Beautiful batik

A mother-daughter duo in my village makes beautiful batik fabric. I have never been able to find their styles in other places and even each print is unique. Instead of just buying the fabric (which I do plenty), I thought it would be fun to learn how to make it on my own.

Nora and I in our asobis,  matching batik dresses.

Nora and I wearing our asobis, matching batik dresses, in Janjanbureh.

I decided to do the class while my friend Nora was visiting so we would have something to do in village and she could take home a one-of-a-kind souvenir. We took my teenage siblings along, so they could learn a new skill and do something they normally wouldn’t have the opportunity to do.

Despite my nagging, we started to leave the house 30 minutes late because my sisters weren’t done with their chores yet. As we were finally headed out the door, our 4-year-old sister threw a tantrum because she couldn’t come, which only delayed us further. I was stressed that our batik teachers, Mariama and Fanta, would be waiting for us so I walked to their compound in an annoyed haste. We arrived at their house only to find Mariama completely unprepared and somewhat frazzled herself. Her daughter Fanta, who is the real expert in batik, had traveled to the city for the day despite my many reminders about the class that we’d planned more than a month in advance. I was pretty frustrated but not at all surprised at what was a typical Gambian situation in WAIT – West African International Time.

“You should be used to this by now,” Nora laughed at my angst. “I guess you can take the girl out of America, but you can’t take the American out of the girl.”

I asked Mariama about the process for batik, so I could get a sense of what materials she needed to prepare for us. With some prodding, she eventually got everything out and ready. It took another half hour for the wax to melt on small charcoal burners. While we waited, she started to explain the steps and show us some examples. Soon enough, Fanta arrived and I started the lengthy Gambian greetings.

“Eh! Don’t greet her, Fatoumata,” Mariama said. “She has failed you!”

Since greetings are deeply embedded in the culture and taken quite seriously, Mariama’s response surprised me. I immediately felt guilty for my sour attitude, which had probably just added to Mariama’s stress. But when in doubt, make it a joke. So in true Gambian fashion, we teased each other a bit and it felt like we all sort-of pushed “reset” on the afternoon.

Using the hot wax, each of us painted a design in the center of our fabric. The part covered in wax would not be dyed. Then, we splattered the edges for the “batik” effect. We soaked our fabric in our color of choice. We hung our tapestries to dry in the wind and returned the following afternoon.

The next day, we applied more wax to the parts where we wanted to preserve the color. Then we dyed it one or two more colors to add to our designs. Once they dried, we washed the fabrics in boiling water which dissolved the wax for good.

It was almost like watching a magic trick as we waited for each one to come out of the wash – transformed. Each print turned out completely different than I expected it to but they were all beautiful!

–JDF