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Feature: Beauty of a Bazin and a BouBou From Senegal, Africa


Photo credit: www.turbanista.com

Photography courtesy of: Julien Cozzolino for Ghubar Magazine as seen in harlemloves.com



A bazin and a boubou: the hunt for a Senegalese husband



By: Isabelle Bourgeault-Tassé

Ottawa, Canada 

“Real women have currrrves!”  the vendor roars at me.


I have been in Senegal for a little over a week, and am still shocked every time someone openly comments on my body.


It is the first time I have set foot on the African continent, but I would return several times in the next five years, visiting Uganda, Kenya, and closing the loop with a second trip to Senegal.


Africa had been something of a promised land for me.  A continent where, I was told, the curves that seemed to sometimes impair me in the West would be appreciated and adored in Africa.


In some African cultures, curves are not only revered, but actively encouraged.  In Mauritania, for example, stretch marks are considered sexy, and women who haven’t successfully rounded out their curves by marriage will pad their breasts, hips, and thighs to appear more voluptuous.  Some girls are even force-fed and fattened up to be suitable for marriage.


Still, the burden is on women’s bodies.  Thin, fat, short, tall, women seem destined to roam the earth under the thumb of cultural preference (prompting me recently to espouse this simple mantra: leave our bodies alone!).


As I would later learn in Uganda and Kenya, and five years later when I returned for a second visit to Dakar, Senegal’s stylish capital, body image in Africa is changing.  Thin is in.  Fat is out.


And here I am, being dressed by a middle aged vendor who has taken it upon himself to tell me that I am a real woman with curves.  His father, the ancient and quietly hostile boutique owner, sits on a stool in the corner, watching me wearily.


I gaze down at the stunning dress the man has chosen for me.  The dress is a two-piece boubou, cut from shimmering azure bazin and embroidered with golden thread. A favoured textile across West Africa, bazin is typically made from imported cotton, and sometimes silk or wool, which is then dyed and beaten with wooden clubs until it shines.  And bazin is so highly prized, that in neighbouring Mali, politicians campaigning in the April 2012 elections reportedly seemed to be running a parallel campaign over which candidate could wear the best bazin on billboards and posters.


Bazin (hand-dyed polished cotton) is being hung to dry.

Bazin (hand-dyed polished cotton) is being hung to dry.



But all that glimmers is not gold: bazin production can create serious health and environmental issues, with women artisans developing lung problems with exposure to sulphur used to help the colour stick to fabrics, and with runoff from dye baths discarded in street gutters and nearby streams.


In preparing my suitcase for my trip to Senegal, I had been far too dismissive of Lonely Planet’s claim that “Dakar emanates chic.”  In spite of having admired the elegant wardrobes of my graceful Senegalese colleagues during their visits to Canada, I had innocently (and quite ignorantly) thought that simplicity would be best.  I had landed in Dakar with my typical ‘international development chic’ wardrobe: pale cottons and boring black, simple (and fake) gold jewellery, sturdy shoes.


I felt like a short, dusty donkey next to these graceful giraffes.


There is nothing quite as spectacular as a Senegalese fashionista, particularly the older, established fashionista who still favours traditional boubous cut from fine bazin.  Stunning colours, bright, cheerful fabrics designed to glimmer and catch the light.  Cool, long, and loose lines worn by stunningly beautiful, statuesque Senegalese women.  Magnificent crowns of coiled hair wrapped in a moussör, a head wrap worn by West African women.  Tall and majestic, thin with dangerous curves, and faces that look as though they were carved in ebony by the hand of God.


The vendor has allowed me to use the back room to pull the boubou over my clothes.  Although I am wearing the dress over my clothes, it seems that he felt it improper to follow me in.  I open the door, and his face lights up.  I was made for the boubou, he tells me as he winds a moussör around my head.


I follow him to the showroom where floor length mirrors will allow me to gaze at my perfect majesty and ‘real womaness.’


But while I was pulling the boubou over my head, word has spread through the market that a curvy foreign woman was trying on boubous at this store.  I emerge from the back room only to find myself confronted to a half-dozen self-made fashion photographers holding up their cell phone cameras, clicking away in amusement at the novelty of a foreigner dressed as one of their own.  They are hooting and laughing, smiling approvingly, and marveling at me.  And I am suddenly timid and in desperate need for an activity that will give me an air of control.


“How much for the boubou,” I ask.


He gives me a price.


I rapidly convert the figure to Canadian dollars, and my stomach drops and eyes grow wide.  It’s about $250 CAD!


“It’s lovely, but I can’t afford it.”


The vendor is not persuaded.  But I have been in Senegal long enough to understand that I am regarded as a wealthy foreign tourist.  He negotiates, but I am in no position to pay the several hundreds he is asking of me.  I’ve been in Dakar for over a week, and I am dangerously low on funds.  I tell him that I am still paying off student debts, that I simply cannot afford his price.


Photo credit: www.turbanista.com

Photography courtesy of: Julien Cozzolino for Ghubar Magazine as seen in harlemloves.com


“But you’re a Canadian tourist.  You had the money to come here.” I explain that I was flown in for work, that this is one of the rare free moments I have.  He doesn’t appear to buy my story about student debts.


He temporarily changes the subject, attempting to endear himself to me.


He leans in, and quietly whispers, “I should tell you that there is a man here who is very interested in you.  He has a first wife, but he is in love with you.”


Senegalese men’s flirtations are legendary.  A great diversion.  In fact, there is really nothing like it.  I arrived in Dakar innocent, but quickly learned how Senegalese men will stare deep into your eyes, a veil of desperation and devotion across their face, and tell you something impossibly romantic, “When I first saw you, I almost lost my mind.  I can’t sleep.  I can’t eat.  You are breaking my heart… I can’t live without you.”


The vendor is insistent.  I am curvy, beautiful, and rich, he tells me.


No, moderately middle class, I reiterate.  And shouldering a lot of debt (student + shopping).  A very bad choice for a second wife, I insist.


In the moment, I am suspicious that this is really about the price of a dress. But as I researched bazin, I discovered Beaux à dimanche (Beautiful Sunday), a 2005 Malian song that claims that bazin makes women so beautiful, men propose marriage: Le dimanche à Bamako, c’est le jour du mariage | Les hommes et les femmes ont mis leurs plus beaux boubous | Les bazins sont au rendez-vous | C’est le jour du mariage.”   


Unfortunately, I had no idea that bazin had these mysterious, compelling qualities.


The vendor levels his gaze at me, “But you’re in Senegal.  You have money.”


I ask to borrow a calculator and I begin to tally my credit card and student debts.  I convert to CFAs, hand him the calculator with a ceremonial flourish, and declare that I am an undesirable prospect for marriage and that I sincerely cannot pay his steep price.


He is shocked.  “But surely your father will pay for this.”


“No,” I tell him.  “I make more money than my father.”


More shock.  Disbelief.  A young woman in her late twenties earning more money than an established father.  Impossible.


All talk of marriage is dropped.  He does not tell me, but it’s clear that I would be a terrible and expensive choice for a second wife.  The bazin has failed me.


The vendor leans in, sympathetic, recognizing that I am practically a working-class comrade.  “This dress was made for you.  You must have it.  But I cannot simply give it to you.  And you cannot tell my father that I am giving you a special price.”


He quotes me a second price.  The equivalent of roughly $60 CAD.  A price I can live with.  A price that would undoubtedly have made the vendor’s father grumble.


And despite the discomfort I have always felt at negotiating and bartering in markets, I have talked down the vendor by several hundred dollars.  Without really trying.  In fact, quite by accident.


I left Dakar untouched by the bazin’s spell to bring a man to his knees, but sheathed in a bazin boubou and moussör fit for a Senegalese queen.


Isabelle Bourgeault-Tassé is an aspiring writer, budding world traveler, and explorer of the ateliers of fashion artisans around the world. She tweets @Isabelle_BT and blogs at isabellebourgeault-tasse.tumblr.com.



Model photography courtesy
Julien Cozzolino for Ghubar Magazine as seen in www.harlemloves.com 

Illustration by Fotolia.com;

Bazin photograph courtesy of www.un.org/africarenewal/magazine

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One Response to Feature: Beauty of a Bazin and a BouBou From Senegal, Africa

  1. Jamila says:

    The art of haggling…what a negotiation and marraige proposal! African men have the most interesting pick-up lines. On another note, I love bazin and owned a couple boubous myself when I was younger. The fabric is very shiny, luxurious and highly coveted in Northern Nigeria. – http://www.myafrofashion.com

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