India is believed to be the oldest centre of indigo dyeing in the old world. But even far back, archeologists have found evidence of textile dyeing dating back to the Neolithic period. In china, for example, dyeing with plants, barks and insects has been traced back to more than 5000 years.

But not having to travel so far, Kano state, in Northern Nigeria, brags of its longstanding dye pits.  “You don’t know the popular Kofar Mata Dye-pit?” was the reply I got from my roommate, when I showcased my ignorance of the existence of the place. “Stop any cabman, tell him to take you to Kofar Mata Dye-pits, you need no further descriptions,” was another reply I got when I tried to inquire a direction to the place.

Kano’s ‘Kofar Mata Dye-pits’: A Struggling Textile Dyeing Industry
The Gate leading to the Famous Kofar Mata Dye house

It was with this curiosity that I entered the Kofar Mata Dye pits. It was an informal gathering of old men and women. Yes old. Save for some small children, whose labor is usually exploited across the states, popularly known as ‘Almajiris’, one of whom I saw standing beside an indigo hued dye-pit, soaking the cloth in and out of the dyestuff. I will later learn that merchants from Niger republic, Mali and Senegal once paraded the dye-pits to purchase clothes and turbans.

According to a report by Nasir(1984), the indigo dye and dying process were brought into Hausa land by Berbers and Arabs from North Africa through the trans-Saharan routes. The name of the indigo plant in Hausa is “Baba” (named probably after the people who were believed to have brought it into Hausa land), that is Berbers from North Africa.

There are mainly two classes of dye; natural and manmade. While manmade dyehas come to dominate the cloth dyeing industry across the world, local dyers believe that natural dye is more qualitative, viable and lasts longer on clothes without fading off. “The Chinese have stolen our business from us with their modern textiles. The people don’t know that this traditional dyeing of ours is more qualitative than that of the Chinese. If only they knew,they would stop patronizing the Chinese and engage the local dye,” this was Mahmud Abubakar lamenting about the decline of the Kofar Mata Dye-pits.

Kano’s ‘Kofar Mata Dye-pits’: A Struggling Textile Dyeing Industry

Mahmud Abubakar, a man in his eighties, has been working in the Kofar Mata dye pits for 56 years. He inherited the craft from his father, who inherited from his grandfather- upwards in the ancestral line.According to Lore, the place was founded by one Wali Dan Marna, who later migrated to Katsina from Kano leaving the place behind for his successors.

Kano’s ‘Kofar Mata Dye-pits’: A Struggling Textile Dyeing Industry
The dye pits almost going obsolete

Common dyestuff include varieties of red, pink, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, brown, grey and black, lichen, fungi etc. While luxury dyestuff include royal purple, crimson and scarlet, which were rare and expensive in the ancient fashion world and then in Europe. But the Kano dyeing guild seems to have a monopoly of a particular color, which is an indigo blue.Thetypical combination entails such ingredients as indigo, wood ash, sediments from the dye-pit (dead remains of used indigo known as “katsi” in Hausa), long stick, pail, wood, yellow powder from locust bean pod, dry cow dunk and guinea corn husk.  After the ingredients are mixed to create the desired hue;the yarn, fabric, fibre or garment is dipped into the hued pit repeatedly to create the desired colour. The longer the item is allowed inside the hue, the darker the colour becomes.

Sitting on a mat, in an aisle that divides one pit from the other, I asked Mahmud Abubakar, how long the Kofar Mata dyeing guild has been in existence, an onlooker almost scornfully, interjected; “didn’t you see it at the gate when you came in? This place has been in existence since 1498 and that is an apocryphal date even.”

Kano’s ‘Kofar Mata Dye-pits’: A Struggling Textile Dyeing Industry
Kofar Mata Dye Pit in Kano

The Kofar Mata Dye Pits make textiles of unique designs and patterns made to fit local consumption’s and demands, some of which include: three baskets, moon and star, Hausa bakwai, ango da amarya etc. these patterns are made by tying the edges of the cloth before they are put into the dye pits.

Kano’s ‘Kofar Mata Dye-pits’: A Struggling Textile Dyeing Industry
Dye making in process

But, despite the much enthusiasm and reverence that the people of Kano state have for this memento of theirs, it seems to be much ado about nothing, as the place has been reduced to an otiose state. The production rate of the place is largely subsistence, and even at that, local consumers don’t patronize the blatantly obsolete place and its products. It seems the people have chosen modernity over tradition in this frail; hence there is a need to gear towards a more modern approach. But as the conflict between tradition and modernity looms, the question is, how can the craft modernize and maintain its heirloom at the same time?