Book No. 1; Continent: Africa

Indigo: In Search of the Color That Seduced the World by Catherine McKinley

  • 235 pages
  • Engaging first-person account can be a quick read, but not easily broken up for short sessions.

This book was a happy accident: in my rush to the checkout, I’d thought I was grabbing a follow-up book by the author of A Perfect Red. Instead, Indigo’s author writes a much more personal story about her obsession with the indigo dyes and elaborate cloths on West Africa. The author’s narrative style has a smooth, literary quality one does not typically find in the history section, and the bibliography at the rear matters less than the photo inserts at the book’s midpoint.

Awarded a Fulbright scholarship to pursue her interests, Catherine McKinley left New York City to work for Eurama, a pragmatic Ghanaian woman who runs a small shop. Ghana becomes her base to explore West Africa seeking fabrics and traditional techniques to dye them.

Although the dye pot is ostensibly the focus of McKinley’s Fulbright research, the book’s value lies in the cultural context supplied to explain her fascination with various patterns and traditional trade in indigo. McKinley illuminates differences among the peoples of West Africa as she travels. For example, the urban women of the Ivory Coast’s capital prefer different, showier styles than do the women of Ghana. The younger women favor styles from outside Africa, so they resist learning the dying skills. Cheap, imported knockoffs threaten the trade, too.

McKinley’s research introduced her to women who became powerful, even legendary, for their indigo fabrics. It also placed her within the Ivory Coast during the September 2002 military uprising, and she describes fleeing with her traveling companion. Her book does discuss the role of indigo in the slave trade, but the main value of the book lies in the social and economic landscape of modern West Africa: the roles of modern women, the companies driving its economies, and the varied cultures of the region. Even so, I am still counting it among my Challenge books because the motivation for taking on the Challenge is to get a broader knowledge of world cultures, which this book certainly offers.

On to Challenge Book 2. Have cracked open the next conquest, this time about Dr. Livingstone’s quest for the source of the Nile.

Photo credit: nats / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

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