The dye pits in Nigeria’s ancient northern city of Kano have been in operation for five centuries, but are now reported to be the last of their kind.
Many pits at Kofar Mata have been abandoned as young people turn to city jobs instead of the traditional trades they were to inherit.
Nigeria’s internationally renowned textile industry is also increasingly being undercut by Chinese imports.
Dye pit worker Lawan Ismailu said: “We sell our clothes for 5,000 [Naira, around €13] while the Chinese are selling at between 1,000 and 2,000 Naira. The Chinese products look similar to ours but are not of the same quality.”
Idayat Hassan, director of the country’s Centre for Democracy and Development, believes the threat is not just economic, but cultural. She said: “Most of the textiles are brought from China into the market and this is not only taking away [from Nigerian] markets, it’s also [that] the quality of the products are not as good. So this is eroding culture, it’s taking away markets, it’s increased unemployment.”
However, the situation is complex, with the Nigerian government having received loans from its Chinese counterpart to support industry, leading to an irony that is inescapable for the workers being left behind.
This is only enhanced by the purpose those loans have been put to – improving transport infrastructure, making it easier for people to move around the country for work, and away from their local, traditional industries.
Hassan called the incursion of the Chinese into the Nigerian market “both a blessing and a curse”.
“When you look at the infrastructure development for reasons that this government is laying claim to, you find that it’s a result of the loans that they have actually received from China. So you see a lot of improvement in the rail transport in the country, several parts of the country now are easily accessible by rail, unlike previous years,” she said.
Those who remain at the pits are calling on the government to do more to protect traditions in the face of technological advances.
“The government should not allow the Chinese to dump their cloth here because in any country you can see their cloth. They have young people with superior technology which is not available to us,” Ismailu said.
“Here, we do not have sufficient technology because our government is not supporting us in retaining our idea, they normally forget us. Everything has been spoilt.”