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Kokrobitey Institute founder Renée Neblett ponders the question of sustainability in fashion and the role identity can play in renewal.

Edited by Sandiso Ngubane

Feb 23, 2023

In 1989, American social activist Renée Neblett traveled through Africa to find a suitable site to host a short-term academic program for her students at Milton Academy, Massachusetts, having been an artist-in-residence there at the time. She found herself in the then-small fishing village of Kokrobite, Ghana, 30 kilometers from Accra. Three years later, she founded the Kokrobitey Institute, with the goal of expanding the parameters of American education to include study in Africa, offering short and long-term residencies to explore the linkages between art and design, environmental studies, history, and culture. Over the years, the institute has extended its programs to include fashion and textile, household product design, woodcraft, welding, glass recycling, jewelry making, and skin-care product development in addition to its own sustainable, textile-waste-driven apparel line K.I Design. Late last year, Neblett delivered the keynote address at the fourth edition of South Africa's Twyg Sustainable Fashion Awards. She addressed a room of designers, makers, fashion visionaries, and changemakers who gathered at the iconic Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town to celebrate meaningful contributions to a local sustainable and ethical fashion ecosystem. She spoke to fashion in the context of journeys—journeys of who we are. This is an extract of her speech, which was first published in full by Twyg.co.za.

The Search for Identity

“I was born in America—a country that since its inception, has had to reconcile the institution of slavery with its foundational myth of being the ‘land of the free.’ We have all heard of the founding fathers, American exceptionalism, and the American dream. The myth thrives until today. Growing up in a segregated America, it is needless to say that none of those myths applied to me. Those myths either defined me as a second-class citizen or simply excluded me altogether. And if myths provide us with the foundational tale about who we are, then I—and millions like me—were simply nobodies.

But in the 60s, something began to happen, a movement began to emerge—people were no longer satisfied with the status quo. Charismatic leaders began to appear. These included Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Huey Newton, and Stokely Carmichael—new ideas were circulating. You have to imagine that in those days there was no internet, and no cell phones, but somehow everyone could feel that something was happening. It was in the air. People began to feel differently about themselves and they began to dress differently too.

As Miuccia Prada famously said, ‘Fashion is instant language.’ What we wear on the outside, is a window into who we are inside. And the message was loud and clear: I’m Black and I’m proud!

People on the street began wearing African fabrics and picked-out Afros. This was in stark contrast to the way I had been taught to present myself as a child. Before this movement, we had all been taught to make ourselves invisible—blend in with the landscape of white America, as much as we could. If I remember correctly, it was the penny loafer, white socks, and pleated skirts. But now change was everywhere.

We were becoming more Afrocentric and so was our clothing. We discovered pride in being associated with Africa. The Dashikis and change of hairstyles were defiant, bold symbols. The times were both electrifying and turbulent. It was a celebration, albeit a short-lived one. Because once Martin, Malcolm, Eldridge Cleaver, Fred Hampton, and others were tragically killed, the movement died with them.

It was in the midst of that chaos that I decided to pack my bags and go to Europe. I was desperate to get out of America. I was desperate for change. Fortunately, I gained admission to the Kunst Akademie in Düsseldorf, West Germany.

My experiences in Europe during those times challenged old norms. For the first time in my life, the world around me was not reduced to black or white. I met Germans, Italians, French, English, Turkish, and Africans from across the continent. I met Ghanaians, Nigerians, Liberians, Kenyans, and South Africans who I discovered had even more textured identities than myself. They were Ashanti, Ga, Igbo, Yoruba, Maasai, and Xhosa.

For the first time in my life, I understood that human beings were not a collection of races organized in some color-coded hierarchy, but rather human beings distinguished by their cultures and ethnicities.”

Renée Neblett giving her keynote speech at the 2022 Twyg Sustainability Fashion Awards. Photo via Twyg.

Return to the Motherland

“When I arrived in the fishing village of Kokrobitey, Ghana, nearly 30 years ago, I was overwhelmed by its natural beauty. It was the most pristine, verdant landscape I had ever experienced in my life. It was paradise. There was no electricity, no running water, no corner shop, and none of the amenities that I thought were essential to daily life. There were clear sacred water holes. People respected natural resources. You had to watch how far a cup of water could go to understand how valued it was.

In the morning, everyone was up and about collecting what they needed for the day: the fishermen were at sea, and the woman gathered different plants. In those times, there were so many crabs on the beach that you had to dodge them as you walked along the shore. It was a self-contained functional economy—you buy my kenkey, I buy your fish.

Most impressive was that everyone was so conversant with the environment. It seemed as though nearly everyone knew every shrub, leaf, and tree. They knew what the bark could do, the root, the flower. And I can honestly say that I don’t remember ever thinking of the people as ‘poor and uneducated,’ but rather that these were some of the most intelligent people I had ever met. That is not to say, I didn’t think things could develop or grow. But I was completely overwhelmed by a body of knowledge I did not have.

In fact, in retrospect, that experience completely transformed and expanded my understanding of what it means to be literate. I believed, like most of us, that literacy was confined to the ability to read, write and comprehend the written word. Real literacy, however, is the ability to read your environment, to know what nature gives you and what you are obliged to give it in return.”

A jumpsuit from Kokrobitey's WOTE 2021 Collection. Photo via @kokrobitey.institute.

Earrings made from recycled glass. Photo via @kokrobitey.institute. 

The Kokrobitey design team learning how to screen print. Photo via @kokrobitey.institute.

Winds of Change

“But over time, in the name of development and industrialization, Kokrobitey began to change. To watch a small, fully-integrated, functioning community morph into essentially a dumping ground for other nations’ economies is difficult. To witness it deluged with things it can’t afford and lose things it once had—like the Neem tree and the charcoal they used to clean their teeth now packaged in a tube with a brush—in the name of development is painful.

Remember when I said that ‘What we wear on the outside, is a window into what we are on the inside?’ I was starting to notice that people were wearing fewer local textiles and fabrics and replacing them with secondhand clothes from Europe and America. What initially masqueraded as philanthropy from the West became an industry and a system for dumping all kinds of waste. Over a million pieces of used clothing go into landfills every week in and around the capital city of Accra. Second only to oil, textile waste is the most damaging to the environment.

Ghana has become a hand-me-down nation—a result of misguided development and aid that only served to trap Ghana, and countries like it, in a cycle of dependency and stagnation.

Specifically, I can remember the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) and the excitement it generated when America decided to allow textiles to be exported from Ghana, tax-free. No one anticipated what would ensue and who the true beneficiaries would be. AGOA was extended to the United States as well. They had full license to export textiles, tax-free, to Ghana. That is when massive amounts of secondhand clothes deluged the market, destroying the industry. And at the time, and worst of all, began to assault the nation’s identity.

The symbol of what I am describing can be summed up with the image of a local man in Kokrobitey wearing a T-shirt with a confederate flag on it that read: ‘The South Will Rise Again.’ The man wearing that shirt had no idea what it meant, but for me, it was everything I had been trying to escape when I left America. And for him, the beginning of his own erasure at the hands of so-called ‘development.’”

A recycled glass dish made at the institute. Photo via @kokrobitey.institute.

Renée sitting on a chair reupholstered with recycled denim. Photo via @kokrobitey.institute. 

A workshop with the institute's design team. Photo via @kokrobitey.institute.

Rediscovering African knowledge systems for a sustainable future

“If you can depend on anything in life, you can depend on change. I began to re-evaluate my mission with the Kokrobitey Institute. In what way could we lead? What new stories could we tell? Especially in this age of fundamental threat—the climate crisis! The world needed a new story—why shouldn’t we take the lead and tell it? So, it begged the question: Why is this not already happening? What was standing in the way of African leadership? It occurred to me, that those on the African continent and those of us in the diaspora both shared a crisis of identity.

The Africans abroad endured slavery and the humiliation that comes with that, while those on the continent endured the horrors of colonial rule. And both experiences were equally traumatising. But there is one key difference: Africa, unlike those of us in the diaspora, can look back on a past before the trauma. And it is precisely in that past that we must search for the answers to guide us to a healthy, sustainable future.

At Kokrobitey Institute, we came to sustainability through my observations of what was happening in the village. Unemployed young people, education that did not nurture critical self-awareness, and the damage being done by the Obruni Wehru secondhand clothing markets—which directly translates to ‘dead white man’s clothes.’ This is the place where inordinate amounts of secondhand clothing are dumped.

I came to fashion through the potential I saw in reimagining the abundant waste as material for product development. A major obstacle we faced, right away, was building systems that would allow us to scale our designs into clothing lines and go beyond just creating one-off pieces.

For our denim collection, we gather secondhand jeans. We sort them into different categories: size (we love the xxxlarge), color, gauge, and grade. Then we disassemble them. We take off the pockets, the waistbands, and all the trimmings. When we remove the waistbands of the jeans and cut them into strips, we think of traditional kente fabric when reassembling them to create new designs.

We have identified other materials we can use to procure in bulk: men’s dress shirts, T-shirts, and our most recent material, plastic water sachets. This project stretches across the spectrum of the Institute’s interests: environmental sustainability, education, resourceful design, and social entrepreneurship.

We have started youth eco-clubs in the schools, and distributed waste bins to collect the water sachets before they litter the ground. The sachets are then brought to the Institute where they are cut, washed, and sewn into various products such as raincoats or pouches.

The waste that litters our landscapes is evidence of a dark age, an age of poverty, extraction, and greed. But the voices buried right beneath it can tell us the story of who we once were. These are the voices we should heed in this crucial moment of fundamental change. They will guide us and remind us of who we are. Only then will we truly understand how to write this next deciding chapter.”

The Kokrobitey Institute. Photo via The Kokrobitey Institute.