United C, a women’s association based in Port Loko City, meets this afternoon under the shade of a mango tree. They lead a session on gara cloth dyeing, starting with an explanation of the various fold styles. Afterwards they explain the dyeing process.

The process begins by heating water inside a large metal pot over a three stone fire. A portion of hot water is then mixed with caustic soda and powdered dye in a separate rubber basin. The resulting chemical reaction releases heat, so the person handling the cloth must wear thick rubber gloves. An assistant helps by pouring cool water inside the gloves.

After the dyes soak into the cloth, it is removed and rinsed in a starch solution, then rinsed again in water. Afterwards it hangs on a clothesline until dry. The finished cloth is ironed if possible, or beaten with a stick, to give it a fine shine.

After the session, United C poses for a group photo holding a newly dyed diamond style bedspread. The members, from left to right, are Fatmata Bah, Mafereh Thullah, Jemima Koroma, Aminata Kanu, Haja Thullah, and Abdul Kargbo. They also prepared a ‘babu (chimpanzee) bone’ bedspread, with alternating rows of red and blue separated by white space.

United C's Story

Fatmata Bah, Group Leader — We gather every Sunday at my house to plan the group’s future. The name ‘United C’ comes from our usual meeting place at my house on Conteh Street. Someday we will buy the necessary land to build our own office. We raise funds for this through gara cloth dyeing and soap-making. Once in a while we loan our money within the group—sort of like microfinance. If one of us becomes sick, the rest of the group pays for hospital visits and medication. We all contribute and we never expect the person to pay us back. Instead they should help the next person when the time comes.

We registered with the Port Loko District Council and they promised to contribute funds whenever they can. We’re glad to have their support, but they asked us to be patient. We want to be successful in Port Loko City and even plan to start an adult literacy program here one day.

Aminata Kanu, Public Relations Officer (PRO) — I work as the group’s spokesperson. I tell the media about our projects and progress, and arrange meetings with community stakeholders to request help. The District Council helps by recommending our group to anybody interested in gara cloth dyeing. If we receive a request, I help to arrange the sessions. Other than that I visit group members to inform them of our meetings. I get along well with everybody in our organization.

Abdul Kargbo, Gara Cloth Expert — One day I received a call from a Port Loko women’s group who wanted to learn about gara cloth. Fatmata found me through word of mouth even though I lived in Masiaka at the time. She wanted her friends to learn a proper skill and become self-reliant. I agreed and joined her group. I first taught the women about fold styles—envelope, babu (‘chimpanzee’ in Krio) bone, caro envelope, rimbu (‘rainbow’ in Krio), sugar cane, and others. Then they learned about dyeing. Today they all understand the gara cloth process and we enjoy working together. I love the organization, and want to help my sisters find success and make a decent living. More men should join women’s organizations to support and help their sisters.

Mafereh Thullah, Advisor — I’m the eldest in our group so they call me ‘mami’. I settle arguments among us and always have the last word in any matter. It’s not easy to solve problems among so many people; it’s big work. I’m most proud of the group when everybody agrees and finds success. We want to achieve 50/50 [gender equity] in our women’s group. More men should join us, just as Abdul did. We hope to educate our brothers about the problems women face so they can help us.

Jemima Koroma, Member — I want our group to address adult literacy and numeracy because many people in our town didn’t attend school. With some education, a person could recognize the names of colors and help us with gara cloth dyeing. I’d say “pass me the blue dye” and they’d understand. With math skills they could calculate estimates for our clients. More education means more opportunities.

Haja Thullah, Mafereh’s daughter — I save money for the future and for my education. I sat the West African Secondary School Certificate Examination (WASSCE) in 2016 and hope to attend college one day. I want to be a nurse to help save lives. Nurses in the hospital inspire me so much because they help so many people. I love the work my group does, but my favorite is gara cloth. It’s so beautiful and interesting, but difficult unless you pay attention closely and really understand the job. I hope more people in Port Loko City and around the world learn about us so we can be a more successful women’s group.

Abdul Kargbo, Mafereh Thullah, Aminata Kanu, Jemima Koroma, and Haja Thullah (left to right) hold a cloth with an ‘around world’ style. It consists of one large central circle surrounded by semi-circles.