwe, near South Luangwa National Park, Zambia, as part of our mission to showcase authentic African creative talent.
We’ve long been fans of Tribal Textiles’ hand-painted fabrics and soft furnishings, which fuse traditional African art with contemporary designs. Indeed, we have more of their cushion covers than we have cushions, bringing a much valued touch of Africa to our Oxfordshire home.
We love that each piece is unique, created by an individual living in one of our favourite places on the continent. It is this personal touch we wanted to bring to the pages of Travel Africa.
Tribal Textiles began life in 1991, under a big acacia tree in a small safari camp on the banks of the Luangwa River. With limited resources, no electricity or running water, Tribal slowly grew with the support of local safari operators and tourism.
Today it provides sustainable employment, fair wages and economic empowerment to approximately 100 local people. The company is one of the biggest employers in the Luangwa Valley, an area where jobs are scarce. With one earner caring for an average of ten relatives, they indirectly support over 1000 people.
The production process
For visitors to South Luangwa, a stop at Tribal Textiles should be compulsory. The lively workshop, bursting with the sound of radio and laughter throughout the day, is easily accessed by visitors on their way to or from Mfuwe airport. A tour will take you through the production process, allowing you to meet some of the artisans at work, giving you a sense of the creative talent and community spirit in Mfuwe.
Inspiration for the patterns and colours comes from the surrounding natural environment as well as the rich character and traditions of the local African people.
The technique used is similar to batik: it is a relatively simple starch resist method derived from Mali mud cloth. Designs are drawn by hand onto cotton with a starch solution made by mixing flour and water. These are then dried in the sun before being hand-painted.
The paints are mixed by hand using primary pigments and a base emulsion, and colours are matched by eye to swatches created by their designer. After painting, the pieces are baked— which makes the dye colour-fast and fully washable — and washed. At this stage, the softened starch design is carefully scraped off to reveal the finished product.
The pieces are then hung up to dry in the sunshine before being sewn up into finished items and packed away for export or transferred to Tribal’s own shop.
So, who created the Travel Africa symbols ?
In the graphics created by Tribal Textiles for Travel Africa magazine, the white parts are precisely the starched and scraped bits of the designs.
They were drawn by Nelly Mphasi, pictured above, who was asked to create square pieces with a simple white symbol in the middle that would represent people, wildlife, travel and culture.
For people, she drew a Massai lady dancing, inspired by Tribal Textiles’ Ladies & Warriors’ design.
For wildlife and conservation, she selected an elephant.
For travel, she drew a map of Africa as well as one with footprints, symbolising the possibility of travelling wherever you go.
For culture, she came up with two different designs: a handprint — inspired by ancient drawings found in caves throughout Africa — and a flower in a circle.
Nelly is 40 years old and is a senior member of the Starching department, having been with the company for 16 years. She is also a very popular member of the team thanks to her wonderful sense of humour and hard work. Nelly’s favourite designs to starch are Traditional Block and Bubble; in fact she is one of only two artists who can draw this last design.
Nelly is married to another member of Tribal Textiles’ staff, Christopher, who is one of their top sewers. They live about 400 metres from the workshop in a small house with their three children. Nelly often catches a lift to work on the back of Christopher’s bicycle.
Like many of the staff members, Nelly makes an additional income through her entrepreneurial skills. Every time she travels to visit family in the nearest large town Chipata, she brings back parcels of sugar, fish and oil which she sells locally for a small profit.
Christopher also offers a tailoring service from home, so between them they are able to send all three children to the local community school, Malimba, which Tribal Textiles helps to sponsor (among it’s wider community and conservation sponsorships).
When asked what her dreams for the future are, Nelly says she wants her children to all go to college and get a great education so they can have successful careers. Nelly herself is saving up to go back to school as she didn’t finish high school and she would love to pass the exams that she missed.
So, as you turn the pages of Travel Africa, take a moment to look at the tagging symbols and think of Nelly, Christopher and the team at Tribal Textiles who have added their voice to the magazine. We are very grateful for their amazing creativity!