Big Robe

We picked the cotton, pulled the soft white tufts
when they erupted, piled them in the grass baskets
we carried on our heads. First Thursday market,
we walked with covered baskets toward the river.

Long walk, but only once a month, First Thursday.

My friend’s mother sold the cotton to the master
tailor, and when she left to trade gossip with other
women, we stayed in the shade of the tailor’s
make-shift shelter, mouths silently agape, watched

as he’d take a puff of cotton, touch tips of two

fingers to his tongue, pinch and twist, roll the first
drawn fibers, form a cord. When it had reached
a hand’s-length, he’d secure it to a small rock, lift
the puff in one hand, wind the stone up, let go

and let the rebound spin turn the cotton into thread.

Another Thursday market-day and long past harvest,
but we still came, sat silently in the tailor’s shade.
Those stone-spun threads were now affixed, their
ends knotted to a double-heddle, and he wove them

into even strips, long long and precisely narrow:

each the measured width of his thumb and fingertip.
And another market, still months later, we watched
him push a steel needle through the edges of two
strips held together, form a seam, each stitch was

measured, patient, and when pulled taut, invisible.

Two years of First Thursdays we borrowed shade
and watched as our harvest that he’d purchased
gradually became babba riga, big robe, a fine
and formal garment for a man of great importance,

then embellished: swirls, knives to grace the chest.

Two years of a man’s life spun and woven, stitched
into the fabric of these robes. Two years of a man’s
life, two months blessed embroidery, our cotton.


In response to / inspired by Via Negativa: “Thinned” and “Agape.” For more on Hausa
babba riga robes, see the Powerhouse Museum Collection.

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