Togo's `Mercedes-Benz Girls'

LIKE butterflies with folded wings waiting to flutter, bolts of multicolored, brightly, gaily-colored cloth lie in stacks waiting to be unfolded, and to blow in the breeze as dresses - dresses to please the eye, and to add to even the poorest West African woman beauty, dignity, and pride as she walks down a city street or village path. A visitor from East Africa notices the cloth and stunning dresses right away: They are long and flowing. In East Africa, western-style dresses are the norm. But in West Africa, style is more indigenous, even if the cloth is imported: long, flowing dresses, or wrap-around skirts and loose-fitting blouses with big sleeves.

Often the skirts and blouses are of wildly contrasting colors: deep blues, bold yellows, shades of gold, greens, maroon. They are blended in swooshes and streaks, or in a geometric kaleidoscope of lightning bolts, diamonds, and other shapes.

Behind much of this beauty are the women cloth-sellers of Togo, a sliver-sized, French-speaking country on the West African coast.

While African women are just beginning to get some international recognition as the major farmers on the continent, they usually receive little notice for their business skills. But the Togolese cloth sellers have been at their trade for up to four generations, and they know their stuff.

Some of them, like Patience Sanvi, have done so well that a special name has evolved to describe them. They are called the ``nana benz,'' or the ``benz girls.'' ``Benz'' comes from Mercedes-Benz, widely admired in Africa as a car of elegance and prestige. An elite group of Togolese cloth-selling women have earned so much from cloth sales they easily can afford to buy one.

Madame Sanvi has a light-green Mercedes, and agreed to talk to a reporter while standing next to it. As if to underline her wealth and influence, while she spoke one of the staff of her two-story, modern home here brought a cordless telephone to her so she could receive a call.

``I have clients from Benin, Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Lom'e itself, who come to me to buy,'' Madame Sanvi explains.

She started selling cloth in the market as a teenager. Gradually, she built up her business to the point where she became one of Togo's estimated 30 to 50 ``nana benz'' cloth wholesalers. Today she conducts most of her business from home.

Once a month, clients come from various parts of West Africa. Sometimes as many as 100 people show up for her sales. Then the buyers fan out across the region with their cloth.

Wealthy wholesalers like Sanvi typically send their children to private schools, often in Europe. And, says a non-Togolese official of an international organization in Lom'e, often the nana benz ``have nice cars, nice jewels, and travel a lot. They know Europe better than you or I, probably. They have apartments in Paris and Geneva.''

Often the nana benz got into the business with the help of their mothers. And today, some are helping their daughters continue the trade.

``We're three generations here,'' says Boe Allah Lawson Adjua, whose store in the main Lom'e market has many aisles of neatly stacked bolts of rainbow cloth.

Outside her door, shoppers and sellers in the pressing market crowd snail pace their way through a swirl of color to a cacophony of sound - radios, record players, the cries of hawkers, the confidential tones of money changers offering deals. A number of women glide among the throng with periscope-like stacks of cloth somehow balanced on their heads.

In her store, Madame Lawson pokes at a small adding machine to total up another sale. Her mother, who helps with the business, is now resting a few yards away.

``My mother began this [business] with her mother in a village,'' she says. They went from village to village. Years later, Madame Lawson began selling, too. ``Little by little,'' using good, basic business practices, the family saved enough to buy the store 15 years ago.

``Selling fabrics was an avenue for earning money for many Togolese women,'' she continues. ``Women sell a little of everything ... fabrics, food, run restaurants. They do everything a man can do.''

But cloth selling is almost entirely the domain of the women in Togo.

LIKE many of the cloth sellers, Madame Lawson divides her profits three ways, giving part to her husband and using the rest primarily for her children and parents. ``Most of it goes for the education of the children,'' she says.

She expects her daughter, who has been studying accounting and computers, to join the business - and modernize its record-keeping. But not all daughters of the Togolese cloth sellers are keen about taking up the family trade.

``I finished my secretarial training,'' says Belmonda Santos, perched on the edge of her mother's cramped cloth stall. ``Now I'm here in the market for four years. But life doesn't stop here.''

Her mother's stall, with its picture of Jesus, is in an indoor market building near Madame Lawson's store. ``I have to do what I want to do, and not just follow someone else's goals,'' says the daughter. She talks of wanting to become a designer of West African dresses.

Her mother, Ino Aboi, is not pushing her to stay in the business. For one thing, says Madame Aboi, cloth sales have ``slipped backward'' in recent years, as more West African countries have begun manufacturing their own cloth instead of relying on imports that often came by way of Togo. But Madame Aboi says the ``best quality'' cloth still comes from Holland.

Hard economic years have left buyers with less money, while the number of sellers in Lom'e has multiplied.

But the marketplace is still packed. And the demand for cloth that shimmers with butterfly beauty in the West African breezes still seems insatiable.

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