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A 400-year tradition makes elephants' favorite grass into weaving craft.
Introducing the hand-woven elephant grass fans from Ghana's City of Rocks, West Africa.

The Global Decor, the African Waves

These colorful,  hand-woven fans with natural grass aroma come from Ghana of West Africa, They are called the Bolga fans. Bolga weaving is often seen in home decor in Europe and North America. Their strong colors and neat designs make them frequently seen in Vogue, Voyage LA and other fashion magazines. The Bolga weaving is becoming more and more sophisticated and unique. The items are popular and regard as stylish globally, and even become fashionable boutique.

Bolga weaving in boutique and popular items in global household decor (Source: Golden-Editions、AAKS、ZuriRose&Co. )

Bolga weaving is not only refined and accepted by European and American societies, its uniqueness also represents African culture. Many movies present Africa with Bolga weaving in the scenes. For example, the eye-catching Bolga baskets were seen in a street scene of the fictional country Waganda, in Marvel's Black Panther.

A scene from Marvel's Black Panther

Elephants' Favorite

Bolga fans are made with the local plant, elephantgrass, which originates in Africa. It gets the name because it is elephants' favorite. The commonly seen grass is strong in reproduction and adaptation. It grows in extremely dry wasteland and in humid swamps, and can even thrive into a jungle up to four meters  high. Although a native African, it has spread to all over the world through human movements in the past one or two hundred years. It even appears in riverbanks and mountains in Taiwan, where it is regarded as a famous exotic species.

The elephantgrass looks like green foxtail. They both have blade-like leaves and spike-formed inflorescnence (Source: Elephantencyclopedia)

The elephantgrass grows fast and everywhere, never eaten up by the elephants. It is used in various production. For hundreds of years, it is used to feed livestock and fish, its flower dried for further use and the leaves made into paper.  In recent years, scholars think it can be alternative energy source. For local people, the sun-dried stems are the most valuable. The stems can be woven into fans, baskets and tools. The craft came from Bolgatanga, a barren area in northern Ghana.

Sun-dried stems of elephantgrass (Source: Petlamp)

Bolgatanga, the City of Rocks and the Frafra People

The earliest people who start Bolga weaving is the Frafra people living in Bolgatanga area, near the border between Ghana and Berkina Faso, in  the 16th century. Bolgatanga is adjacent to the route of elephant migration to the water source. During the rain season, the elephants pass by the area and often feast in the farmland and cause troubles.

Bolgatanga and the route of elephant migration (Source: Sousoucorner)

Bolga weaving is developed by the Frafra people. Their tribe is characterized by traditional round huts, strongly-built with mixture of clay, soil, straw and dried cow manure. They paint their walls with red, white and black geometric patterns. The patterns are related to the traditional mask culture, tribal tales or daily objects.

A village in Boltanga and the villagers
(Source: Kirikou, naturgucker.de / enjoynature.net, Dr. Matthias Funk)

The name of Boltanga comes from the Frafra language. Bolga means rock and tanga (tẽŋa) means the city. Literally, the City of Rocks is barren and people have to find other livings than farming. In the very beginning, Bolga weaving is used in making sieves for sorghum or pito beer brewing. Later the Bolga baskets were made into containers for objects and fruit. More and more other objects were woven and taken into the market in exchange for salt and Kola nuts. The weaving was thus gradually developed.

A market in Boltanga (Source: Petlamp, Anton_Ivanov / Shutterstock.com)

Boltanga got rid of poorness by Bolga weaving and developed into large-scale industry. It became one of the major trade center between Ghana and Berkina Faso, and the handicraft center of West Africa. In addition to Bolga weaving, leather, pottery and clothing industries were also developed. The later European colonization brought the crafts to Europe and North America. Bolga weaving is now the main economic source for Boltanga. Women work together in workshops and make fans and baskets. In the past decades, Bolga fans become home decor in European and American houses or personal collections.

Weaving of the elephantgrass

The sun-dried stems of elephantgrass are tough. The women weave them into various patterns. They usually sit under trees, chatting and weaving with friends. It takes one to two hours to complete a fan but the grass drying and preparation takes several days. The soaking and splitting of the grass takes several hours. To master the weaving, one needs three to five years of learning.

The women weaving the elephantgrass (Source: Petlamp)

【Step 1】 

Sun-dry the cut stems of the grass. The stems are very tough, and have to be torn apart by teeth into finer fibers.

【Step 2】

Palm-twist two strands of grass into threads. Double-strand wavy strings are formed, which now have strengthened toughness to be woven.

 

【Step 3】

Soak the strings in cold water overnight. It helps wash away the impurities and dust on the grass for better dyeing results. Proportioned salt and dye are mixed into boiling water. Soak and dye the grass in the mixture.

【Step 4】

After dyeing and drying, only pick the grass of better quality for further weaving process. Before weaving, soak the grass in water to soften it and make it easier for bending and folding.

When weaving, first gather a bunch to make the fan handle and then use thick needles to guide the grass through the handle. From the center outward, start to weave the fan. After knitting according to the pattern and color, the fan is formed. Close the edge and trim the excessive grass.

【Step 5】

After the fan dried, wrap the handle with Boltanga leather. The soft cow leather makes a comfortable grab. A strong, durable, Bolga fan with grass fragrance is finally completed after several days of work, from cutting grass to completion.

Sousou Project 05|Ghana Bolga Fan