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Burkina 24 is a news website based in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. The site was launched in Montreal, Canada in 2011 by three young entrepreneurs from the country's diaspora.
Photo of one of Ouagadougou's "rafistoleurs" carrying his sewing machine on his shoulder
Flora Toelo Karambiri

Meet The "Patchers," Burkina Faso's Mobile Tailors Cutting Corners On-The-Go

Seven days a week, the "patchers" of Burkina Faso roam the streets of the country's capital, looking out for any clothes that might need mending.

OUAGADOUGOU — They are easy to spot as they crisscross the capital of Burkina Faso. With sewing machines on their shoulders and scissors in hand, they travel around in search of their daily tasks. Many in urgent need make use of their services to adjust an outfit, mend holes, replace a zipper, sew on buttons or repair a tear.

These are the mobile tailors or rafistoleurs ("patchers") of this West African nation of 22 million. They save people time, trouble and often money, and are a common sight on the streets of Ouagadougou.

Often young immigrants from other African countries to Burkina Faso, they roam the streets of the city and the neighborhoods on foot or bicycle, announcing their presence by loudly snipping their scissors. They offer services in mending clothing, for the most part. At bargain rates, they patch up torn clothes. The prices of the services vary according to the complexity of the service requested.

Journey to a better life

Mahamat is a young Nigerian in his twenties who has been working as a mobile tailor for more than five years in Burkina Faso. He learned to sew in his home country, Niger, where he says a difficult life led him to venture abroad in search of better living conditions.

With his sewing machine on his shoulder, Mahamat scouts different neighborhoods, getting attention with the clicking of his scissors. He can fulfill any request to restore clothing. He spent the modest sum of 20,000 CFA ($32) to buy a sewing machine, with which he can fulfill any request to restore clothing. The machine earns him the minimum to survive.

Mahamat has a goal: saving enough to open a sewing workshop where he can showcase his talent.

All week long, Mahamat walks the streets of Ouagadougou. Resting is out of the question for him, because money does not wait. On some days, he may return home with just 500 francs in his pocket. On other days however, when luck is on his side, he can earn more than 15,000 francs ($24). Not knowing what the day will bring, he prefers to go out seven days a week, only taking a day off when he is too sick to leave home.

The job is not easy. Walking with the weight of the machine on his shoulder can be particularly difficult, Mahamat says. He worries about his health in the future. Some customers also complain that the service is too expensive and refuse to pay what they owe after Mahamat finishes the repairs. Language can also pose a challenge for some tailors, many of whom are immigrants.

But Mahamat has a goal: saving enough to open a sewing workshop where he can showcase his talent. That's why, he says, he hasn't wasted money on a bicycle. Still, though he enjoys the trade, he doesn't plan to keep it up forever.

The activity of these menders-tailors is highly appreciated by some, and many of these hardworking young people like Mahamat manage to win regular clients, taking appointments by phone. "It is with the money we earn from clients that we live, so we are obliged to be courteous to them so that they call us tomorrow. I give my number to some ladies who have me come to their homes to fix their clothes in an emergency," he says.

Photo of a street scene in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso

Street scene in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso

Lou Jones/ZUMA

Quick and dirty?

For many clients, Mahamat and other tailors offer a fast and cheap service. Families with children are often among their most loyal clients. Madame Yaro's family is among them: "I have young children who play a lot. Every time I end up with torn clothes," she says. "Before, I used to collect everything to go to the local tailor. But he took too long and it didn't suit me. That's when I started working with the rafistoleurs. They are cheap, fast and I really appreciate having my children's clothes mended."

Still, while some appreciate the work that mobile tailors offer, others write them off as amateurs, preferring to work with "professionals" to avoid shoddy work.

Once they learn how to pedal the machine and thread the needle, they just go for it.

But the "mobile tailors" say they're not in competition with professional tailors, established in their workshops — and conversely, the latter say they can't compete with Mahamat when it comes to emergency repairs.

Most professional tailors surveyed by Burkina 24 said that they absolutely do not do the same job, and many argue that mobile tailors can only mend clothes, not sew a good outfit.

"Most of the mobile tailors I know didn't take the time to learn sewing. They want work and they want it quickly, so once they learn how to pedal the machine and thread the needle, they just go for it. However, some can be considered innovators in this regard, trying to find an edge by doing high-quality alterations. "On the other hand," as Tourou Selaboy, founder of Selah Design, points out, "only do quick-and-dirty work."