Winds of global fashion swirl through rural Namibia

How an isolated African region became a barometer of tastes and trends in other parts of the world.

Stephanie Hanes
Through the ranks: Rug designer Isaak Gameb has worked at the Ibenstein center for 32 years, first as a spinner, then as a weaver.

A few miles past this dusty, empty town, beyond the place where the tar road ends and donkey carts start replacing cars, the Ibenstein weaving center sits in a grove of thorn trees that sprout from the dry, red earth.

"You found it," Wolfgang Ramdohr says cheerfully, walking across the dirt courtyard that divides Ibenstein's low-slung, aluminum-topped buildings. His dogs follow him, and then quickly head for the shade.

Mr. Ramdohr and his wife, Anne, run this weaving center, the first place in Namibia to make what are now the country's trademark wool carpets. They are only a few hours from Windhoek, Namibia's capital, but in many ways they are in another world. There was no electricity here until 1990, and until recently a telephone operator had to connect farms to outside lines. Many of the looms are the same as the ones Anne's grandmother ordered built when she started the business in the 1950s; outside, spinners twirl wool by hand.

It is not, at first glance, the sort of place one would imagine as a barometer of global tastes and trends. But in many ways, that's just what Ibenstein is.

The story of what has happened here at the edge of the Kalahari Desert, to Ibenstein, to Namibia's rug art, and to the weavers who make it, is a lesson in globalization. It shows how in today's connected world, even African folk art is affected by changes in regional industry, the whims of Parisian fashion houses, or the shifting values of middle America.

"What people here make is definitely connected to trends in other places," says Louise Casserley, an assistant at Johannesburg's Art Africa, a store that highlights indigenous art from around the region.

For instance, she says, recycled and "green" African art is becoming much more popular, in large part because of a growing European and American inclination to buy "sustainable" pieces. And as regional industries ebb and flow – partly because of global demands – local crafters change how they use related materials.

Namibian bracelets made of PVC pipes, colorful South African bowls made from telephone wire, and Zimbab­wean sculpture mad­­e from hubcaps – these all rise and fall with waves of seemingly unrelated consumer demand.

"People have used ingenious things for art," Ms. Casserley says. "They use things that are around." The Ibenstein story starts the way many of these African art tales do: with a byproduct.

In the early 1900s, colonists here were struggling with how to make vast and arid German South West Africa (now Namibia) productive. When they found that farming wasn't working, they tried importing Karakul sheep, a central Asian breed whose pelts were considered the height of fashion throughout Europe.

The sheep flourished, as did the ranchers. By the 1930s, the 10 ewes and two rams imported two decades before had become 1.7 million sheep; by the 1960s, there were 5 million. And demand was ever growing.

"All of southern Namibia's development was financed by the Karakul," Ramdohr says. "The sheep were called 'the black diamonds of Namibia.' "

The popular sheepskin coats were made from lamb pelts. But to have a steady supply of lambs, the farmers needed breeding sheep. And adults need shearing twice a year.

To most farmers, the wool was useless – too coarse for clothing. Some threw it away; others used it to help pave roads. But at the large Ibenstein farm near Dordabis, Marianne Krafft decided to try to use that wool for weaving.

Ms. Krafft was an artist, and wanted to come up with some sort of employment for the farmworkers' wives who lived on her land. She hired master weavers from Germany to teach her staff, and later built looms for making carpets. The business started to take off.

Soon, others followed her lead. By the time Anne Ramdohr's parents – Krafft's daughter and son-in-law – were running the weaving center, there were as many as 15 similar businesses in the area, all making rugs with the discarded wool of the Karakul.

The rugs were eye-catching and became the No. 1 purchase for tourists. Although the rugs originally had only natural colors, soon weavers started incorporating dyed wool to make bright geometric shapes and African scenes with lions and elands and thorn trees. It was art that seemed one with this vast, red dryness.

"They were so fashionable, the carpets," Ramdohr says. Most went overseas.

Isaak Gameb, a farmworker's son, started at Ibenstein in the 1970s. As a child, he would stop here during his five-mile walk home from school. Eventually Krafft's daughter, then running the center, gave him a job – first as a spinner, then as a weaver.

"My specialty is animals," Mr. Gameb says. "Now I make my own designs."

Today, Gameb sits at one of Ibenstein's massive looms, working with two other men to finish a carpet for a Windhoek business. He says he loves his work – but that a decade ago he had more company.

During the 1970s and '80s, Ibenstein employed as many as eight weavers and a few dozen other employees. Today, Gameb is one of only seven Ibenstein workers.

The downsizing happened in the 1990s, Ramdohr says, but the problem had started a decade earlier, when consumers in Europe and the United States started to reject fur. In 1980, he says, 3 million Karakul skins were exported from Namibia; four years later, that had dropped to 700,000. Today, fewer than 100,000 pelts leave the country. And although there seems to be increasing interest in the pelts again – mainly from Asia and Russia – the industry is a fraction of what it once was.

For weavers, that means their raw material is more expensive, and there's less of it. To Ibenstein, that spells cutbacks.

"I have to pay them decent wages," he says. "It's why the profit margin is so minimal."

Meanwhile, interior designers in the US started to turn their backs on big carpets – and with 80 percent of Ibenstein's wares headed abroad, this left a mark.

At the Namibia Craft Center in Windhoek, where the country's growing number of tourists shop for all sorts of local artwork, shopkeeper Paulina Shikongo says that Ibenstein rugs still sell well. But she said usually customers buy smaller, less expensive rugs.

The larger rugs "are very nice," she says, "but they are difficult to ship."

In Dordabis, the Ramdohrs are searching for new ways to appeal to foreign buyers. Without a change, they say, they worry that they might have to close their generations-old center. So this time, rather than furs, they are trying to tap into a new fashion fad: ethical clothing.

Anne Ramdohr says she is trying to incorporate silk from the empty cocoons of a local moth into her wares; a number of nongovernmental organizations have already dubbed "Kalahari silk" projects good for the environment and a way to promote sustainable development.

"We are competing with Asia now," she says, glancing at the decades-old looms. "We have to find a niche."

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