Dirndl Travel Inspiration: Ghana
In 2007, I traveled to Ghana on a study abroad trip. All the other fashion majors were traveling to London or Paris and I was like... mmmm see ya! I'm going to West Africa #waymorefun. A large part of the curriculum for this trip was focused on textiles and Ghana has a long standing textile tradition, so it wasn't completely un-fashion-related. I was so excited about the trip, but I would never have imagined how it would eventually change my life forever. Believe it or not, this was the trip that really got me interested in studying the traditional dress of my own heritage and eventually starting this business. So thanks Ghana! The following is from my journal that I kept during my trip:
From Chicago to Accra (May 2007)
We left Chicago on Sunday May 13, 2007 and finally arrived in Accra, the capital of Ghana around 8:30 pm on Monday. As soon as we arrived at our hotel we met with a dressmaker. She brought large posters of models and all we had to do was pick out what style we liked and what colors we liked. She then took our measurements and said that when we arrived back in Accra at the end of our trip, our garments would be ready! After all the traveling all I wanted to do was get some quality sleep before my African adventure began, so that is just what I did.
First Day: Learning about Ghana's History
Our first trip was to the W.E.B. Du Bois Memorial Centre for Pan-African Culture. The center was created in 1985 as a research institution for Pan-African history and culture. William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, (W.E.B.) was an American sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, author and editor who fought against racism and discrimination. It was really cool to be in the final resting place of someone who was so important to the modern African culture.
Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park (KNMP) is a National Park in Accra, Ghana named after Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, the ''founding father'' of Ghana. Dr. Nkrumah gained independence from the British on March 6, 1957. Once he was moved to the park to rest in peace, a large monument was built over his burial place with a statue of him pointing forward which represented his saying "forward ever, backwards never". There was also a series of fountains in front of the monument which had men blowing horns representing the announcement of the president and the water was to represent life.
Our next stop was lunch. We sat down at a wonderful little oceanside restaurant. The ocean was so nice. I had tilapia with jellof rice and it was delicious. This was also the first time I had ever eaten fish... with eyes I could look into and with teeth! Everyone was surprised to see the whole fish on our plates, but we all quickly became used to the sight and enjoyed every bite.
Later that night we had dinner at a place called the Country Kitchen! We got there and there was country music playing, which I thought was a little weird. Then the African dancers started playing music and dancing. The sound of the drums was intoxicating and after we ate they invited us to join in! It was the perfect way to end our first full day in Ghana. The country had evoked rolling blackouts to deal with the lack of rain and energy so all the pictures from that night turned out too dark.
Learning about their Government
We started off our next day at the Ghanaian Parliament. We were able to sit in on a session of Parliament, that much to my surprise was all in English, which makes sense because there are over 70 different languages spoken in Ghana alone. First the speaker brought in the Minister of Communication who answered questions about telephone service in various areas. Then they talked about the death of a prominent member of parliament, a woman, who they said had a chance at being president. Then we had Q&A session. The Ghanaians use a type of hybrid system, the system they use in their government, is a mix of the American governmental system and the British system. Our guide said they tried the American system and it didn't work so they tried the British system and that didn't work either... so they merged the two and came up with their own way that works for them! #youdoyou
Our final stop for the day was at the University of Ghana in Accra. There we had a tour of an exhibit they had on display all about Ghanaian textiles! Anna, my roommate and I was so excited since we were both fashion majors and the Ghanaian textile industry was the primary reason for going on the trip. There were multiple fabrics on display including Batik, Adinkra and Kente. There was also a section of Wax Print clothes that were designed all for political reasons. There was a commemorative cloth for everything from Queen Elizabeth's first visit to Ghana to the end of WWII and all the political parties. Another interesting portion of the exhibit was the display of the Chinese reprints of traditional African prints. It was easy for Anna, Dr. Strawn (our textiles professor) and I to tell the difference, but most people would not have seen it. Then we headed over to the University bookstore to end our visit.
The Volta Region: Learning about Traditional Religion and Textiles
The next day, we left Accra to go to Klikor, in the Volta Region. There we visited a shrine and met with the high Priest and Priestess of the village. We had to take off our shoes and have our shoulders bare so there was no barrier between us and the spirits, so we all changed into some traditional cloth that they provided for us. We entered the shrine which was an open area with a concrete wall around it and there we learned all about Traditional African Religion. We didn't talk long because we had to get to the "holy of holies" where they high priestess went in and said a prayer while we were outside in a small hut on our knees with our heads bowed down. When she finished we were instructed to kiss the ground (asking for strength to always speak the truth), put our foreheads to the ground (asking for wisdom), put our right elbow to the ground (asking for good health), and finally put our left elbow to the ground (asking for longevity). Then we went to sit in the circle again. We drank gin out of a small coconut shell with our left hand. I didn't drink all of the gin because I had the biggest "little" cup so I only took a sip and so when the guy with the glasses came to collect them he asked if he could help me finish and I gladly agreed. The high priest then talked to us all about African Traditional Religion. He explained about the god (Maua) and how he could do all things. This was also my first experience with a small village bathroom... aka a dark 10x10 room... I held it.
In Klikor we were also able to buy some fabrics from the local artisans. I bought 2 yards of a beautiful gold and purple batik and 6 yards of a turquoise wax print. The children there were so cute. I asked the kids if I could take their picture and they all gathered around and were loving the attention, gave the thumbs up etc. It was great. Totally made my day and they loved being able see the pictures on my digital camera (before the iPhone, but they could still see the picture 😄).
Our visit in Klikor ran a little late, so by the time we arrived to see the Kente weavers, they had already stopped and were letting the children practice. They were very fast and I bought a strip from a little boy who said that he wove it himself. I also bought a larger piece that was four stands sewn together. Kente, is a type of silk and cotton fabric made of interwoven cloth strips and is native to the Akan ethnic group of West Ghana. It is also worn by the south eastern, central, and a part of the northern people of Ghana. Kente comes from the word kenten, which means basket in Akan dialect Asante. It is an Akan royal and sacred cloth worn only in times of extreme importance and was the cloth of kings. Over time, the use of kente became more widespread. However, its importance has remained and it is held in high esteem with Akans.
The next day we began with a 2 hour drive to the Wli Waterfall in the Hohoe District. We trekked up to the waterfall with Fred our tour guide. He showed us all the different kinds of trees like the coffee, the kola nut, mango, cocoa trees and coolest thing was the marriage tree. I was at the back of the herd so I didn't hear what it was about. All I remember is one of the girls, Toya saying, "If I touch it, am I gunna get me a man?"
We crossed 9 bridges to get to the falls. When we arrived there it was amazing. A simple straight long waterfall, the largest in West Africa. Since we had our "swimming costumes" we went right on in. Fred started banging a stick on the little bridge to wake up the hundreds of fruit bats that were flying above us. We walked closer and closer to the falls and the spray started to get harder and harder. It was so refreshing after the 45-minute hike.
The Manhyia Palace was the old residence of the king of the Asanti Kingdom. The Asanti people trace their roots though their mothers, thus the Queen mother has more power and can choose the next king. The current King, Otumfuo Tutu II, and Queen are mother and son. The queen mother can nominate a king if one dies, and her next in line, like her sister, her aunt, niece, daughter, etc. The queen also does not do much talking and the king gets all the gifts because he does all the talking (through a linguist of course), like the high priest and priestess in Klikor. The king has acquired a lot of gifts over the years, one being an elaborately carved wooden chair that was a gift from someone in Chicago!
After a six-hour drive we arrived in Tamale. The first thing we did was stop at a small place where they produce shea butter. The women welcomed us with a song and then we began the tour. The shea tree is traditional and very important to the African culture. The women go out and pick the shea fruit. They are a green fruit and the green fleshy part is harvested during the season, February through June. They then squeeze the seed out into a bin and boil the seeds for 2-3 hours. Then the seeds dry on the concrete in the sun for 3 days. When the seed is dry, they crack open the seed and take the inner part and boil and dry it until they are really dry and hard (3-7 days). Then they smash it, but now they have a machine to do it. It turns it into a paste.
Then the paste is mixed with cold water and stirred by hand. A white substance comes to the top and it is taken off and put over a fire and stirred until it makes an oily substance and then they let it sit and coagulate. They then scrape it off and put it into a large calabash shell. And that is making shea butter in a nutshell. So the next time you slather on some lotion with shea butter... now you know where it comes from and what a pain in the ass it is to make.
The Northern Region is much drier than southern areas of Ghana, due to its proximity to the Sahel and the Sahara deserts. Over 56% of the population are followers of Islam, 21% belong to traditional religions, and 19% are Christian. It was clear that there was a much stronger Muslim population in the north because of the way most women were dressed. Still in the African textiles, but with their heads covered and more conservative. Due to its central location, Tamale serves as a hub for all administrative and commercial activities in the region, doubling as the political, economic and financial capital of the region. Tamale has developed and transformed very fast within the last few years and is reputed to be the fastest growing city in West Africa.
The next morning we had a meeting with the chief Choggu-naa in his palace. We entered his palace, which was more like a tiny open-air auditorium. We sat on benches on the side and him and his entourage of elders came and sat on the raised platform. In the northern region, chiefs are not enstooled like in the south, they are enskinned. His chair was on top of an animal skin which is how the northern chiefs show their authority. We were offered kola nut and water as a gift which we "took" and then asked questions. He was a Muslim who acted as governor to his area. He also runs festivals and acts as a judge when people have problems or disputes.
Quick tidbit about the kola nut: The kola nut is the fruit of the kola tree, a genus (Cola) of trees that are native to the tropical rainforests of Africa. The fruit of the tree is used as a flavoring ingredient in beverages, and is the origin of the term "cola". The kola nut has a bitter flavor and contains caffeine. It is chewed in many West African countries including Ghana, in both private and social settings. It is often used ceremonially, presented to chiefs or guests. Many people can get super addicted to the caffeine high that you get from slowly chewing on the kola nut. You could always tell if someone was chewing the kola nut for a while because their eyes were very yellow and they looked kinda like a chipmunk with a nut in the side of their mouths... and ironically they looked very tired.
Chief Choggu-naa has 7 wives and about 34-56 children. He doesn't like to count because he considers many of the children in the villages his children. He gave us advice to continue to educate ourselves, be peaceful, and be united. The chief and some other elders where wearing traditional hats that can have the top of it folded to the front, which means, "I'll put up a fight if necessary... I'm ready" or folded to the back, which means, "I've got people who will back me up" or to the side, which means, "I'm cool... I don't want to bother you".
On Safari: Mole National Park
We spent the night at the Mole National Park. This is Ghana's largest wildlife refuge and is home to over 93 mammal species, and the large mammals of the park include an elephant population, hippos, buffalo and warthogs. We arrived later than expected to the park because the only road to get there was unpaved and we could only go about 20 mph down the road. Since we were late, we missed the last safari for the day, but after the long trip we were all ready for some food and some sleep before the 6 am walking safari the next morning.
We walked for two hours around the park and saw 8 species of animals. We saw three species of monkey (including the baboons which were right outside our door that morning) 2 species of antelope, and a crocodile, elephants, warthogs (also outside our door). It was fun, different, and I got to see elephants bathe in the water at the end of the safari. It was amazing to see such large animals in their natural habitat.
After the morning safari, went to see the mystic stone. This is a stone revered by Muslims like the one at Mecca. This stone was a place where Usman (a prophet of Mohammad) prayed and threw a spear and where the spear landed he built a mosque and a town. When people tried to move the stone so they can make a road, three days after they moved it, it would come back to the same spot. So they eventually had to build the road around the stone. Also when people were coming up on the road to get slaves from Larabanga (where the spear landed) they could not pass the stone. Then we moved to the town of Larabanga. This is a place where West African Muslims go to pilgrimage like the pilgrimage to Mecca only closer. This is one of the oldest mosques in Africa and the oldest in Ghana/West Africa there. There are 4 entrances, one for women, men, prayer people and another. In 1400 AD, the Muslims came to Africa and Usman came and forced Islam on the people, now known as the Kamara people. As Muslims, most pilgrimage to Larabanga.
After we saw the mosque we went to the cultural part of our visit were we were welcomed by drummers and a large group of people. We squished onto benches and they danced and sang for us. Then we all joined in to dance with the girls and they could shake it... no polkas... so I didn't really get to show off my moves.
Afterwards we went to visit the school. It was not very big and but there were about 60-70 students per classroom. No pens, no pencils and no paper, but they were all paying close attention to their studies.
At the Coast
The following morning we arrived at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology for a lecture. The lecture was on traditional African art; particularly ceramics. The professor explained to us how their department is growing and their facilities are not. Their kiln is from 1958 and it’s electric and during the dry season it’s particularly difficult because of the rolling blackouts.
After the lecture at the University, we traveled to another small village, Anwia, to get wood carvings. I bought two unity carvings that are made from one solid stump of wood and then carved down into people interwoven together. They were simply too beautiful to pass up. Then we went to Ntonso, an Adinkra village. There we saw some people silk screening the prints and a nice man demonstrated the process. They take the bark or root of a tree only found in the northern region and they boil it which makes the stamp ink. Then they use tools like the adinkra stamps and combs. Dr. Strawn, Anna and I got to stamp some of the fabric and bought a few stamps for my collection (yes... I have a fabric stamp collection). Then we headed to Bonwire, an Asante Kente village were we once again saw the art of weaving Kente cloth.
After, we left Kumasi and headed for the coast. On the way we stopped at Assian Manso to visit the Donkor Nsu Slave River where slaves were brought to be bathed, fed and auctioned. As the human part of the "triangular trade" Africans were hunted, captured and treated as merchandise. From the place and time they were captured, it was a march of no return. There were no cargo trains and no cattle trucks. The people were forced to march to the coast chained together on foot. Seeing the river where many people's ancestors were forced to bathe for the last time before their long journey into slavery was humbling to say the least. It was bone chilling to think about how the people were treated and how they were forced into a life they were unwilling to live.
Built in 1482 by the Portuguese, the Elmina Slave Castle was used to hold the enslaved people in the male and female dungeons. After the Portuguese, the Dutch took over the castle followed by the British before it became a historical site. The most horrifying thing was the first thing we saw, the female dungeons. They had small dungeons where they were kept and had to sleep on the ground. They had buckets for excretion. Then if the governor wanted some entertainment he would open all the dungeon doors and pick out one woman he liked, gave her a bath in some run off water and rape her. In the larger female dungeon there was a hole in the wall where occasionally chemical waste was sent through the chute, which consequently killed many women. Then we saw the male dungeons which led to a travel dungeon that led to the door of no return. The door of no return was a tiny opening that was a direct route to the ship that brought them to Europe, South America, and the USA.
The next day started off with an amazing excursion to the Kakum National Park Canopy Walk! It was so exhilarating and scary at the same time. The Canopy Walkway passes over 7 bridges and runs over a length of 330 meters and is up to 40 meters high at some places. It was not as bad as I thought it would be, because I could only see the tops of the trees as you walked and you could not see the ground. I was first to go after Elvis (the tour guide) and Kwame (a local who was with us on the tour) was after me. Since he had done the walk so many times before he kept wiggling and shaking the walkway to make it "more fun". Almost peed my pants... After the canopy walk we had lunch and went to the Cape Coast Castle. This was another slave castle built to hold the people before they were shipped all over the world. The feeling is just as eerie as the Elmina Slave Castle, but had a beautiful view of the coast line from the top.
We ended our trip in Cape Coast and it was a wonderful way to wind down after a busy two weeks. We stayed at a beautiful resort called Coconut Grove. Cape Coast is one of the most historical cities in Ghana, the capital of the Central Region. Being on the ocean, the city has a large fishing industry. Having the ocean nearby and being able to walk along with shore was the perfect way to end a life-changing trip!
I've been itching to design a dirndl inspired by this trip for years, so I'm so excited that this dream of mine has finally come true. Below is the design and details about it that were take from the trip. What do you think? Have you even been to Ghana? Do you feel like this design is an accurate representation of the country? Tell me about it in the comments below!
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As always, ideas and opinions expressed in this post are entirely my own. - Erika