Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



From Textiles in Trade: Proceedings of the Textile Society of America Biennial Symposium, September 14–16, 1990, Washington, DC


Copyright © 1990 by the author(s).


The Kalahari people live and work in the Niger delta of southern Nigeria. There are some twenty-two Kalahari island settlements dispersed among the Santa Barbera, Santa Bartholomew, Sombreiro, and New Calabar Rivers (Jones: 1963, Daly: 1983) with Buguma, Abonnema, and Bakana their most recognized commercial and cultural centers; though, many Kalahari are employed in the more homogeneous city of Port Harcourt. (Daly: 1983)

Their location on the Niger delta favoured an economy based on fishing and trade. Originally, the Kalahari traded up-river for vegetables and grain in exchange for salt and fish. They also traded across the delta, most notably for textiles. Oral tradition suggests a five hundred year history of this trade in the Niger delta and beyond long before the Europeans arrived. (Eicher: 1988) When the Portuguese landed in the late fifteenth century, they found a well-developed trade network in place. (Alagoa: 1970) And with the arrival of the Europeans, the Kalahari had access to cloth not only from indigenous sources, but also from sources as far away as England and India. (Eicher:1988).

In terms of cloth manufacture, the Kalahari are unusual in the area because they do not produce their own cloth. They do transform an Indian madras by subtracting warp and weft threads, called pelete bite (Erekosima and Eicher: 1981); but, there is no evidence of spinning, weaving, or dyeing. (Eicher: 1984, Eicher, Erekosima, Thieme: 1982) However, they seem to have a history of being charmed by cloth. Renne suggests that it is because the Kalahari do not produce their own cloth that they are so enamored of it. (1986) In any case, the combination of geographic location and love of cloth for both its extrinsic and intrinsic values accounts for the large quantities of textiles accumulated by the Kalabari.

From an economic perspective, it-was the-acquisition of the exotic, the unique and the hard-to-come-by — and lots of it — that was the most telling indication of the Kalabari trader's ability to negotiate a profitable deal. Of all the trade cloths that passed through Kalabari hands, it was the trade cloth from India that came to have the greatest material significance. Over time, these Indian trade cloths have been culturally authenticated (Erekosima: 1979, Erekosima and Eicher: 1981) into both ritual and daily life, demonstrating, in Schneider and Weiner's words, " the capacity of cloth to encode kinship and political histories . . . " (1986)

One of the most significant of the Indian trade cloths collected and curated by the Kalabari is injiri. It is recognized by the West as madras plaid: a yarn-dyed, hand-woven fabric featuring plaid, striped, or checked patterns in blue/black, off-white, and red/orange combinations; though other specific shades are employed. Injiri was imported by Portuguese, Dutch, and English traders through the East India Companies to West Africa, possibly even from the earliest days of trade in the 1400's due to the Portuguese trading post empire. (Curtin: 1984) Significantly, the Kalabari also call injiri, this madras plaid, Real India.