African Appliqué

©Nation Online Project Design: Moh. Salah

©Nation Online Project
Design: Mohamed Salah

Two thousand five hundred miles span the distance between Egypt and Republic of Benin. Depending upon the route traveled, the countries are separated by the Sahara Desert or the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean. Between the two countries of North and West Africa, respectively, there are few cultural similarities; however, there is one shared commonality: a handicraft—appliqué embroidery.


Khayamiya is a decorative appliqué textile in Egypt

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Abomey appliqué – Benin

Questions of cultural diffusion arise. Cultural exchange over the centuries cannot be ignored. Let’s take a moment to imagine a caravan arriving at Timbuktu with embroidered tents from Egypt that move from person to person toward the Gulf of Guinea. Or a Portuguese or British ship docked at the old port of Whydah trading cloth and appliqué textiles for slaves.

Trade is a powerful stimuli for creativity and it might be possible that 200 years ago an Abomey king ordered a craftsman to embroider symbols onto fabric after acquiring an appliqué from Egypt.

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photo credit: René Gardi 1969″African Crafts and Craftsmen.

There are some striking similarities when studying the art of appliqué from each country. Craftsmen from both countries utilize  the technique of appliqué (stitching fabric to fabric) for practical use or for decoration. Both craftsmen use a blind stitch so the thread is not visible at the front of the design. Both craftsmen piece together shapes and designs that have an intentional pattern or a story. In both countries, appliqué is a handicraft made by men not women.


sitting cross legged on a diwan

But there are differences. In Benin, wood specialist, gold and silver casters, weavers and embroiders were in the king’s service. All objects were connected with the dynasty or had religious motivation.


design begins with drawing pattern on perforated stencil, dusting, redrawing the pattern on fabric

In Egypt, the ancient art of appliqué was practiced by artisans to create decorative tents used by the high-ranking military, members of the royal courts, and the wealthy to create colorful rooms in large open spaces.
In Benin, cloth and thread were an import and most likely only in the possession of the king as cotton is not native to the tropics. Whereas the history of cloth and weaving is traced back to ancient Egypt as early as 5500 BCE.

photo 1 (1)

photo credit René Gardi 1969″African Crafts and Craftsmen. Patterns are stitched into place before attaching with a blind stitch


Decorative appliqué textile in Egypt is used as an art in tent making and is known as khayamiya (tent). This hand-stitched technique sewn to canvas  decorate tents, wall hangings, and pillow covers used at weddings, funerals, and street parties.  They are made in Cairo in a covered market known at Street of the Tentmakers or Sharia al Khayamiya. This craft has been in continuous use since the Mamluk era but intricate pieces of embroidered tents are recorded as far back as the Twenty-First Dynasty where evidence of a funeral tent for the Egyptian Queen Istemkheb was documented by Gaston Maspero in 1881 after excavation of the Queen’s tomb at Deir el Bahri.

Tent makers in Cairo hand stitch cotton appliqué over heavy cotton fabric. The thick materials used for tents protect from the heat, sun, and dust. Geometric designs derived from Islamic motifs and curvilinear arabesque are popular for tent interiors. Pharaonic art, calligraphic patterns, text from the Quran, and animal, bird and fish motifs are also utilized to create a beautiful products such as bedspreads, pillows, and wall-hangings.


Hand stitching is performed by skilled artisans who sit cross-legged on pillows in their stalls on the Street of the Tentmakers. Their technique begins with a pattern drawn onto a stencil, then the stencil is perforated, holes are dusted that makes a pattern on the fabric. The stencil is removed and a line is drawn that follows the dotted-line. A pattern on the fabric is revealed. Small pieces of fabric are cut with scissors, and a blind stitch is used to attach the fabric along the lines of the pattern. (See photo above.)


Formerly, the Kingdom of Dahomey, Benin, West Africa, was once ruled by a powerful dynasty of eleven kings from 1600-1900. In the land, then, known as the Slave Coast, the name of the capital city was Abomey. The kingdom ended under French occupation around 1900. But during the reign of the Fon (king), their armies and amazons were powerful and fearful, often instigating slave raids and attacked territories larger than their own.

At the time various handicrafts flourished in Abomey to represent the individual Fon’s superiority. Kings and ministers of the court brought craftsmen to the palace to carve thrones with symbols for the king that represent power and historical events.

Appliquéd cloth was a technique in early embroideries to create figures, symbols, and representations. The symbols were used to decorate wall hangings, flags, umbrellas, buildings and other royal items during the reign of the king. One observes gruesome warlike scenes, the head of a decapitated enemy, a prisoner hanged or impaled. Such representations are always direct references to the specific heroic deeds of a specific Fon, and because these stories and deeds were told over and over again, everyone knew what was meant by them.

IMG_1832Throughout its history each Fon (king) had special symbols and proverbs associated with his rule. To read more about the symbols and proverbs click here. The Fons were as follows:

IMG_1834 (1)Gangnihessou: 1600-1620, the King of Allada and the big brother of the first Fon (king) of Dahomey. Royal Symbols: bird and drum

IMG_1834 - Version 2Dako-donou: 1620-1645. Royal Symbols: indigo jar & “briquettes”

IMG_1834 - Version 3Houegbadja: 1645-1685. Royal Symbols: fish and wicker trap (As a prince, he once avoided a trap which had been set for him.

IMG_1834 - Version 4Akaba: 1685-1708, crowned at 50 years old. Royal Symbols: wild boar, chameleon & sword

IMG_1834 - Version 5Agadja: 1708-1741  Initially resisted the slave trade, then became a major slaver.  Lost war with Oyo in 1720.  Paid tribute until 1818. Royal Symbols: boat

IMG_1834 - Version 5 (1)Tegbessou:1740 -1774

IMG_1834 - Version 5 (2)Kpengla: 1774-1789

IMG_1834 - Version 5 (3)Agonglo: 1789-1797. Royal Symbols: pineapple

IMG_1834 - Version 5 (4)Ghezo: 1818-1858, 40 years, 40 wars, “killer of elephants”. Royal Symbols: buffalo without dress

— (1798-1817): Despotic king written out of history for being internally violent and not interested in expansionism.

IMG_1834 - Version 5 (5)Glele: 1858-1889. Royal Symbols: lion (the teeth of the lion are pushed and feared also).

IMG_1834 - Version 5 (6)Gbehanzin: 1889-1906, opposed colonial invasion. Exiled by French and died in Algeria. Royal Symbols: shark and egg in hand

IMG_1834 - Version 5 (7)Ago-Li-Agbo: 1894-1900.  Enthroned by French and later exiled. Royal Symbols: leg kicking a rock, bow


**All rights reserved by Lesley Lababidi. To copy or re-produce photography and/or writings, written permission from Lesley Lababidi is required.

All Photographs and text are under international copyright laws. No re-use without the written permission of Lesley Lababidi 2023.

photo credit: African Design, Margaret Trowell

photo credit: African Design, Margaret Trowell, Dover Publications, Inc. 2003.  “The power and might of the chiefs are often expressed by symbolic forms or scenes; while the ceremonial staves and axes and paddles of many African tribes have a refinement and dignity of design which compare favorably with the regalia of more technically advanced peoples in spite of their limited choice of materials. ” p. 15

All Photographs and text are under international copyright laws. No re-use without the written permission of Lesley Lababidi 2023.

Ghost of Slavery Past and Present

IMG_1682Ouidah, Republic of Benin – Mâtiné de Souza, a middle-aged, enthusiastic tour guide, leads a group of travelers to the Door of No Return, a monumental arch located on the shores of the Gulf of Guinea in the Republic of Benin. From her home in Ouidah, Mâtiné had covered 3.5 km on the back of a motor-taxi, the common mode of transportation in Benin, to meet the tour bus.DSC_1660

Mâtiné  points to the road from which she came, a sandy road known as the Route des Esclaves (Slave Route). Along this route, countless number of Africans were forced to march from Africa’s interior to slave ships that sailed the infamous Middle Passage to Brazil, the Caribbean, and the southern coast of North America.

Mâtiné  stands at the entrance of The Door of No Return, a modern structure that symbolizes the final exit point of African slaves forced departure. Four hundred years ago, the transAtlantic slave trade flourished along the Gulf of Guinea coast with the majority of those enslaved captured from western and central parts of the continent.

“I am the sixth generation direct descendent of our family founder, Francisco Felix de Souza,” Mâtiné  says.

“Francisco de Souza, a white Brazilian of Portuguese ancestry, came to the Kingdom of Dahomey (historical name for Benin) in 1812. He was a merchant that traded in slaves, palm oil and gold, in fact, he was the most powerful slave trader on the West African coast in the 1800s. De Souza was a close friend to the Dahomeyan king, Ghezo, who made him viceroy of Ouidah,” she reveals.

A century and a half after the arrival of her family’s patriarch, Mâtiné de Souza guides tours along the coconut tree-lined shores that stretch out into the notoriously treacherous blue waters of the Gulf of Guinea. She tells the history of past atrocities; stories of slavery, wealth, survival, greed, and glory are told about Francisco de Souza. But she also speaks about how slavery is not a thing of the past. “Modern-day slavery is a growing problem we face today taking the forms of forced labour and human trafficking,” Mâtiné says.


The Door of No Return, commemorative monumental arch, erected in 1995 near Ouidah, Republic of Benin

While the transAtlantic slave trade was abolished in the nineteenth century, there are still 30 million enslaved people in the world today, according to estimates of the 2013 Global Slavery Index,, a study by the Walk Free Foundation.

Thirteen of the first 20 countries where slavery is prevalent are in Sub-Saharan Africa. The Republic of Benin ranks seventh, with an estimated enslaved population of 76,000–84,000.

Slavery is a relationship of violence and exploitation. Modern slavery is a developmental issue rooted in poverty, poor education, gender inequality, unemployment, and ineffective laws. Children are usually the victims, forced to labour as domestic servants, field laborers who gather crops, or street vendors who sell goods such as gasoline by pouring gasoline from bottles into vehicles.

Children work as mechanics and in construction, and are trafficked from West Africa and Central Africa for domestic and agriculture work. Children are also sexually exploited and become victims of human trafficking.

Today, Mâtiné has dedicated her life to ending modern slavery. A descendant of someone who helped continue the slave trade in Benin, Mâtiné has dedicated the last ten years to fighting the lingering impact of enslavement. Her home has become a refuge for street children, runaways and orphans. Mâtiné feeds, educates and provides shelter to the children. Some leave, most stay.


Children who find shelter and care under Mâtiné ’s roof.

A survivor herself, Mâtiné is no stranger to enslavement. Married at fifteen years old and soon with three babies to feed, Mâtiné fed her family by braiding hair and stringing beads while enduring beatings and forced starvation.

What changed Mâtiné’s life was her work as an assistant to Anne Kielland at the World Bank/Benin from 1999–2006 and later on a research project from PopPov (

“Anne would tell me that I was intelligent and beautiful,” Mâtiné recalls. “I never believed it myself but having a friend and mentor like Anne encouraged me to act.”

From her office in Norway, Anne (now with Fafo, reciprocates that inspiration. “I don’t think I exaggerate when I say Mâtiné  has made my life very different and more meaningful from what it would have been had I had not accidentally stumbled into her compound in Ouidah, a very dramatic day 15 years ago.”

“I think Mâtiné simply loves helping people. She is an angel, and it just makes her happy and her life meaningful. And what a tough life that has been,” said Anne.

Mâtiné worked with Anne on the child mobility survey, a survey of Koranic schools, an NGO inventory, and a judicial consultancy as translator and facilitator for more than ten years in Benin. During those years, there were many documentary films produced by World Bank and USAID for the rural population.

“I realized the rural population would never have a chance to see the films so I decided to start an association called Cinevillage to screen educational films about human trafficking, enslavement, and women’s rights,” Mâtiné recalls.

Children who find shelter and care under Martine’s roof.

Children who find shelter and care under Mâtiné’s roof.

“When we show films about women’s rights, we went to the village elders or the chief to receive permission before showing the film,” Mâtiné explains. “We visited the chief once, twice, and even three times before permission was granted to show the films.”

“We explain to the men that we are not teaching the women to be rebels. We explain that it is better for men when women can stand on their own and make money to feed the family.”

Even when permission was granted, men were wary. Often Mâtiné traveled with security for fear of angering men firmly attached to patriarchal traditions.

After a typical day of working with a women’s cooperative group to produce gari (a grain made from cassava tubers), or a day with tourists at the Door of No Return, Mâtiné drives to a local market or village center to show the films. Each market or village is visited more than a dozen times. Mâtiné encourages discussion of topics such as child trafficking, hygiene and diseases. In each village, a committee is set up to follow the villagers’ comments and reactions.

When funds were available, several years ago, Mâtiné showed films everyday traveling from one Beninoise village to the next. Today, there is little money and no grant for Cinevillage but Mâtiné uses any extra money she has to drive, at least twice a month, to a village or market, pull from the back of her car a generator, speakers, film equipment and a worn, collapsible screen and show a documentary film.

“For me, showing films with an important message is why I am here but films also provide entertainment to people who normally have no electricity, no television,” Mâtiné explains. “There is never less than 50 people in attendance.”

School children gather at a roundabout in Cotonou, Republic of Benin for a film that Cinevillage organized.

School children gather at Place Lénine roundabout in Cotonou, Republic of Benin for a film that Cinevillage organized.

After each film, anyone can take the microphone and speak. Mâtiné tells of an elderly man who came up to thank her. “You taught me how to wash my hands very well,” he said into the microphone. “I always wash my hands before I eat but I didn’t know I had to clean under my fingernails,” he stated.

Mâtiné emphasizes the importance of hearing what children have to say. Mâtiné ’s favorite story is when a child proclaimed to the people of her village, “I was sold. My parents sold me. I was taken away from the village. We went to Nigeria. The person who bought me, beat me, then I was lucky. I ran away.”

The girl continued to address the crowd. Her voice loud and strong, she said, “Keep us with you. Even if you are poor, we will love you and stay with you. If you eat sand, we will eat sand with you.”

Statues called ‘Revenants’ guard the Door of No Return, Republic of Benin.

Statues called ‘Revenants’ guard the Door of No Return, Republic of Benin.

At the Door of No Return, Mâtiné continues to tell her story. “There are statues called the Revenants that guard the monument. They represent Voodoo dancers who wait on the beach to welcome wandering slave souls back to Africa.”

“Nearby, there is a center, Place du Repentance, built by the Ouidah community for Africans to pray for forgiveness for their part in the slave trade,” she says. “It is through forgiveness, education, and personal activism that a cycle is broken, then we are free.


All rights reserved by Lesley Lababidi. Photographs and text cannot be reproduced without the permission by Lesley Lababidi.

All Photographs and text are under international copyright laws. No re-use without the written permission of Lesley Lababidi 2023.