In a hot, dusty village on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, an old woman sits on a straw mat outside a mud-brick house. She holds a strip of goatskin between her toes, a squirming grandchild on her lap and a razor blade between her fingers. With dextrous flourishes of the blade, she shreds the goatskin into twenty-five fine cords and then begins to plait.
The lady’s name is Salamata, and she is a gargasaajo, a member of a Fulani leather-working caste. Fulani people used to dress their horses in vibrant tassles to accentuate movement and turn heads. Religious leaders adorned their horses with bright leather harnesses to make a grand entrance into a village.
But the advent of cheap Chinese motorbikes has all but destroyed the proud equestrian culture of the Fulani people – so much so that the Fulani word puccu (horse) now means motorbike! The extinction of the puccu leebi (‘hairy horse’) heralded the extinction of Salamata’s centuries-old skills. Even her own daughters and granddaughters regarded leather weaving as a quaint but unsustainable pastime.
When I first came to Burkina Faso, I knew none of this. I arrived in 2007, desperate to play a part in relieving poverty amongst the Fulani, who are some of the poorest and most marginalised people in Africa. As an ex fashion editor of the Sunday Telegraph Magazine, I felt as though I had stepped out of the pages of Vogue and into the pages of National Geographic. With a heart full of compassion and a head full of utterly inappropriate schemes, I started teaching embroidery and cross-stitch to the women in my neighbourhood, hoping that they could sell their handiwork for a few pennies at the local market. Embroidery! In my desperation to help, I had hardly even enquired about indigenous Fulani crafts.
One day a young man came to my house with a set of horse reins for sale. He had heard that I owned a horse, and thought I might need reins for it. I stared at the woven leather, momentarily overcome with awe at the exquisite workmanship. ‘Where were these made?’ I asked. ‘A gargasaajo village,’ he replied. ‘It’s in the desert about ten kilometres from here.’
That was the start of my relationship with Salamata’s village. I started riding there regularly on my horse and sitting at Salamata’s feet, no longer as teacher but as photographer and fangirl. I was awestruck at the beauty of her product and the complexity of her skill. I was saddened, too, when I realized that this precious skill was on the cusp of extinction. Salamata and her sister were the last remaining guardians of The Knowledge, and in a few short years it would be lost forever.
As I fretted about this imminent loss, my fashion editor imagination went into overdrive. What if a new market could be found for Salamata’s skill? Her braided reins and girths would make stunning straps for luxury bags. I talked with Salamata about the idea, and started playing with prototypes on a pedal-powered sewing machine. In the summer of 2010, SAHEL was born.
At first, Salamata and her sister were the only women making straps for SAHEL bags. They were the only ones who knew how. But when the younger women in the village saw their grannies wearing fine new clothes and jewellery, they soon started to pay attention. Today there are twelve women in the village who are making, or learning to make, Salamata’s woven straps.
The effect on the village has been striking. As well as being the best dressed women in the region, Salamata and her daughters have invested SAHEL profits back into their community in the form of solar panels, a water pump and a millet grinding machine. Development is happening at their rate and on their terms.
I’m back in London now to work on SAHEL sales and marketing. I stay in close contact with craftspeople in Burkina Faso — the reinsmakers, of course, but also mudcloth dyers (for the bag linings) and bronzesmiths (for buckles). In a spirit of intercontinental collaboration, SAHEL bags are put together by English leatherworkers in Devon.
For a business to be sustainable it has to satisfy a deeper longing than just making money. Salamata is proud of her leatherwork heritage, and she is pleased that the flame is being passed on. Reinsmaking is in her family’s blood, and they won’t be giving up any time soon.