Weaving Sovereignty and Resistance
The Politics of Cloth in Cameroon
Globalization is more complicated than a one-way street from the West to the Rest.
Even if the major impetus has often seemed to be unidirectional, this should not blind us to the ways that people have indigenized globalization. They have in fact frequently expressed resistance or sovereignty through textiles, amplifying the traditional and local at the expense of the global. Typical of such responses are the indigo-dyed ndop and waxed cotton political cloths displayed here.
Ndop dates from the time of Njoya Ibrahim (1873-1933), seventeenth king (fon) of Bamum. Njoya introduced ndop as part of a strategy to counter the late-19th century colonial advances of the British, French, and Germans. The key part of his plan was to adopt Islam and forge alliances with nearby African states, but Njoya also brought in ndop as part of a complex court art designed to consolidate power, assert independence, and distance his kingdom visually from colonial powers.
Ndop was woven at court and used only with royal permission. It became the standard backdrop for royal ceremony and an essential element of court regalia. The king gave this cloth as gifts to supporters who displayed it in their communities, affirming thereby the unity and independent aspirations of this indigenous state in the new colonial world.
Throughout Africa, political cloths serve similar purposes as ndop. Symbols and slogans, printed on cloth and worn as clothing, become billboards for loyalty to particular political parties or causes, some of which spring from, or can be linked to, globalization.
During his reign, Njoya monopolized the production of ndop, employing 300 men to weave cotton in his palace at Fumban, making canvases that women covered with complex geometric designs in raffia.
These patterns, which referenced the layout of Njoya's palaces and properties, emerged only after dying the cloth in indigo and removing the raffia. On ceremonial occasions attendants lined the courtyards of Njoya's palace with massive, architecturally scaled panels of ndop and, as the ndop-clothed ruler and his nobles conducted the business of government and the rituals of state, the patterned indigo panoply integrated Bamum statecraft.
After the First World War, France and England divided Germany's colonial holdings in Cameroon and dismantled Njoya's kingdom. They also disbanded the weaving workshops, which never fully recovered, not even after the Bamileke and other adjacent kingdoms had adopted ndop as an emblem of their independent political strivings during the colonial and post-colonial periods.
Ndop is still produced today in a process that links people living 1500 miles apart, from cotton growers near Lake Chad to weavers and dyers on the Nigerian border, and artists and officials in the Bamileke kingdom. These artistic and economic exchanges link communities within Cameroon and provide, in an increasingly globalized world, local and regional markets for cotton, skilled craftsmen, and emblems of local determination.