Senegal clothes maker gives faithful jobs and hope
By Rose Skelton
NDEM, Senegal (Reuters) – A hot wind blows across Senegal’s arid landscape as Mathioro Ndiaye bows his head before his marabout, or spiritual guide.
Ndiaye is one of Serigne Babacar Mbow’s most faithful followers. He is also the Sorbonne-educated public relations representative of Mbow’s lucrative clothing company, Maam Samba.
Ndiaye brushes his hands over his face to receive the blessings muttered by Mbow, dressed in a simple white robe with dreadlocks piled up beneath a black bonnet.
The intimate exchange over, the two men discuss the day’s work ahead.
Senegalese desperately need jobs and Mbow’s fast-growing company offers local people hope. Waves of migrants leave mainland Africa’s most westerly country in tiny boats in search of work and a better life in Europe.
“This is something for the potential of our country and also for the emergence of Senegal, for community development and for sustainable development,” says Ndiaye, who returned from nine years working in France to join Mbow.
“For my spirituality, for my health…for my future…I decided to declare my allegiance to Serigne Babacar,” said Ndiaye, who has a master’s degree from the Sorbonne.
The village of Ndem, 120 km (75 miles) from Senegal’s capital Dakar, is the company’s headquarters, from where hand-made cotton clothes and household items are dispatched to chic boutiques in Europe and North America.
The success of the venture, which employs 365 people, has been to combine ancient African weaving and dyeing techniques — mud is often used as a cheap and ecological alternative to chemical dyes — with cutting-edge tailoring.
The drive behind the 16-year-old business is the villagers’ spiritual belief in hard work, not the more orthodox prayer or fasting, as a means of serving Allah.
Profits from the business go into infrastructure and services, such as schools and health clinics.
MYSTICISM OF WORK
It was a spiritual revelation in France that inspired Mbow to return to his father’s village in Senegal.
When he arrived there, he discovered the village had been all but deserted by people leaving for the cities, and Europe, in search of jobs. He decided to start the company in an attempt to create employment for local people.
“Now there are lots of young people who ask if they can come back and we are trying to create conditions to let them return to their land,” says Mbow, lamenting the exodus.
“Our era is characterized by this, a waiting to leave for overseas. It wasn’t easy but with perseverance, determination, a unity founded on faith in God, respect and consideration, everyone is united and going in the same direction,” he said.
Ndem’s 700 villagers belong to an Islamic sect known as the Baay Fall, named after its founder Cheikh Ibra Fall who emerged as a popular spiritual leader in the early 20th century.
The Baay Fall are often associated with Rastafarianism because of their dreadlocks and a taste for marijuana.
At Ndem, Mbow and his French wife Aisha, both in their 50s, expect everybody to pull their weight. More work appears to get done here than in urban Baay Fall communities, where begging is a more usual way to earn money.
Within Ndem village about 50 or 60 of Mbow’s family and followers, both European and African, live in a commune and follow a regime of hard work, discipline and punctuality.
“You must understand ‘work’ in its deepest sense, in its spiritual sense. It should not be a constraint, it should be a daily act that comes form the heart and is a form of prayer,” said Mbow, seated under an awning in the center of the commune.
“We don’t devote work to the outside life, to the earthly life, but we devote it to God. That is the mysticism of work.”
The workshops are in a large guarded compound where women dye the cloth by hand and men weave and assemble the pieces of clothing to be exported overseas.
In the village’s boutique in Dakar, a pair of trousers can sell for $32. In Europe, these prices can triple.
Mbissan Diop, in his 50s, is a weaver from a nearby village. He learned the family trade — weaving narrow strips of cloth on 20-meter (65-foot) long looms — but was forced to make long journeys across the country to sell his wares.
“Because of Serigne Babacar and the beliefs we have in common, I’ve had a lot of output ever since I started to collaborate with the craft center of Ndem,” Diop said.
Beside him, his 14-year-old son sits at a loom, the thick cotton cloth stretching out in front of him.
Diop now manages 117 weavers from 34 surrounding villages who previously had to travel to sell their work. Now the weavers can stay with their families and their children can attend the region’s only primary school, which was built by the villagers.
Ndem also has a health center and maternity clinic, funded by a Belgian non-governmental organization, serving Ndem and the surrounding 15 villages. In the past villagers had to walk at least 11 km (7 miles) for medical treatment.
“Thanks to God, thanks to Cheikh Ibra Fall, thanks to Serigne Babacar, they have made our lives a little bit easier,” says the head of the clinic, Daoda Ndiaye.
“There is nothing better…than being healed in your own village.”