Painted Desert

by | Apr 26, 2008 | travel

Yellow, orange and aquamarine spring to life in Mauritania through the creative touch of women’s artisanal groups.

Text: Brigitte Doumit
Photos: Tatiana Philiptchenko / Megapress.ca
Appeared in Elle Canada, Oct 2007 

Bales of fabric surround the 20 women who are sitting on a frayed carpet in the large, dimly lit room. A few engage in a tea ritual, pouring sweet liquid into tiny glasses in long, high streams. Most concentrate on the needlework in their hands. They are creating malafas, the traditional veils worn in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, a relatively peaceful desert country in northwest Africa. Unlike some Islamic countries—where women must hide behind niqabs, chadors and burkas—here, Maures drape soft cotton fabrics tinted red, orange, yel- low, green and blue around their heads and shoulders.

Youné—the founder of a malafa co-operative in Mauritania’s seaside capital, Nouakchott—is tracing a drawing on a large band of white cot- ton fabric. “Working in co-operatives makes it easier for us to sell our veils and earn regular incomes,” she says. More often than not, these women are the sole breadwinners in their families. The divorce rate in Mauritania is almost 47 percent for first marriages, and—contrary to the custom in other Islamic states—chil- dren remain in the custody of their mothers. There is no stigma attached to divorce—in fact, divorcees are considered highly desirable—and women frequently remarry, but after every divorce they are left in charge of an ever-increasing brood.

Youné finishes drawing the design on the fabric and passes the six-metre-long cloth to her daughter, Fatimetou, who starts the millimetre-fine stitching. “The finer the stitching, the more money we can get,” says Fatimetou of the malafa, which will sell for anywhere from $14 to $24. Her callused fin- gers swiftly work the thread into the drawing. She has been stitching for eight years now—since she was 10— and estimates that she will need four or five days for this kind of design. By then, the intricate needlework will have reduced the cloth to a small wad no bigger than a tea towel.

Dozens of wads lie in a heap in a corner of the room, ready to be dyed. The women have worked hard to get them ready, although frequent power cuts—some of which last 14 hours a day—have prevented them from working late into the night. Hona, Youné’s neighbour, gathers wood in the yard and gets the coal ready. “One of the most difficult things to get here is water, especially in sum- mer,” she says, pouring the precious liquid into a large metal basin and placing it on the coals. Running water is a rare commodity in Nouakchott, where it rains six days a year on aver- age. Drought and overpopulation put pressure on the ancient underground lake that supplies the city. Most neigh- bourhoods are serviced by donkeys that cart water around in big barrels, but sometimes this service fails and people are forced to walk long dis- tances to fill their jerry cans.

Noxious fumes rise into the air as Hona stirs yellow dye into the hot water. She turns each stitched wad around with a gloved hand, con- centrating on the part she wants to change colour. The process takes several days and is similar to the tie- dyeing method popular in the West in the ’70s. One colour is used at a time, and the wads are left to dry be- tween dippings. When the dyeing is complete, the stitching is cut open to reveal an intricate pattern. This is a delicate step, as one careless move can tear the fabric. The malafas are then washed, dried in the sun and taken to the co-op’s shop for sale.

The co-op system works well for women like Youné. Most groups are comprised of up to 30 members, usually from the same neighbour- hood or family. The co-ops also func- tion as schools and accept trainees for a fee of about $5 a month. Despite the fact that very few of them receive government incentives, these groups continue to spread. “From a mere 15 in 1982, there are now an estimated 1,500 co-operatives,” says a spokesperson for the Ministry of Commerce, but many are not registered with the government. Mauritania is one of the 30 poorest countries in the world, where income per capita is $600 a year. The women realize that they barely stand a chance of making a living on their own, but by joining forces each one of them is able to make an average income of $60 to $80 a month, which represents a substantial contribution to the family income.

Although many younger women prefer to wear the more modern, machine-printed malafas imported from China and Dubai, the co-ops are still a thriving business. “We usually sell out, especially on religious holidays, when it’s customary to buy new clothes,” says Youné. “Women go into a buying frenzy when they see the different patterns and colours. In our shop, one malafa is quite unlike another.”

Text: Brigitte Doumit
Photos: Tatiana Philiptchenko / Megapress.ca
Appeared in Elle Canada, Oct 2007 

More images

We have over three hundred images from Mauritania. Photos from this article, striking images of the people and land. Truly unique!