Benin is sandwiched on Africa’s west coast between Ghana and Nigeria, the two regional economic giants. In this land of nine million people, women who have had children or are of child-bearing age are referred to as “Mama.” In the town of Cotonou, Mama Gisette Houessou owns and operates a modest stand just off the main road and behind a series of freight trucks.
In addition to selling phone cards, ice cream, and other items, Mama Gisette twists and braids bright purple, green, orange and yellow strands of plastic into handbags crafted on a makeshift structure of a wooden chair back. The plastic threads are normally used for clothes lines, fishing lines, for tying up boxes, or sewing up the closures to bags of rice, beans and gray (a grainy cornmeal like substance made from yucca or cassava) before they are exported, are purchased in Congou’s large market.
Mama Gisette learned the art of “kisser” or weaving almost 17 years ago from an older woman in the northern part of Benin. She saw value in learning a trade to create marketable goods, despite the high cost of 100,000 francs equivalent to approximately USD $200, a sum she painstakingly accumulated by saving 50 cents daily from store sales. Now Mama Gisette teaches the craft to her children, 26 year-old Lucrèce and 29 year-old Florien often pick up the weaving when Mama is busy.
Each bag is a creation that begins with the base structure. As a bag is set, Mama Gisette imagines different styles and patterns and makes adjustments as works. She envisions how women will use her bags: in the supermarkets, mothers with small babies, beach bags.
Business picked up three years ago when a lady from Gabon saw the bags, fell in love with them and ordered fifty to take back to Gabon for resale. Now Mama Gisette sends that lady in Gabon a standard order of 50 bags per year. Even Nigerian students at the local university are buying bags to take home for trade while a lady in Benin sells them to local offices. Even a European man came and bought 10 zippered bags.
When asked if men buy these bags, Mama Gisette breaks into a big smile and a laugh that can be described as nothing short of jolly. “Oui. Yes, of course men also buy these bags, but for their women! African men will not be seen going into the markets with the bags.” Mama Gisette pauses, a glimmer of entrepreneurship in her eyes. “But America is not Africa!”
Mama Gisette’s hands are surprisingly soft and not at all marred by the hours of weaving. Asked how she makes the time while also managing a household and the store, she waves a dismissive hand. “Oh, the store doesn’t close until 10 p.m. and I don’t go to bed until midnight. That gives me two focused hours in the night. Then I wake up at 6 a.m. to have four hours for working on the bags before opening the store at 10 a.m. And I work on and off during the day when the store is not busy.” She smiles softly. “I have also trained all my children–even the boys–to do much of the cooking so that also gives me extra time.” In Africa, still a very male dominated culture, that’s an impressive feat.
Mama Gisette’s daughter Lucrèce explains that the bags are very Beninese and cannot be found in Nigeria, Cote D’Ivoire, or Ghana. “I am glad to have learned,” Lucrèce says, “But we must look to the foreign markets for sales. People in the local markets do not give much value to the amount of work involved.”
Apparently, young girls her age are also not interested in doing the weaving as it could ruin their manicures. Lucrèce displays her own hands. “In the beginning they hurt. I even got blisters, but now it doesn’t hurt as much. See,” she points and proudly says, “Just some small roughness.”
Mama Gisette watches her daughter as she reflects on the inspiration for her bag weaving art. “I dream of it,” she says. “I dream of the different colors and how they will come together. It is hard work and it needs much love to complete. Sometimes, making a certain style does hurt the hands, but then I think of my children, who are good children who studied, but still cannot find jobs. I hope this art can be something for their future.”
For more information or to purchase one of Mama Gisette’s creations, please contact Ms. Nyamah Dunbar at Nowai1@yahoo.com.