The Clothes Beaters of Bamako

IN Bamako, the capital of the West African country of Mali, a steady rhythmic beat can be heard throughout the day. This is not, however, produced by musicians. Rather, the drumlike pounding resonates from the small huts of the clothes beaters. But why would anyone beat clothes?

The clothes beaters are the last step in a unique textile process. It all begins with a piece of white cloth or an article of clothing. Usually it is dyed in a variety of colors and patterns. Then it is dipped in a thick solution made of powdered manioc root or sap from various gum trees. After it is sun dried, the material becomes as stiff as a board. At this point, it is ready for the last step​—the clothes beaters.

The main job of the clothes beaters is to hammer the now rigid material until it is wrinkle free. Inside their little huts, you typically find two young men sitting across from each other; between them is a log cut from a shea tree. The men lightly wax the fabric and stretch it over the log. Then, using large mallets also fashioned from the shea tree, they pound the material. Alternating their blows in skillful harmony, each one strikes where the other misses.

Why not simply use an iron? For one thing, the heat from an iron would cause the fabric to fade more quickly. Also, an iron would not produce colors as vibrant as the clothes beaters do. This is because each stroke of the mallet leaves behind a glossy shine that intensifies the color. After a thorough battering, the material can look so bright that you would think it was freshly painted.

So if you are walking through the streets of this city and hear what seems to be the steady beat of drums, look closely at the huts around you. The sound may not be coming from drums at all; it could be the clothes beaters of Bamako.