This project is Aboubakar's lifelong dream.. The project formally commenced in 2015, on land that Aboubakar purchased many years ago, situated in southwest Mali, along the road to Guinea, about 60km from Bamako. The area would once have been covered in large trees, but most have been felled for charcoal, and the land was extensively damaged and beginning to show signs of desertification. The first steps the team undertook was to begin healing the land, digging wells, replanting trees, and beginning to rejuvenate the soil with composting and manure.
This project has several aims, which are intricately related. Its main focus is to assist in the revitalisation of an ancient Malian cultural and economic mainstay, indigo, through firstly teaching local people the techniques of growing and harvesting indigo for dye, and then by apprenticing those who show interest in the techniques of using the indigo to make dye. Alongside the indigo cultivation and harvesting, the project maintains a small agricultural model farm, focussing on local indigenous food and medicine plants, selected indigenous trees, as well as raising farm animals, so that eventually the farm will effectively demonstrate a complex agricultural ecosystem, based on permaculture models, farmed entirely organically, in which all the plants and the cycles they undergo support the structure and assist in the short-term goals of feeding local people, the medium-term goal of indigo production and dyeing, and the long-term goal of assisting to maintain biodiversity and safeguard the agricultural and cultural heritage of this part of Mali.
An associated aim of this project is to provide access to international markets for both the indigo leaves and the indigo textiles, to ensure ongoing income for the participants. And we hope to document the whole process and disseminate this documentation to assist other organisations to achieve similar goals in this region of tropical/Sahel West Africa.
Eventually, Indigo House will be built – a space which will include a workshop, a meeting room and studios, as well as a small number of bedrooms, a kitchen and a bathroom. Indigo House will be a place in which Aboubakar can teach both local and international students; a place where local and international artists, artisans, farmers, dyers, textile workers, and others can come to exchange ideas and skills and deepen their understanding of the project, of indigo, and of this region of Africa. In the long-term, fostering understanding and encouraging these cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary experiences will help to keep the project running, as it will make the project available to outside interests and show local people that their culture and their raw materials have value and are not historic or static.
Indigo dyeing using natural indigo leaves was once an economic mainstay of this part of West Africa. It was an integral cultural practice whose importance encompassed the span of a human life, from birth, marriage, death, and beyond. In the last 60 years, in the face of cheap cloth imports and the use of chemical dyes, traditional organic non-chemical indigo dyeing has completely disappeared from West Africa, despite what is commonly believed, and with it has disappeared a potential source of revenue for subsistence farmers and rural women. Along with this revenue source, the knowledge of how to cultivate and harvest indigo suitable for dyeing has also completely disappeared, creating a vicious cycle whereby local people know that the plant was once used for dyeing, harvest it for their dyepots but cannot extract the dyestuff inside the leaves due to a lack of knowledge. They then give up and return to using chemical dyestuffs, which causes environmental and health problems, and cheapens and degrades a product which was once held all over Africa and the Middle East to be an example of the beauty and richness of this part of West Africa. Because it no longer has any perceived value, the indigo plant is no longer cultivated or considered of any importance. It grows wild, but not in any profusion as it once did.
We understand that the key to saving both the indigo plant and knowledge of the cultivation and use of the plant is to return it to a place of economic importance for local people. This cannot be done in isolation, because it is not tenable to interest local subsistence farmers in growing a crop which does not have an immediate food or monetary value, or in expending their time, efforts and resources in learning a skill (dyeing with indigo) which takes time to master and can not immediately be exchanged for food and money.
We hope to show that such a project can be started by a committed grassroots organisation, and that it can succeed by using and giving value to indigenous knowledge and indigenous crops.
The project is now in its third, critical year. We have harvested the first and second test crops of indigo, alongside other vegetables, and the results have been wonderful. We are beginning to look at expanding these crops, and also at ways of transforming the indigo for sale to exterior markets. Aboubakar's Instagram account provides regular short updates and we aim to give more news via our newsletter.