In Search of a True Igbo National Attire
By Uche Nworah (February 2008)
Culture they say is the sum total of a people’s way of life, in this regard the culture of a people could be evidenced in the people’s language, native customs, food, music, dance, occupation and skills set, dress etc.
In Nigeria, there is no better way to identify people from the different ethnic regions than through their dress. Some of these dresses have since been elevated to the status of national dresses and are worn by members of other ethnic groups at weddings and other public functions, for example the Babanriga dress also known as Shagari dress or One thousand five hundred which was made popular by politicians during the second republic has crept its way up there as one of the most widely accepted Nigerian national dress, complete with matching Shagari cap. The Babanriga dress is traditionally associated with the Hausa – Fulani stock in Northern Nigeria but it has managed to achieve the cross-over winning wide appeal in the process from other Nigerians who have come to associate the dress as a sign of status symbol, many therefore aspire to own a piece to add to their wardrobe collections.
In the same vein, the long flowing dress made of brocade materials popularly known in Nigeria as Senegalese is also heavily associated with the Hausa – Fulani stock, but it does appear though that both the Yorubas, the Igbos and some of the other ethnic groups despite having what could be regarded as their own indigenous dresses have embraced it. Perhaps not to be seen to be losing out in the race for inter-cultural assimilation, the Yorubas it could be argued have successfully exported their taste for exotic lace materials also called Agbada (the type worn by men) to the other Nigerian ethnic groups, particularly to the Igbos who seem to be caught in the middle of the emerging cultural revolution, and who seem to be struggling somewhat in clearly identifying what truly could be regarded as a true Igbo national dress, and consequently attempting to export such to the other Nigerian ethnic groups just like the Ijaws are attempting at the moment to do with their distinctive dress which comprises of a flowing robe, a wrapper tied around the waist, this is completed with a walking stick which is then topped up with a hat – also known as the South South hat. Perhaps the Niger Delta struggle which has birthed Pan Ijaw socio-political associations such s The South-South Peoples Assemble (SSPA) could be credited with popularising the Ijaw national dress and driving it further into the consciousness of Nigerians as these days Nigerians regularly see Ijaw sons and daughters on TV deck out in their national dress attending one function or the other.
Ndigbo are known to be very cultural and traditional people. Aspects of Igbo culture are usually on display for all to see during certain ceremonies in Igbo land such as Igba Nkwu (traditional marriage ceremony), Ichi echi chi (title taking) and others. At these ceremonies, Ndigbo try as much as possible to showcase their music, dance and food. There is also a bit of fashion on display at such events but any casual observer will easily notice the lack of cohesion in the choice of dresses in terms of projecting what truly may be regarded as the Igbo dress. Perhaps this may be because this generation of Ndigbo do not have any such understanding, or they may not have been told any better by their parents and members of the old generation, thus it is common to see young men and women parading themselves in multi-cultural attires. While the men regale in their red capped outfits, the women adorn themselves elegantly in beautifully patterned attires which could be made of lace, jacquard, brocade and akwete clothes.
There is no doubt that the impact of globalisation is upon the Igbo race, the same way other races in Nigeria – Yoruba, Hausa, Efik, Ijaw are feeling the negative and positive effects of this phenomenon. It has brought with it change and some other influences that seem to conflict with some of the age-old customs and cultures of Ndigbo. While the traditionalists continue to resist such influences, the modernists have since integrated themselves into the global village with its attendant influences and moved on. There are however certain confusion that has arisen in the process, that of truly identifying and preserving what is still truly Igbo. Were Chinua Achebe’s Okonkwo in the classic novel Things Fall Apart still alive, it would be interesting to see how he would have reacted or rather embraced the emerging cultural evolution.
Most affected by the globalisation onslaught is the Igbo language which many believe is dying. Some have advocated making it compulsory in Igbo homes and schools; these are all good suggestions as I’m in support of any scheme that will lead to the resurgence of the Igbo culture. It may also be necessary to appeal to Ndigbo at home and in the diaspora to emulate their Yoruba and Hausa brothers who strive always through their names and language to relive their culture wherever they may be living. It is only by so doing that the present generation will have something to pass on to the future generation.
Sometimes the confusion also arises as to what truly defines Igbo culture, take for instance clothes. What is indeed a true Igbo attire for the Igbo man and woman? We read that back in the day, our women usually adorned their bodies in Nzu, while covering their upper body and waist areas with pieces of akwete cloth. Agreed that civilisation no longer allows such mode of dressing but still there has to be another particular type of dress that should be adopted to signify or represent true Igbo attire.
The men are not left out too as they are also caught up in this apparent state of confusion regarding what the Igbo attire is. The traditional Isi agu dress worn mainly by people from Abiriba, Bende, Item, Ohafia and Igbere in Abia state will readily come to mind here but there is no general acceptance that the Isi agu is indeed a generally accepted Igbo dress. Neither are lace, brocade and abada materials. These all seem to be borrowed from other ethnic groups. There has got to be a dress Ndigbo could adopt and use as their national attire.
At the wedding between Precious and Cordelier Osuala in Abuja sometime in 2007, this dilemma actually hit home. Alongside my friend Nze Sunny Ogbu and others, we really wanted to identify with our Igbo culture and felt that we could best do this by turning out in true Igbo dresses, but it was actually while discussing our options that we came to the conclusion that they were limited. We ended up wearing Isi-agu but we still felt that we could have done better, only that we didn’t know how else.
Should this then be a matter for Ohaneze Ndigbo, the Pan-Igbo socio-political organisation to look into? Maybe but while we wait for further word on this from them, perhaps the time has come for Ndigbo who know better to come forward to prescribe, or rather suggest to today’s Ndigbo what could indeed be regarded as the true Igbo dress.