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Q&A: Nina Sylvanus

Q&A: Nina Sylvanus

A UCLA Global Fellow discusses West African women's longstanding influence on a global market in textiles, and the emerging role of Chinese manufacturers. Sylvanus is organizing an April workshop at UCLA on China's role in Africa.

A Togolese woman who spends $150 on a Dutch print and finds her servants wearing a Chinese imitation of her fabric a few days later is forced to change her wardrobe much quicker to reinforce distinctions.


Nina Sylvanus grew up in Hamburg, Germany, went to a Chicago-area high school on a year-long exchange program, studied in London, Hamburg, and Paris (MA and PhD in Paris), held fellowships at the University of Chicago and Oxford, and is now a visiting postdoc in the UCLA Global Fellows Program. For her dissertation, this social anthropologist spent two years doing fieldwork in Lomé, Togo, and Cotonou, Benin. Now she is writing a book about a global textile trade dominated by women in the two West African port cities. "My work focuses on the global trade in printed textiles, especially the so-called wax prints, or 'Dutch wax,' produced for export markets in West Africa, which have circulated in different global textile networks," she explains. 

In the latest phase of this trade's history, China has emerged as a major player. With the UCLA Globalization Research Center–Africa and the Center for Chinese Studies, Sylvanus is organizing an April 27, 2007, workshop on Chinese diplomacy and investment on the continent. In this context, she and GRCA Director Edmond Keller are two of the voices stressing the active role of Africans in shaping relationships with Asia.

Q: In your seminar paper you talk about these images of "Chinese devils"? How do West Africans feel now about the Chinese traders?

There are a variety of reactions. A common perception in Togo and Benin—and I think this is true for most parts in West Africa—is that European-produced goods last, while Chinese products are defective and ephemeral. Very similar ideas and fears exist in Europe or the U.S. 

Another version is, "They [the West] don't care about us. At least the Chinese, they invest here. They build our hospitals and they build our roads." Both discourses exist. 

The trade elite of course views this development as highly problematic. Their long-established trade networks with European cloth manufacturers, which in the case of Togo's textile trade elite go back to the colonial period, are not competitive anymore with the new China trade. Today, Chinese-produced copies of Dutch wax prints dominate the market.

The elite who are driven out of business, and particularly the powerful women textile traders, the so-called "Nana-Benz", who had crafted Lomé into a regional capital of textile distribution and who until recently monopolized cloth transactions throughout West Africa, react violently to this transformation. Among these businesswomen there's even nostalgia for colonial trade partners —"You could depend on them, and they would not sell to everyone, they would only sell to you." But the Chinese, "they're not honest; they'll sell to everyone." 

The Nana-Benz, who were among the first Togolese to purchase Mercedes Benz in the post-independence era, and who fuel these reactions, have in fact failed to establish "sustainable" trade relations with Chinese entrepreneurs, unlike other women traders. In addition, the ongoing economic crisis and devaluation has reduced the competitiveness of European-produced textiles on the West African market. Togolese traders increasingly explore the Persian Gulf (Dubai) and China's Shandong region for more profitable products. Attractive visa regulations in these regions facilitate these trade ventures, in contrast to Europe or the U.S. Certain businesswomen, and notably those who were excluded from Nana-Benz' trade networks have successfully explored these highly profitable, yet risky, markets. The Nana-Benz tend to explain the cause of their decline by accusing the "Chinese devil", the global market so to speak, and those women who are actively engaging with it. 

Q: On the African side, is this economy dominated by women, and is that part of your interest?

Yes. I'm looking at female entrepreneurship and women's capacity to shape global networks of trade and how women traders influence global systems of production by adapting them to the specific needs of the West African market. To consider local forms of agency is important in my work. I discovered from interviews and observations that certain traders actively participated in introducing Chinese manufacturers to Togo. They had traveled to the Shandong region to reproduce fabric samples they then sold in Lomé. This opened the process of endless imitation and increased competition by providing a blueprint to Chinese manufacturers. Of course they did not foresee the unintended consequences: competing Chinese manufacturers, multiplication of networks and actors…

 I view the Togolese market as a feminized space, but I haven't paid particular attention to how femininity is at stake in specific power relations, but I would like to explore the "gendered lens" in my future work. 

On the Coast of Guinea, women have been active in trade since the precolonial era. I'm also looking at historical accounts of women's trade involvement, and I've conducted archival research in major European trading houses.

Q: When did your interest in Africa begin?

When I was an undergrad studying African art history at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, I took a class with John Picton, who is a major expert on African textiles. I was about to do a project on Burkina Faso, and he said, "well, Nina, if you go, please bring back some Faso Fani prints." And so I brought him back some samples. At the beginning I had no idea what these fabrics were about.

My work deals with all these historic shifts and, really, a profile of global relations and processes of globalization and adaptation. The invention of the wax print is the result of a long historical process of imitation and mimicry. The Dutch reproduced batiks for the Dutch Indies market, present-day Indonesia. But the industrialized reproduction process was poor in quality and left imperfections on the fabric that was rejected. The signs of imperfection became highly appreciated in West Africa, where they became a symbol of authenticity. When these imitations of Javanese batik were introduced to the Gold Coast, present-day Ghana, in the late nineteenth century, they offered a particular potential to become a status symbol in its capacity to distinguish its wearer. 

Q: Did they already have a thriving textile market in West Africa? 

Yes, wax-prints' predecessors were already traded on the Coast of Guinea. But even much earlier many European and Indian-produced textiles circulated in this area. They served as exchange currency in the gold, ivory and slave trades. Since the late sixteenth century Indian-produced cottons were first traded by Portuguese merchants on the coasts of Africa, and during the 1800s the French exported "guinea cloth" from [the South Asian colony of] Pondicherry to West Africa. To compete with Indian textile manufacturers, European merchants began studying indigenous styles and attempted to copy and incorporate local designs to their repertoire. So yes, the trade in textiles was indeed thriving in this area and came to a peak in the nineteenth century. 

Q: What makes the fabrics African? Weren't these exotic products for Africans?

They were exotic to a certain extent, I would say. Given the long history of global textile flows in this region, I think that by the nineteenth century it is more appropriate to qualify them as "luxuries" because West Africa African consumers were already well acquainted with globally produced fabrics and had high expectations on how these fabrics had to look. 

Q: You put "African" in quotes when describing these textiles. 

I would actually argue that it's not the origin of the fabric that designates its capacity to become "African," but the way an object is used and integrated into a local context. This fabric has became so integral to local consumption via its integration into a complex set of hierarchal consumption patterns, that it holds a very specific and special status. 

So I would actually argue that these fabrics are African in a Wittgensteinian sense: "the use is its meaning." It's like the "spaghetti principle": although noodles come from China, few people would question spaghetti's Italian origins and its authentic Italianness. 

Q: You call this process of the textiles' becoming African a "localization" process. What does that mean? 

These fabrics have accumulated different layers of significance via their integration to different forms of consumption, most importantly as status symbols. Wearing wax prints attests to a woman's financial capacity to participate in changing sartorial styles, whereas men dress in these fabrics during ceremonial events. 

Unlike common perceptions, West Africa is not just one dress region; and the local particularities oblige the manufacturer to constantly adapt to shifting tastes. It is only recently that Chinese producers have discovered that West Africans don't dress cheaply. Today, the quality of Chinese copies is improving. Now they have the technology to actually almost imitate to perfection these Dutch copies.

Q: "Almost imitate Dutch copies to perfection"?

Yes, almost, with improved technology. But the high-end segment of this market is rather small, so these manufacturers copy one Dutch design in a multitude of qualities. This is what has caused the unsettling of longstanding hierarchies of value and distinction. A woman who spends $150 on a Dutch print and finds her servants wearing an imitation of her fabric a few days later is forced to change her wardrobe much quicker to reinforce those distinctions. 

The historical Manchester manufacturer has recently been bought by a Chinese company, and, today, the Dutch manufacturer is the only European-owned producer of these fabrics. If the Dutch were to withdraw from this market segment, which is likely to happen in the near future, it raises the question of the continuity of this historic trade. The special status these fabrics acquired when they were introduced to West Africa resulted also from the unique case of a European industry producing exclusively for the African market. There are few examples of goods that were produced in Europe and only distributed in Africa. So far Chinese textile manufacturers have failed to tailor to the specific needs of African demand with a strategy that for now is primarily based on imitation and not on innovation.

Q: What is the goal of the workshop you're organizing on Chinese-African relations?

In 2006 there was great interest by Western governments and international organizations in "How should we react to China's Africa interest and how should the West engage China over Africa?" Also, the media coverage of China's involvement in Africa has been important. But most reports tend to ignore the pluralism of Chinese foreign relations over time by reducing China's Africa interest to a single strategy—resource extraction and politics of energy—and analyze this engagement in very dichotomized terms. It's either, "Is China a threat?" or "Can China be a trade partner?" There are a very few historically informed analyses of these relationships; instead there are gaps as to how these relations work out on the ground. 

The goal of the workshop is to debunk some of these notions and to engage a more historically informed approach to this renewed engagement.