Koko Dunda: The rejected loincloth flooding Burkina Faso’s mainstream fashion industry

The people of Burkina Faso, a small and landlocked country in Africa with majority of its 19.6 million people living in poor conditions, are known for their simple way of life. It is, however, very important to be well dressed in Burkina Faso as there is a link between people’s image and their way of dressing.

As far as their traditional dress is concerned, the influences of Arabic and European cultures on the indigenous clothing patterns are prominent. Majority of the Burkinabè practice Islam, while the rest are Christians or traditional indigenous believers. But not only are there differences in the clothes of the people belonging to different religions and ethnicities, there are also significant distinctions in the textiles of ethnic groups and communities.

However, one indigenous textile is making an appearance in Faso’s mainstream fashion. The pagne, a loin cloth previously viewed as “poor women’s” clothing because the fabric was so cheap, is now worn by different classes of people as a statement of culture and contemporary fashion.

The original Koko Dunda material. Credit: Afriyelba

Formerly considered a loincloth reserved for the underprivileged sections of society, the cloth is now called Koko Dunda—a term in Bambara, a language widely spoken in Dioula, which means at the entrance to Koòko, a popular neighborhood of Bobo Dioulasso, where Koko Dunda is produced.

Before Koko Dunda, it was known by other names, such as Tchè ti barala (my husband is unemployed) or Soro man quarrel (easy to get)—a reference to its cost. The names were clear in distinguishing social class, because it was generally poor women who wore this type of fabric.

Predominant in the Hauts-Bassins, one of Burkina Faso’s thirteen administrative regions whose capital is Bobo DioulassoKoko Dunda was known as the loincloth of the poor, the one that peasants could carry to the field or offer to their wives. It was a simple low-priced cotton that was appreciated for its resistance, but which no one wanted to wear just two years ago. 

The cost of acquiring the cloth was very low, between 500F and 750F CFA (less than $2) compared to the loincloths prints imported from Ivory Coast, Benin or Holland.

However, for several months now, Burkinabé fashion has been marked by the creativity highlighted by one of the leading designers in the country, Sebastian Bazemo, better known as Bazem’Sé. The loin cloth has become increasingly popular among the different social classes in Burkina Faso since the official presentation of his collection called Koko. This was showcased during the biennial National Culture Week in Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso’s second largest city, in April 2016. 

“Koko” by Bazem’sé

The Koko Dunda has come a long way from craftsmen and women mostly learning this art from their parents who had inherited theirs to being featured on the runway. It is made with a lot of materials, including cotton fabrics, artificial dye, caustic soda. The process starts with the cutting of cloth balls into loincloths of normal size before the actual dyeing phase where it is prepared according to the colour the dyer chooses. Initially made only in purple and green; orange, brown and pink have since been added to broaden the colour range. Afterwards, it is dried in the sun, and the Koko Dunda is ready for use.

Only years back, second hand clothing was imported in enormous bales from America and Europe, which saw Burkinabè leaving traditional clothing in favour of the used clothing in a country where the non-genetically modified cotton crop is one of the first national incomes and where the tradition of weaving is very old. Now, even the President Roch Marc Christian Kabore, dresses with this original loincloth from the Hauts Bassins region.

In an interview with Afriyelba, Bazem’Sé said, “When I started to create the loin cloth in my workshop in 2015, people came to me and said; wait, you have fallen so much as to use this loincloth. But me, that made me laugh… I felt it was beyond them that I was using a loincloth that no person in the city could wear. Today, it’s everyone’s loincloth because if I can get it to a head of state, to the first lady… that means that this loincloth can be worn by everyone, whether poor or rich.”

Sébastien Bazemo, Bazem’Se Couture.

On starting out, the fashion entrepreneur said to Afriyelba, “The Koko Dunda was a challenge that I started when I heard the history of this loincloth, which at the base was reserved for the underprivileged sections of society. I wanted to give it another life. When I organized the private parade in April 2016 to launch the Koko Dunda it was to show that one can leave nothingness and be in glory.

“The women who make Koko Dunda now have a market that comes from everywhere. At the moment when you ask these ladies, they will tell you that they can not even honor the whole order, because they are so overwhelmed. For me it is already a pride to hear that, to see moms who manage to support their family, thanks to the boost that was given to their businesses that were going to go bankrupt.”

The idea of ​​giving Koko Dunda value is considered innovative, making it possible to increase the economic capacity of the country and changing the lives of local dyers of Bobo-Dioulasso. The loincloth now flows in large quantities. It is sold in shops and marketplaces, representing the pride of the culture of Burkina Faso.

Young women in Koko Dunda. Courtesy: Afriyelba

However, there is skepticism that the valuation of a fabric stigmatized and worn before by the poor and now worn by everyone, will not remain accessible to all, especially those who wear it because they have no other option. This evokes similarities to the Faso Danfani (FDF), a woven handmade loin cloth few people wanted to wear until it was revolutionised with many fashion designers showcasing it in their collection and during fashion shows. Today, the FDF is no longer accessible to everyone because of its high cost.

The Koko Dunda is also plagued by counterfeit from China flooding the markets and sold at 6000 FCFA while locally made Koko Dunda costs between 2,500F CFA and 3,500F CFA in the market. But since the locally made loin-cloths are cheaper than the counterfeit, the Burkinabè aren’t threatened by the Chinese imports.

The original is made locally, it is made by hand and you even feel the smell of koko dye on it,” Bazemo said. “While what came from China is a printer, it is a printer they put on it, so it looks nothing like the original. Even without touching them, you can recognize by sight an original koko and a Chinese Koko.”

Bazem’Sé promoted his latest collection of Koko dunda “Barka” at 19th edition of the National Culture Week better known as La Semaine Nationale de la culture (SNC) last month. Today, the pagne is all over the country and even beyond the borders of Burkina Faso.