Meet the African-American expatriates of EBONY.com’s “Expat Diaries,” a weekly series detailing the varied experiences of Black Americans living abroad. If you’ve ever wanted to pack up and leave the United States to soak up foreign cultures in search of adventure, live vicariously through the “Expat Diaries.” From Paris and Berlin, to South Korea and beyond, “Expat Diaries” dips into worldwide cultures and tells the truth about blackness all over the world!
Mallence Bart-Williams was sitting in a quiet corner at her own exhibit opening slash product launch in Berlin when we met. Short curly Afro on top, lithe denim-clad legs stretched out before her, she was sipping a soft drink and wearing a gold-plated chain that read: I’M POSSIBLE.
Only a handful of years ago, Mallence started visiting her father’s home country of Sierra Leone again after a hiatus forced by civil war. Tens of thousands dead and a shiny new government later, Mallence went to the Freetown neighborhood of Lion Base daily to check on the progress of a jacket she’d commissioned from a local tailor. Crossing a bridge to reach the tailor’s studio, she noticed something strange.
“From a bird’s-eye perspective,” she says, “you could see there was some life going on underneath the bridge. And I just always wondered who was under there.” Mallence came to learn that living underneath the bridge was a feared neighborhood gang of about 20 boys calling themselves the Lion Base crew. “For some reason,” Mallence muses, “we just started to greet each other.”
As she became friendlier with the group of outlaws, all of Freetown thought she was crazy. What if they robbed her? Or worse? “I asked people, and they said, Just stay away from them. I was always warned about these guys. That kind of intrigued me,” she smiles. “One of the first guys I befriended was 6 Pack. He was the leader or boss of the gang. I think that helped, because then the others didn’t dare to harm me. He and I just got along.”
The innate trust on her part that she’d be safe with them, was reciprocated. They invited her to see how they lived. There. Under the bridge. What she saw changed her.
“It was something else. Like, you see the waste passing in the gutter, and one meter away from that, they slept on the naked ground. If they were lucky they’d have a piece of cardboard. Every time I went, there would be lots of commotion. I’d ask, What’s your story? They’d say, You really want to know? It’s a looong story. Of course, I wanted to know. So me and two of the ones I knew a bit better, we went to the beach to have a little bit of a time away…”
It’s said that you may not remember what people say or do, but you’ll always remember how they made you feel. The details of what Mallence heard on the beach that day are fuzzy now, but they inspired her to action. “Of course from that moment on, knowing their stories made me responsible. I felt like I had to do something.”
Fast forward to the German launch of urban street brand K1X's new DCAC Batik sneakers, made by the hands of the boys of Lion Base. Along with a book and a documentary film (Lion Base) based on the making of it all, these kicks form the foundation of their new lives: proceeds pay for their apartments and their education.
On this night in Berlin, their faces smirk down at all of Afro-German Berlin from the room’s stripped-down walls. The same posters have been plastered along the Freetown bridge under which they once slept, as well as on the storefronts of designers like Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent in Berlin and Paris. Each image is a portrait of a Lion Base Crew gangsta-turned-fashion-designer, rocking an I’M POSSIBLE chain identical to their new leader/sister/mama/business partner, Mallence Bart-Williams.
She and I met up at Soho House Berlin days later to speak about it all.
Ieishah Clelland: Whose idea was it to make a sneaker? Was this something you suggested to the Lion Base Crew, or did they come up with the idea?
Mallence Bart-Williams: No. I had to work with the contacts that I had, and it just so happened that I was working with this sneaker company, K1X. I went to K1X with the idea to do an African print sneaker from materials I found in the market in Freetown. At first they said, No. What a stupid idea! I had to fight for it. It was just too fashion forward for them. [Germans] think in white, black and grey. You know, you don’t see much color. Then, persistence, persistence, persistence, and finally, they said yes. Working with this factory in Thailand we produced the sneaker, and showed K1X the final result. Everyone loved it. Well, the company didn’t love it, but the response was good. Internationally, especially.
IC: Tell me about the making of the Lion Base batik sneaker.
MBW: Just as the first sneaker was being sold (we hadn’t seen any returns or profit yet), I went back to Sierra Leone. I found 6 Pack, and I’m chatting away to him, when one of his friends came up to us and started talking about how he’d managed to finish school, and he wanted to continue to university. But the finances weren’t there. I said, Okay. I’ll come up with a solution. They didn’t think I was serious. I called up K1X in Germany and told them I want to do another sneaker. A batik sneaker this time. I thought it would be so easy. I’d done batik in kindergarten, and it’s a really traditional African way to print, so I thought it would be perfect. It wasn’t easy at all! We had no clue what we were doing. It just wasn’t working out. The colors were all muddy and looked disgusting. Getting it right took about a month.
IC:So you were there in Freetown, on the ground, working to get these batik patterns right?
MBW: Yes! [After the first failed attempts], we found someone that had a hookup with a man in Freetown who does batik professionally, so he volunteered to come show us how to do it: how to mix the colors, and certain techniques, and we got busy executing it. We produced enough material to make 20 sneakers from each pattern.
IC: Where did you work? Not under the bridge?
MBW: We worked in an abandoned compound that somebody gave us. But in Sierra Leone generally, there is little electricity. [In Europe] you press a button and the water boils in five minutes. There, you have to collect rainwater, then the boiling process is like three hours. Want to work at night? You work with candles. We had to be creative in this whole process and it really made us grow together.
IC: How long was it between when you met the Lion Base Crew, and the day when each and every one of them was in school?
MBW: Between the conversation on the beach and when we did the project? Two years. Between making the batik [sneaker] and all 20 in school was eight months. But everything was step by step. Because at first they were all like, Nah I’m not doin’ it.
IC: If you could do it all again what would you do differently?
MBW: Nothing. Everything happens for a reason, and this happened perfectly.