Quilting in Exotic Places: SAQA Member Paula Benjaminson Quilts and Shops for Fabric in West Africa (GIVEAWAY!)

A wondrous array of colors and prints on display for sale in Libreville, Gabon.

I met Paula Benjaminson several years ago when I was doing a book signing at the Sisters Outdoor Quilt Show in Oregon for Wine Country Quilts (a fabulous book I co-authored Cyndy Rymer). Paula is an ex-diplomat/quilter whose husband had just been posted to Burkina Faso in West Africa for the U.S. State Department. I impressed her because I actually knew where Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso’s capital) was—hey; my brother-in-law and his family lived there for a while . . . pure serendipity—my knowledge of other African capitals is spotty at best.

Turns out Paula has been reading SHWS from Libreville, Gabon where she balances duties as the U.S. Ambassador’s spouse, mother to college-age children, and quilt maker/teacher/prowler of Libreville fabric markets.  Paula is an active member of Studio Art Quilt Associates (SAQA) and teaches internationally. She’s on the teaching roster for the June 2013 London, Ontario International Quilt Festival where the event theme will be “Out of Africa.” I invited Paula to share some of her experiences of quilting and shopping for fabric in West Africa in a two-part guest post. AND, Paula is VERY generously hosting a GIVEAWAY of a selection of handpicked African fabric —check out the details below.  

Strolling the Fabric Markets of Africa with Paula Benjaminson

For close to a decade I’ve been living in several African countries as a member of the U.S. diplomatic community. I was a fairly traditional quilter with a small, fairly traditional fabric stash when I landed in our first posting to Burkina Faso. While I’d been teaching more traditional quilting skills and styles to both children and adults when we lived in Belgium, my years in Ouagadougou, Windhoek, and Libreville have changed all that! I’m now a resourceful, intrepid, venturesome, maybe even cheeky quilter!

In all of these places, I’ve taught quilting to groups of international students, drawing on the culture, colors, and designs available to us for inspiration and using whatever materials we could gather locally. Of course, we often need more fabric to meet our design needs—funny how universal that need seems to be among quilters—so we go off to the market to buy some fabulous pieces.

Fabulous Fabric Finds

Shopping for African fabric in the bustling open market is one of the things I love best about living here. In Ouagadougou, that meant browsing outdoor stalls crammed with stacked lengths of West African prints, batiks, and hand-dyes that I couldn’t resist buying. In Libreville, where I live now, there are outdoor market stalls and larger, indoor stores, again so stuffed with color and pattern that it makes it very hard to choose just one or two . . .

Strolling the fabric markets of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso

Fabric is sold in 6-yard lengths in most of West Africa because shoppers typically are buying fabric to make clothing, and the traditional dress styles require just about 6 yards per outfit. When my students and I buy fabric for quilting, we agree ahead of time to each buy a different fabric (or several different fabrics). Then, when we get back to my house after shopping, we trade half-yard cuts of green drums for half-yards of brown circles or gold dancers for red birds! It isn’t the way we shop for fabric in the US, but it works for us!

After the fabric shopping spree . . . dividing and sharing the wonderfulness.

An African Spin on Wedding Fashions–The Guests Wear the Celebration Print Too!

What makes my fabric forays even more interesting is seeing how African social customs are reflected in the way fabric is printed and sold. It’s commonplace to see sample lengths of fabric displayed with signs telling you who has chosen that particular print for a wedding or anniversary pattern. The idea is that all the guests will buy some of the chosen fabric and have a shirt, or a complete outfit made from it, to wear to the event. It’s a wonderfully inclusive custom that makes each guest feel part of the special day, and whenever they wear that dress or shirt afterwards, they remember the event and the people that are associated with that fabric.

Another tradition here is that fabrics are used to communicate, much as we might wear a T-shirt with a printed slogan. Fabrics are often printed to commemorate special events like an election, a religious celebration, a film festival, or an anniversary of independence, as seen in the photo.

Prints celebrating Gabon’s independence.

Enter to Win a Bundle of African Prints from Paula’s Stash

In an amazing coincidence of timing, Paula’s sent me a bundle of wonderful African prints to share with one of our lucky SHWS readers. She’s just arrived in the U.S. to drop off her youngest at college and she hand carried (then mailed) a package to me. Here’s your giveaway entry question:  If you could visit Africa what country would you select as your first stop? (Easy for me:  Botswana! I LOVE The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall.) Name your destination in a comment below by Friday, September 7 and I’ll announce a winner in my next post where Paula will share Part 2 of her African series. Stay current with Paula’s further quilting adventures via her blog.

Special Delivery from Gabon: Paula is sharing selected swatches from her stash!

Later all! I’m off to work like a madwoman so I can finish a couple of new projects for Quilting in the Garden–fingers crossed!

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83 thoughts on “Quilting in Exotic Places: SAQA Member Paula Benjaminson Quilts and Shops for Fabric in West Africa (GIVEAWAY!)

  1. I am of African descent but have never had any desire to go there for a visit although I travel a lot I love The strength and courage of African women and I have made many quilts with an African theme, their fabrics are lovely and I could certainly use some more, thank you. Serafina

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  2. I would pick Egypt, although not often thought of as “Africa” it is indeed considered to be an African state. There are many states or countries in Africa that are intriguing because of their natural beauty, so port of entry would be hard to pick!!

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  3. Hi. I know the giveaway is over, but I just found your blog today, and I have to comment on the beautiful African fabrics! I visited Tanzania last year and couldn’t get enough of the colorful kangas and shukas. I would go back to Tanzania in a second if I could, and I would bring back as much fabric as I could squeeze in my luggage. Thanks for the blog post and photos. Now that I’ve found your blog, I’ll stay tuned. Looking forward to the followup to this one!

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  4. What beautiful fabrics!! Although I don’t think of either as typically African, my first stop would have to be either Morocco (to see the Sahara desert and Atlas mountains!) or Madagascar. Now you have me thinking I should plan a trip!

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    1. Madagascar would be an amazing experience, I think. The country is a biodiversity hotspot, with some 90% of its wildlife found nowhere else on the planet. They do some beautiful embroidery there as well—-lots to see!
      Paula

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  5. If I were going to Africa, I would start in Cameroon. I’m sure that I couldn’t just stay in one place though. I would also have to go to Kenya, South Africa, Egypt and Morocco. Thanks for the giveaway, those fabrics are so beautiful!

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  6. I’m with Geri — I’d go to Gabon and visit Paula! The 3 of us could extend our Sisters, Oregon experience there — and DEFINITELY have her show us around the fabric markets!

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    1. Woohoo! We could have a Sisters experience in the tropics! 🙂 It’s a bit hotter and more humid here than in Oregon, but when you have all that fabric to look at, who notices the weather!
      Paula

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  7. If I went to Africa at this time it would have to be to Gabon, since that’s where Paula is. She’s a great teacher and a wonderful ambassador for us. Another great book about Africa is “Cry of the Kalahari” – by Mark and Delia Owens.

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    1. It would be great to see you here!!! We could hang out at the beach until you recover from jet lag, then we could go fabric shopping……or just go straight to the marche, who needs sleep!! 🙂
      Paula

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  8. I’d go to Liberia because it has such a different history from most other African nations, and I would like to see how that informed the way the country is today. Great blog post!!! I’m a huge fan! 🙂

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  9. Egypt, then Tanzania. But after reading the post and all the replies, I think I am expanding my list of where I would want to go. All of the countries sound beautiful and interesting in such diverse ways! I hope I win the fabric to further whet my African interest.

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    1. Kenya would be a great introduction to Africa! I enjoyed my visit there immensely, especially because I got to meet many of the members of the Kenya Quilt Guild! I spent two weeks teaching classes, visiting museums, being charmed by baby elephants and seeing friends. I only had time for a fleeting glimpse of the immense rift valley, and didn’t get out to the bush—-there’s so much to do and see, I can’t wait to go back!
      Paula

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    1. South Africa is amazing! There’s so much variety of landscapes and climates, you could spend months there just exploring and never run out of things to do! They have lots of fun fabric too, that you could bring back to share with your quilting friends…..you’d be very popular!
      Paula

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  10. I would travel to Ethiopia. A friend of mine has adopted two adorable children, born in that country and he explains that much work is needed to help at the orphanages. The African fabric would make great quilts for these children. Thank you, Jennifer and Paula, for sharing the wedding custom story.

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  11. My first stop, towing a large suitcase, will be to a small village in Zimbabwe. I will be delivering 4 sets of soccer uniforms and cleats to the children’s school. That way more of the kids will have uniforms to wear when they play the game. This encourages the kids, if the parents let them, to walk the 2 miles to school. Wearing these uniforms make them feel proud. Although these children are very poor and need many things having the uniforms is very special to them.

    If I won the fabric I would make a quilt, then send the photos to my friend who would show the kids. I think they would be pleased. I do believe these are the things that bring the world closer together. One day,I hope to visit this village and see the kids in the uniforms that I had delivered 2 years ago.

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  12. It is hard to decide on one country to visit, I think I would pick Rwanda as my niece has just spent some time there and enjoyed it immensely.

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  13. I would love to see Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and The Great Pyramids at Giza Egypt. some of the most beautiful sights in the world.

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  14. I’d go home–to Nigeria, land that I love despite its recent troubles and pain. I was born to missionary parents in the heart of Tivland, central Nigeria and lived there 13 years. I went back to visit as an adult and I’ve had the good fortune of visiting several other African nations–all of which are amazing! But there is no place like home! I remember the markets and bright colors of fabric, including the deep azure and crimson from the dye vats of Kano and the wax prints from the south. Ohhhh how I’d love some of those real African fabrics! Thanks for the blog, Paula. Do you have room in your suitcase for me to sneak a ride back with you?!

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    1. Hi Joy,
      Sorry I can’t take you to Gabon with me, but from the vividness of your memories of the colors of Kano and the markets, I’d say Nigeria is very much still alive in your memories! Once you’ve seen these things, it’s very hard not to feel the pull taking you back. I hope you get to return someday!
      Paula

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      1. Paula! How amazing and kind of you to reply to all these messages. Your love for African is delightful and contagious. Just wondering if you know Jenny Healy and the lovely ladies at Kalahari Quilts in Gabarone, Botswana? I had the privilege of meeting them and going to their quilt show during a fantastic 5 week visit earlier this year. http://kalahariquilts.com
        Joy

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  15. I have some friends who spent several weeks in Botswana earlier this year. After seeing their pictures and hearing their stories that would have to be my first choice. Thanks for the opportunity to win some beautiful fabric!

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    1. Botswana is a great choice! Chobe National Park has so many elephants you have to be very careful driving. We hadn’t been in the park 5 minutes when we came around a corner and caught sight of a dozen elephants crossing the road heading north! The Okavango delta is also spectacular–definitely worth a spot on the bucket list!
      Paula

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  16. Where to start- Ghana to see the hand carved coffins that reflect a person’s trade, Tanzania for the gemstones, Botswana to see what Alexander McCall Smith wrote about and fabric from anywhere!

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    1. Hi Renske,
      I know we chatted on my blog, but I just wanted to say again that it’s wonderful that you met Gill in Nairobi and had a chance to visit the market. Time is always too short when you’re fabric shopping, though, isn’t it???
      I hope to see you in London next June!
      Paula

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  17. I would choose South Africa since our daughter had an opportunity to study and visit there before she graduated from Ohio State University. Although she didn’t say much about fabric shops I would love to experience the culture and sights there. The fabric stalls in Gabon look very interesting as do the customs. Thanks for sharing this making our world smaller each day.

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  18. I think I’d visit Botswana because I had friends who spent many years there. I’d want to see South Africa where some former neighbors lived. Certainly Egypt and the pyramids have great appeal because my daughter went there on a Girl Scout Wider Opportunity years ago. I guess I’d like to travel all around the continent! I’d love to win the bundle of African prints to add to the few I own.

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    1. Yup, you’ve got a grand itinerary there Sandy. Very diverse as well. Wishing you the best of luck for the giveaway and thanks for stopping by.

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  19. I think I would go to Senegal first–I have a cousin who has been a missionary there for many years and raised her children there. She sends photos by email often, and they also have a tradition there of everyone making an outfit out of the same cloth for a special event. The colors and designs in the African fabrics are so interesting and beautiful.

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  20. Ghana. As a pre-school teacher for 15 years, I have read the “Spider Weaver: A Legend of Kente Cloth” to my students for many years. I would love to see the Kente cloth worn by its native designers.

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    1. Hi Ginger,
      I agree with you—-if I could visit another African country tomorrow, I’d go to Ghana to see the weavers making Kente and the batik artists making some gorgeous cloth. I just might have to buy some more……. You can never have too much, right?? 🙂
      Paula

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  21. Ooooooo, where to go?! I would love to see the the country beloved by Precious Ramotswe, Mma. Makutsi, and Mr. JLB Matekoni!!! But, I also have a long-time dream to see the wildlife in Tanzania. Tough choice! Tough to choose fabrics, as well, from among the the vibrant, wonderful colors and designs available. Thanks for being willing to share.

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  22. I would go to Ghana. My young neighbor grew up and is involved in a micro-loan program to women there. I want to see where she works and the places she’s seen and the people she’s met.

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  23. I loved your post about West African fabric. I too have been to Libreville and Ouagadougou and have searched for fabric in those small crowded boutiques. My daughter lived in Ouaga for 2 years as a youth minister at the international school and last fall we went to see her and I brought home a suitcase filled with batiks from Ghana and African fabric.
    I guess my next stop if I get the chance to go again would be Mali or Guinea, we have missionary friends who live there.

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    1. How terrific that we share knowledge of both Ouaga and Libreville!! Quilters are really very intrepid, no?!? My daughters both attended the international school in Ouaga when we lived there. The school had a wonderful can-do atmosphere with lots of energetic teachers. We look back very fondly on our time there.
      Paula

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  24. It would be really difficult to pick just one destination, there is such intense beauty everywhere, but if I had the opportunity I would visit South Africa; with Somalia also high on the list. I love African fabrics and the wonderful cadence of African music! Thanks for offering this fantastic giveaway.

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  25. How exciting to have an opportunity to visit Africa. The wonderful people and culture of each area from Botswana to Egypt, Kenya to Morocco. Are immunizations required to win the fabric? 🙂

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  26. South Africa would be my destination. I’ve heard the beauty of that coutnry is unmatched…from the beaches to the wildlife. ps. I have a few pieces of African fabrics and would LOVE to add some more ot my stash.:0)

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  27. If I had a chance to go to Africa, I’d like to visit Nigeria as it is the birthplace of my cousins. I’d love to see Victoria Falls. I’d also like to see Kenya as I understand there are some wonderful safari trips there.

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    1. Traveling in Namibia is an excellent idea! They have beautiful landscapes and lodges to stay in while you visit. The Kalahari bushmen have an ancient culture with much to be admired and studied. We loved our time there, and three years wasn’t enough to see everything we had on our list!
      Paula

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    1. Nice to find so many Alexander McCall Smith fans! For those who’ve also watched the HBO series–aren’t Precious Ramotswe’s dresses incredible? Love, love, love all the wonderful African prints!

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  28. Oh as yet another Alexander McCall Smith’s books – I’d have to say Botswana – mind you, I’ve never been to Africa – thank you so much for sharing this story!

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  29. Jennifer, LOVED this post! LOVED this story! I too am an avid fan of A. M. Smith’s Ladies’ No. 1 Detective Agency, but I have already had the good fortune to visit Botswana. I hope you get there because it adds so much to the pleasure of the books. I pick Rwanda because I want to see the gorillas. I am not sure if that is even possible these days, but that is where I want to go, inspired by another book, Gorillas in the Mist by Diann Fossey.

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    1. Those books are the best! I thoroughly enjoy reading all about such a feisty, intrepid woman—and what a great introduction to Africa for so many people!! Now if only she were a quilter too……
      Paula

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  30. Hi – It would be Botswana for me too – A very special missionary couple are working on opening a beautiful Christian residential school there in Botswana – that, via video – looks so wonderful – a work of heart.
    Thank you for the chance to win these beautiful fabrics. Blessings!

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  31. If I had a chance to go to Africa, I’d definitely have to go to Kenya first. My youngest daughter has made it her life’s goal to live in Kenya to work as a missionary. She’s already made two trips there, managed to contract malaria the second time, and fell in love with the people there. I’d like to see what and who she fell in love with, so hopefully I won’t worry too much when she finally makes the move!!!

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    1. What an amazing life’s ambition your daughter has–you certainly must visit Kenya when you can. In the meantime, though, make a quilt with African prints. Best wishes for the drawing!

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