Monday, February 27, 2012

What the Spider Showed Us

In Damfah, I meet the kente weaver -- part magician, part musician, part arachnid.

DAMFAH IS A SMALL village about 20 minutes down the mountain from Aburi, where I stop with my Ghanaian brothers, Alex and Richard, to visit the Mother Ghana Kente Weaving Centre.  

The hand-woven textile in Ghana known as kente cloth is an art that goes back centuries, originating, it is said, from a spider.

According to legend, two brothers went hunting in the forest when they noticed between the branches of a tree a spider constructing its web. Fascinated by the tiny creature's intricate work, they studied its movements closely over many days, then returned to their village to replicate what they had seen the spider do.

So began a tradition that has endured for more than 300 years, practiced today in much the same way as the early artisans by a whole new generation of kente weavers, ensuring that this rich, uniquely Ghanaian art form isn't lost to the current influx of mass-produced imitations from other lands. 

The centre in Damfah occupies a bare dirt lot under a tin roof that shelters about two-dozen weaving looms. The looms are crudely constructed, of hand-sawed tree limbs tied together with thread sashes to form the frame. The looms face each other in two long rows, the space in-between traversed by tautly stretched strands of threads (the warp), ending in a coiled skein anchored by a rock.


Several weavers are busy at their looms, filling the space with the music of their shuttles (the bobbins that hold the weft threads), a clackety clacking sound like the tinkling of wooden bells. Their hands rapidly move back and forth threading the shuttles horizontally through the vertical warp (a double layer of 144 individual threads, controlled by foot peddles), which they compress (or batten) into place with a wooden beater. 
Shuttles, beater, warp: weaving's mysterious language.

Woven in long strips and then sewn together into  blanket-size swatches, kente cloth is primarily worn as a ceremonial garment for weddings, official functions and traditional festivals. Its bold, geometric patterns hold specific meanings (e.g., long life, fealty to God, strength and purity). Some patterns only royalty can wear (tribal chiefs still hold considerable political and spiritual authority in this relatively young democractic country).

One thread at a time, a beautiful pattern emerges. The process is intricate and complex, more easily described with one word: magic.

Watch my video of a kente weaver at work.

We sit down on the porch of the small bungalow where the centre's founder and manager, Emmanuel Agblevor Kotoka, lives and works. Emmanuel is from the Volta Region, to the east, one of two major centers in Ghana for hand-crafted textiles. The other is the Ashante region to the north, where the spider story originates. 

Richard and Alex with Emmanuel Kotoka, manager of the Mother Ghana Kente Weaving Centre.

Emmanuel, who speaks Twi and Ewe, but not English (Alex and Richard translate) tells me he's been a weaver since the age of 12. He apprenticed with his grandfather, a master weaver in their Ewe village, for 7 years, perfecting his  technique and learning kente's hundreds of different patterns and their meanings. He stayed in the family business for 10 years, then decided to set up his own shop to serve a bigger market, and 8 years ago moved to Damfah. The village is a perfect location -- not far from Accra, the capital city -- and, being the only kente weaver in town, there's not much competition. 

Jacob Atsu, one of the weavers at Mother Ghana Kente Weaving Centre, with manager Emmanuel Kotoka, displaying a finished cloth. This one is about 5 x 6 ft. and was offered to me for 300 cedis (about $180). The centre typically produces made-to-order cloth for customers around the region.
Emmanuel employs about 30 weavers, all young men like Jacob Atsu, 23, who started his apprenticeship 4 years ago. An experienced weaver can set up his loom in about 6 hours, and weave several yards a day. A full-size cloth takes two to three weeks to weave and assemble.

"Is weaving an occupation for women?" I ask, noting their absence at his facility. 

Oh yes, he assures me; not so much in the Ashante region, but in the Volta, there are women weavers, too. 

Just then, a tiny blonde spider shimmies down an invisible thread from the ceiling of the porch and dangles near my seat. Emmanuel gently waves his hand in the air and catches the spider's line, then hoists it up and over the railing to safety. The spider disappears in the dirt. 

"The spider is our totem," he explains. "He showed us how to weave. That is why we never kill them."

Sample strips from Mother Ghana Kente Weaving Centre


  1. Wow, very nice reporting! Such great history and legends being preserved. I love the colors and patterns in the kente cloth. Beautiful textiles.

  2. Nice reporting! I love the legends and the way the craft of weaving is passed down through generations! Such beautiful textiles! I love the colors and patterns and learning about the intricate process. Thanks for sharing!