The origin of handbags for African women comes from a very natural place. Many of us may not know that practical human behavior of carrying a handbag originated thousands of years ago. The practice of carrying handbags began with our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Hunter-Gatherer behaviors were passed on from generation to generation for thousands of years. Men carrying shoulder bags was just one of many.
In West Africa, especially in Mali, boys demonstrated their keen eyesight by how precisely they could use a sling-shot to aim at fruits or small animals and bring them down by shooting them with rocks. Remember the movie “Roots” by Alex Haley? The young man highlighted in that movie, Kunta Kinte, carried a side-bag as Malian boys did after they had been circumcised. In their bags, Malian boys held sling-shots and stones, a young boy’s first hunting weapon for killing small animals and birds for food. The bag would be the symbol of the onset of his manhood and introduction to his new responsibilities.
As boys grew and become men, they carried a bigger larger bag containing more important tools for hunting and talismans to protect them against evil. At this stage, their roles as men became more complex and they were called Hunters or “Downso”
As humans evolved, so did the traditions. With colonization came schooling. Boys and young men continued to carry their tools in their bags. At this point, those who were allowed to go to school would have two different sets of tools, traditional tools and school supplies such as books, papers, and items for writing.
Women on the other hand, rarely went to school, and when they did, their school supplies were tied in a head scarf. Women also tied their change and small things in their wrap and wrapped them around their waist.
Humans continued to evolve and women decided that they too could use a side bag, handbag and a wallet. Their wallet was called “Djemeni” and that name remains today. In fact, today in Mali, one of the most successful micro-loan programs is called Djemeni.
After women and girls learned to sew, the girls would find pieces of fabric, 100% hand woven cotton, and sew their own shoulder bags to carry their supplies. As more women and girls began to make bags of their own. Hand and shoulder bags of different styles came into use, depending on the creativity of the women who made them.
AGILE International is honored to share with you one of many talents our women have learned through historical traditions. Please stay tuned for more of our short stories. By the way, in Mali, short stories are called Mannah. By definition a Mannah is like today’s TV series such as One Life to Live, ER, and others. Together, we’ll begin juicing Malian culture through our Mannah.