feat image for stolen story on your yoga pants

A Stolen Story on Your Yoga Pants

I was sitting in a Starbucks, yesterday, in a richer part of town than I usually venture to, trying to think of a good story to kick off this blog’s new storytelling focus. Maybe I should have made sure I had a few good stories before I announced the whole big shift, right? Wrong. That’s not how we doing things here. We’re building and operating this machine at the same time, and it’s glorious.

So there I was, writing some paid material while I waited for inspiration to strike. Unfortunately, I kept getting distracted my rich women’s asses–hold off on your comments about chauvinism and such, the distracting bit was what was on their asses.

It was, in fact, a story, stolen from far away.

Sirigu, Ghana. 2009.

In June, in Ghana, if you sit very still, in a nice shady place, and a bit of a breeze kicks in, it is possible to reach an equilibrium, where the sweat evaporates more or less as fast as it emerges. Under just these circumstances I was enjoying some shade time in the gazebo at SWOPA, the Sirigu Women’s Organization for Pottery and Art, while doing some work with Engineers Without Borders. The Sirigu region, and its culture, overlap from northern Ghana, where we were, into Burkina Faso. The French and British, interestingly, didn’t see fit to ask the locals’ opinions when drawing the border.

Sirigu is a backwater; the last time I searched for it in Google prior to writing this, Google Maps showed it in the wrong spot. They’ve fixed it sometime in the interim. It’s located in a rural district, far from any major roads or attractions, receiving little attention from the rest of the country. SWOPA is located in a lovely fenced compound, with a pleasant staff, including a night watchman. They will clean your clothes, and provide excellent meals. It really was a wonderful place to stay. When I was there, they had toilets and shower stalls, but they were operated by bucket. Which was actually kind of fun. The huts had solar panels and batteries enough to operate small fans for a portion of the night, and enough scorpions to keep us on our toes. There were plans for running water and such in the near future, I don’t know if they’ve yet been realized.

The real purpose of SWOPA, though, was empower local women by helping their art, in the form of painting, weaving, and pottery, reach larger markets. The goal is to empower local women, who are given very little control over their lives in the traditional hierarchies of the region.

One thing they are in charge of, though, is the local art. In the local traditions, all the buildings are covered in beautiful artwork, in a bold and distinctive style of red, white, and black straight lines, woven together into repeating patterns and images. Finding the double-headed crocodiles and pythons hiding in the nooks and crannies of the compound became something of a game. While aesthetic, I’d assumed they were just abstract or symbolic in nature.

SWOPA, sirigu, ghana
One of the guest cottages at SWOPA. Like the local buildings, it features painted mud walls covered in elaborate designs.

Thankfully, during one lazy day lounging in the gazebo, I was set straight by Mme Melanie Kasise, the formidabble founder of SWOPA. If I had to describe Mme Kasise in word, that word would be indomitable. She was the first local woman in the area to receive a higher education, had become an important person in the Ghanan government, and used her education and influence to do what she could to lift the fortunes of other women from her home town.

She joined me in the gazebo, and told me, immediately following introductions, “I was educated by Irish nuns.”

Then she sang some IRA fight songs about where the British could shove it, laughed for awhile and started talking about the women’s co-op she’d founded.

She described the where the colors came from, how the local women knew the right places to dig for the red pigment, and all the work that went into the pottery the region was known for. She then told me the name of every plant growing in the compound. Eventually, our conversation worked its way around the art itself. I’d spent the idle moments that day sketching the patterns on the wall into my notebook. Mme leaned over to look, and smiled.

She pointed a wrinkled hand to my most recent sketch. “We call this Akuyana-si. This one is a story about cattle,” she told me, pointing to the ziz-zagging diamonds which formed the borders of many wall paints. “There was a very rich man who lived here–up in Burkina Faso–and he had many cattle.” She smiled at me, and explained. “Cattle are the traditional means of determining wealth, here, so a man with many cattle was a very rich man, with many wives. If you wanted to know how rich a man was, you would ask, ‘How many cattle does he have?’ Well, this man, Akuyana, had so many cattle that people could not count them. So this pattern is named for that, each diamond is one cow, like you were looking down on.”

It unraveled that every pattern on the walls has a story behind it, though I could never quite figure out if the patterns were created for the stories, or the stories for the patterns. So, too, did the animals painted on the walls–most of them anyway. As far as I could figure out, the chicken was just a chicken. The double-headed crocodile, though, was a sign of good luck and a local god to some of the tribes. The python, shown coiled around itself, was a protector of women, and would calm crying infants.

It changed the nature of the place. The walls were covered in stories, as if we decorated our houses in motifs to remind us of our own cultural legends Paul Bunyan, George Washington, King Arthur, and so on–which, now that I think of it, we should. Why don’t we do that?

SWOPA, Sirigu, Ghana
You can’t tell me this isn’t better than rows of houses differentiated by whether they’re White, Navajo White, or Eggshell.

Every three years, or so, during the rainy season, the women in the village would help each other gather the materials needed for the paint, and renew the stories on the walls, all over the region.

Phoenix, Arizona. 2015.

So imagine my surprise, when I looked up from writing a generic article for some site to find some random lady ordering a pumpkin spice latte with Akuyana’s cattle marching across her posterior!

stolen stories target akuyana's cattle
An original design by Target, completely original, not stolen from rural African women in any way.

To be fair, no pattern on the pants matches Sirigu’s art perfectly, but every single pattern is basically one minor variation from away from those found on the walls. And, I swear, every third woman was wearing some variation on the theme. I guess, if I were going for the SJW viral clickbait angle, I should retitle this article, How Target’s Mossimo Brand Shamelessly Robbed an Art Co-op of Impoverished African Women for Fun and Profit! Because that’s clearly what happened here. Maybe if enough people notice and complain, they’ll send a donation or something? Okay, probably not.

Stories Have Stories

There is a side to this which is not terrible, however.

It’s really quite amazing to think about how an artistic representation of a story from a tiny and poor region of Africa has been uprooted from there, is being replicated in bulk in a factory in Taiwan of Guatemala, and told by rich women’s yoga butts across the western world. Of course, it lost the original context and the meaning, on the journey–until it arrived in improbable fashion in front of someone who happened to know it. Some random guy who happened to have had it described to him during a chance encounter with an old woman, half a decade ago.

The pattern, meant to remind people of the story Akuyana’s Cattle had achieved it’s purpose in a strip mall corporate coffee shop, half a world away, prompting me to tell it here, and now you know it, too. Every time you see someone in those wild red white and black yoga pants, you’ll know there was a man named Akuyana, who had a, dare I say it, buttload of cattle.

We live in a strange world.

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