Cotton spinning is an age old traditional hand work of drawing out strands of fiber to make a yarn. The subsequent process of refinement is what manufacturers call wet spinning which entails boiling the cotton with coal ash and potash. It is dried and then further beaten with wood to soften it. The cotton is pile into sacks and distributed to various locations.
In Gangamari, a neighbourhood in Shehuri North in Maiduguri, a group of women sit spinning cotton or Kantalas as it is called in Kanuri language. The women who have been in this business for years sometimes sit in groups and other times alone in their homes working tirelessly for hours to make perfectly spun cotton. Most are housewives who care for their children,look after the house whilst the husbands venture out in an array of odd jobs. It is a mostly traditional, conservative Kanuri setting.
Malam Baafu, a housewife, who has been in the business for 15 years describes vividly not only the process but emphasises how cotton spinning has been life saving for her family. "This business has fed me and my family for many years. Alhamdulillah, I am able to make a small amount each day. Sometimes I make 50 naira per piece. I can sell about 20 on a good market day. If you are fast with spinning, you make more. Some people are fast while others are slow".
The cotton, which is originally harvested in farms in Mubi, Adamawa State, is sold to marketers in Kano before it arrives in smaller communities in Maiduguri. It is dusted and slowly rid of any dust or insects. The women buy three pieces at N100 but currently seven pieces are sold for N200. The market where Malam sells her Kantal off to is a place called Arinmari in Shehuri South where the spun yarn is used for embroidery for the Kulwu.
Researchers describe the Kulwu as a robe or shroud consisting of trousers, a long sleeve undershirt and the open stitched sleeveless gown atop it. The culture of the Kanuri, one of the most conversative ethnic groups in Nigeria, is wearing long, roomy garments with caps.
A voluminous and heavily embroidered piece, the Kulwu worn by men is one of the most sought after items at Arinmari. The fabrics come in a range of prices depending on the financial status of the wearer. Well loved by men from all walks of life, the more expensive the Kulwu, the higher the status of the person wearing it. Additionally, wearing the garment also depicts the adherence to cultural beliefs and one's attachment to the Kanem Borno tradition. Infact, in Arinmari, the art of making Kulwu is also considered a noble trade passed on from generations.
Baba Kura Alhaji Kolo, who mainly sells Kulwu inherited the art of the business from his uncles. "There are two types of Kantal used for the embroidery of the Kulwu',' he explains.
"The Kantal that is harvested traditionally is called Tsamiya and is used to make hand made designs for royal families and other influential people. It is only embroidered on expensive fabrics such as Gertner imported from Europe."
With the arrival of sophisticated machines for embroidery, machine spun cotton arrived in local markets in Maiduguri. This heralded a shift from traditional hand weaving into machine style Kulwu whilst imported fabrics from foreign countries also became highly respected amongst the Kanuri. Baba Kura explains further the disadvantages of the machine spun cotton. The Tokkola, the local name for the machine spun cotton, "starts to rip off a few years after embroidery. There is a big difference between the Tokkola and Tsamiya cotton. The Kulwu made with handmade Kantal is sold for 70,000-90,000 naira for five yards. The Tokkola is sold less," he adds.
The price for the Tokkola cotton is 700 naira while the Tsamiya cotton is around 3000-9000 naira for the making of a Kulwu.
Despite the quality difference, the preference for machine made Kulwu designs continues to the dismay of the artisans in Shehuri South and North who run the business. "Previously the sons of Borno and Yobe used to wear the Kulwu with the traditional designs but they are not wearing it currently," bemoans Ya Aisa Abatch, a woman who has been in the business in Gangamari for over ten years. "Our ex governor used to wear the Kulwu with the Tsamiya cotton and it brought in so much attention. We were able to spin so much Kantal because of the demand it brought. But sadly, our current governor hardly wears it. We want more leaders such senators, governors and ministers from this region to wear it as their presence on TV draws attention to the prestige of the Kulwu made traditionally which increases the demand for our cotton," she said.
Currently because of the Boko Haram conflict and the resultant road blocks, there has been a reduction in demand for the expensive Kulwu, says Baba Kura Alhaji Kolo. "The expensive Tsamiya and any kind of the Kulwu is not as sought after because of the current economic crisis. Unless it is a wedding or cultural event. Sadly, we are not making as much we used to."
Maida also hopes there is a return to peace in Borno and a return to high demands for traditional attire, "We hope the government steps in somehow to help us". "We hope our Governor starts to wear it too," adds Malam.