Ancient indigo dye pits barely survive in Nigeria

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KANO, Nigeria -- For 500 years the dyers of Kano have crouched over circular pits near the mud city wall, plunging fabrics into water infused with indigo.

The purple cotton of Kano was once famous throughout Africa's arid Sahel belt, in the days when the Nigerian emirate was a center of trans-Saharan trade in salt and gold, rivaling the fabled riches of Timbuktu.

Now more than 100 pits have fallen into disrepair and many of them are clogged with refuse and stones.

"Before it was much busier here," said chief dyer Hamidan Uba Zango, a glassy-eyed 80-year-old who has worked in the pits since he was six.

"There is foreign competition everywhere. Before there was no foreign cloth in Africa, but now it comes from China, England, Holland."

Founded in 1498, the Kofar Mata pits are said to be the oldest in Africa and are the only survivor of Kano's dye trade -- which once included 13 pit complexes. Close to the royal palace, its colors have adorned the fabrics of Kano's traditional rulers for centuries.

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