‘We’re storytellers in the designs’: In Ghana, pandemic inspires new fabrics
As the coronavirus pandemic descended over Ghana earlier this year, the country’s strange new reality was anchored by frequent televised speeches from its president, Nana Akufo-Addo.
Wearing his trademark tiny round spectacles and speaking in a soothing, grandfatherly voice, he began each speech with the same words.
“Fellow Ghanaians ...”
So when a local fabric-maker decided to commemorate the pandemic with a series of new designs, it felt natural to begin with the president. Specifically, his glasses. The fabric-maker created a fabric featuring Mr. Akufo-Addo’s Harry Potter-esque specs floating against a swirling red, white, and green background.
“We’re storytellers in the designs we create,” says the Rev. Stephen Kofi Badu, marketing director for Tex Styles Ghana Ltd., the parent company of Ghana Textiles Printing (GTP), which released its line of coronavirus-themed fabrics in mid-June. “So we set out to look for ways of telling the story of COVID-19 for generations to come in a positive light.”
In Ghana, indeed, fabric is often imbued with deep meaning. That tradition stretches back centuries, through the history of kente – a now world-famous geometric woven cloth whose patterns symbolize qualities like knowledge, service, and creativity. In Ghana today, the design on someone’s clothing might tell you his or her religion, preferred political party, or profession. For instance, when Mr. Akufo-Addo addressed the nation recently wearing a shirt patterned with ahwedepo, the buds on a stalk of sugar cane, many saw it as a symbol that the worst of the pandemic had passed, and life was beginning again.
In normal times in cities like Accra, the capital, sewing machines clatter day and night in the tiny roadside workshops of the country’s thousands of tailors. Customers bring hand-selected fabrics from local markets to be transformed into flowing tunics and boldly patterned skirts and dresses custom-made to their specifications.
But in late March, two weeks after the first confirmed coronavirus case in Ghana, Mr. Akufo-Addo announced a two-week lockdown in Accra and Kumasi, the country’s two largest cities. Everyone would have to stay home. There would be no weddings or funerals, no parties or church services. Tailors couldn’t work. And their customers had nowhere to wear their designs anyway.
For GTP, like many companies, it was a moment of crisis. “We were really down,” Mr. Badu says. Sales dropped from pre-pandemic levels of about 1 million yards a month to less than 100,000, he says.
But for a company used to designing fabrics that told Ghana’s stories, it also felt like a profoundly important moment to remember. “We challenged our creative team to look out for the silver lining in this phenomenon,” Mr. Badu says, and to design fabrics that would draw beauty from this dark moment in the country’s history.
Soon, GTP had come up with several pandemic-related designs. Besides the fabric featuring Mr. Akufo-Addo’s glasses, there were designs featuring padlocks to signify the lockdown and plane propellers to mark the closing of the country’s borders.
At Tema market, near Accra, Cecilia Koomson’s fabric-selling business had been dragging because of the coronavirus. Even after the country began to ease restrictions on movement and business in late April, people were broke. And there were few formal occasions to mark with new clothes. But when she began laying out the swatches of coronavirus fabric, she noticed a sudden change.
“Patronage has been wonderful. I’ve actually run out of stock and placed an order for new consignments,” she says from her wooden stall in the congested Tema General Market. “In the first week when it was unveiled, a lot of people came for them.”
For Wise Gbogho, a teacher who has been out of the classroom for five months and counting as a result of the pandemic, buying the COVID-19 fabric felt like a way to mark a difficult chapter in the history of his country – and the world.
“I want something to keep and also wear to remember the unprecedented period we have gone through this year,” he says. “It has not been easy for the past months without a regular income. I live on past savings and my account is almost depleted, but there is hope. This ‘Fellow Ghanaians’ design means a lot to me,” he adds, referring to the fabric patterned with the president’s spectacles.
GTP originally planned to sell about 100,000 yards of the fabric, Mr. Badu says. But within two weeks, it had already sold out, and GTP had to begin a fresh order at its factory in Tema, near the capital.
In the meantime, the company is preparing for the release of a new design in the line in September. Mr. Badu says he can’t describe the exact pattern before it hits the market, but explains that it was designed to mark the gradual easing of restrictions and a return to a version of normal life. Although coronavirus cases are still rising in the country, the lockdown has been largely lifted, with only limited restrictions on large gatherings. Businesses have reopened, and Ghanaians are once again going to church and marking life milestones like weddings and funerals.
For Mr. Gbogho, wearing the COVID-19-themed fabric he purchased has been a way to express his hope for the country to emerge from the pandemic stronger.
“Every Sunday, I’ll be going to church in garments made from these designs,” he says. “I plan to do so till the year ends, if God permits. I am quite optimistic a time will come when we’ll all look back and say, ‘We made it.’”
Editor’s note: As a public service, we have removed our paywall for all pandemic-related stories.