Brilliant blue fabric billows from a razor-wire line. The bold color contrasts a dusty backdrop of blocky buildings and dry, sparsely vegetated terrain. The men who squat over round indigo-dye pits that produce the vivid hues are among the last of their kind. These dye pits in Nigeria’s ancient northern city of Kano are the only ones that remain after five centuries of existence.
The tradition of dyeing indigo-colored fabric here has been passed down in families for many generations. But today, the sons who inherit the tradition often choose to pursue government jobs or other businesses instead. The internationally renowned blue fabrics may soon fade—from memory. Many of the pits at this site, Kofar Mata, appear abandoned already.
Kofar Mata’s dye pits were founded in 1498. They attracted travelers and traders from all across the vast Sahel region. (The Sahel is the semi-arid geographical band that spans Africa from west to east. This large area is the transition between the Sahara desert to the north and the Sudanian savanna to the south.) The homespun, indigo-dyed cloth ranges in color from sky blue to darkest night. It was so valuable to nomads that its sale made Kano one of the most prosperous cities in West Africa in the 1500s.
Preparing the deep blue dye uses no artificial modern chemicals. But it does take much patience. Modern Nigerians use the same traditional methods of their ancestors. Indigo dye comes from the lonchocarpus cyanescens plant—a shrub belonging to the pea family. The locals call the plant Talaki—which is easier to pronounce.
Talaki leaves and stems are pruned from the shrub while green, but they won’t stay green for long. They are bound in small bundles or twisted into palm-sized balls and submerged in small vats of water. Heavy stones set on top of the leaves help press out the dye. Overnight, a fermentation process begins that causes the leaves and stems to release a blue pigment. After just 24 hours, the water in the small vats turns blue. It is drained from the leaves and mixed with powdered lime to make a paste. The result is a deep, dark “mud” that can be stored for months without breaking down.
Now comes the waiting. To create a liquid that will adhere to fabric, the indigo paste is mixed again with water—but this time in the pits. Ash is added, along with fruit for sugar, to help the mixture ferment again. The paste releases its pigment into the entire mixture. Achieving just the right blue—which will be called by some romantic name such as “moon and shadow”—can take days or even up to a month. Then the fabric is dipped and soaked.
With sturdy gloves to prevent skin staining, the men lower the cloth into the pits. For darkest hues, it will soak for several hours, be lifted periodically to drip, and immersed again. Layers of indigo platelets build up on the fabric with each dipping, offering deeper and richer colors. To “fix” the color so that it won’t bleed badly, a dash of potassium is the final component in the mix.
Even as fewer Nigerians are continuing in the indigo-dyeing trade, some of the craftsmen here grumble about competition. They say Chinese fabrics that sell for half the price have entered their markets—despite being lower quality that fades quickly.
One artisan looks to Nigeria’s president for his economic hope. “God make Buhari to help us,” Ibrahim Ahmed Ibrahim says of the newly re-elected politician. Muhammadu Buhari first took office in 2015. He imposed tariffs on imported rice to promote local production. Ibrahim has urged the president to do the same on imported textiles in his second term in office.
For now, the indigo cloth still attracts enough of the rich from Kano who have a taste for the things of the past to keep the trade alive. So the few remaining craftsmen patiently work. And although the unused pits at Kofar Mata appear abandoned, they are maintained—in case a revival comes.