Germaine Lentou, dyer in Cameroon
It’s noon, I’m in Akwa and I stop a motorbike to meet Mrs. Germaine Lonteu, one of the country’s best dyers. She’s agreed to meet me in the town of Bali, where she’s currently giving lessons at the New Fashion Academy. Despite me being 10 minutes late, Germaine Lonteu greets me with a smile and invites me to join her.
As usual, I take out my laptop and my voice recorder, and explain to her the reason for this meeting: “Mrs. Lonteu, I’d like to present you to the world, and in particular show people that you can make a living from being creative”; that’s what I said to her.
Germaine Lonteu, a mother of 3, has been teaching dyeing in Douala for the last 35 years or so. She began this profession when she was 22.
Ever since she was a child, she loved touching her mother’s spools of thread, her scissors, her material. Aware that their daughter wanted to work in a creative job, they enrolled her in a specialised centre so that Germaine Lonteu could learn how to sew and stitch, and subsequently how to dye. “You know, back then you already had to innovate, diversify. Being a seamstress was no longer enough! You had to be able to make your material, draw, design the item of clothing you wanted to make before starting to sew. It was quite a process”, Mrs. Lonteu explains.
The reason she’s been able to stand out is because of her open-mindedness. Her tutor was a policeman, she had to go all over Cameroon, from Dschang in the north and via Bafoussam. The dyer got to meet a variety of cultures and learn from them.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Cameroonian government launched a school-creation project, the aim of which was to provide training to street urchins. The idea was that at the end of their training they would be able to find the means to become self-reliant. Mrs. Lonteu was one of those trainers. “At the beginning, we had to take a 6-month course to validate our skills, following which the best people stayed on and became teachers”, she recalls.
Looking at her class, I wonder. I ask her whether she really believes that there’s a future for those who choose fashion as a sector of activity. In Cameroon, every day we see events dedicated to fashion, but there’s no structure. You see clothes once and then never see them again in a distribution circuit, with the exception of the Kreyann brand.
It’s a struggle to promote our artisans’ know-how when people think anyone can do it. Today, with the Internet, everything seems even simpler; you just download fashion photos and go straight to your local dyer. Cameroonians have not yet been able to promote their craftsmanship the way Nigerians, Ghanaians or South Africans have.
Despite everything, Mrs. Lonteu remains optimistic, which is great to see. We need more older people to support and accompany our young people to think big and dream. “We need support from the government to make fashion a genuine industry. Government involvement will help attract investors aware of the contribution this sector can provide, not only socially by creating jobs, but also financially. Our politicians and business leaders could also wear local creations to show off the ability of our talented craftspeople. There’s still a long way to go, but I’m confident”, the dyer adds.
I ask her if she has some final words, and she says: “To young Cameroonians I say: think big and dream big. Never forget our cultural wealth and our traditions that will always enable us to stand out from the world’s creators. Be competitive; go and conquer the planet!”