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Posts Tagged ‘Yoruba clothing’

We weren’t exactly sure why we were there. The five of us sat with straight faces and glassy eyes around the shiny conference table, listening to the voice of the CNN reporter discuss the implications the natural disaster in Japan will have on the electronics market. We were tired–Oyinbos dislike waking up at 5:30 a.m. All we knew was we had arrived at the girls’ college in Ikeja, Lagos to do some sort of speech that required us to wear Yoruba outfits. Finally a Madame entered, wearing a lovely collared shirt, black skirt and high-waisted belt-a stark contrast to our brightly colored long ankara outfits. She hugged each of us, told me she loved my latest video on YouTube and passed out the programs for the day. This woman turned out to be the director of Vivian Fowler, Mrs. Funke Amba. After that day, I now refer to her as Aunty Funke.

Yoruba Day sign

Yoruba Day at Vivian Fowler and we are the special guests.


Thursday, March 17, 2011 was deemed Yoruba Day at Vivian Fowler Memorial College for Girls–a day for us, the Yoruba speaking Oyinbos, to plant a little seed of shame, amazement and most of all motivation in the hearts of ajebota secondary school children who don’t care to speak their native language. Yoruba Day started with giving us a tour of campus. Once you enter through the main gate, just past the hedge trimmed to spell V-i-v-i-a-n-F-o-w-l-e-r, you cast your eyes upon a impeccably kept courtyard with more impressive bush shapes–a horse, a man and woman are among the bush figures. The tour, led all in Yoruba on Yoruba Day of course, brought us to the fully stocked chemistry labs, home economics rooms, art gallery full of works of students’ art, a full court basketball court, and the peaceful, sparkling library with an impressive collection of worldly books. I was impressed. Students in tidy, well ironed light orange and blue uniforms greeted us politely in English as we roamed the campus. Any child would be lucky to go to a school like Vivian Fowler.

The program started like all Yoruba events, introducing the important guests. Among them were very important people in education in Lagos State, the King of Lagos’ chiefs, and us! We sat on couches on either side of the stage-boys on one side, girls on the other-covered in adire cloth and stood up to wave to the audience when they introduced each of us. We heard speeches from University of Ife Professor Wale Omole, one of the king’s chiefs and Mrs. F.O. Erogbogbo, the Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Education in Lagos state. After a few interludes of Yoruba entertainment we heard speeches from students from each of the secondary schools present. When it was our turn to speak I was nervous, as usual. I wanted to make a comprehensive speech that not only impressed people, but also conveyed a serious message to the students about reviving their native language. I started by going down on my knees to greet everyone, a proper Yoruba greeting. I spoke about our experience in University of Ibadan and how we really shock people when they hear Yoruba come out of our mouths, but they still speak English back to us. I told them that they should use us Yoruba speaking white people as an ipenija, challenge. N ko fe ki oju ti won, mo fe fun won ni imisi lati ko Yoruba sii. I told them to watch Mainframe movies, listen to singers like Asa where they can hear ijinle Yoruba. They can also read books, but sometimes Yoruba books can be very difficult to get through (I’m reading ‘Alo Ijapa’ right now and it can be hard for me to fully understand at moments.) I think I spoke well for not having any time to prepare or practice. I left the stage feeling pleased, like I said something that might actually ignite a fire in some of the students’ hearts for the Yoruba language.

The event went smoothly, as to be expected from such a fine school like Vivian Fowler. Mrs. Funke Amba, the director of the school, organized event after seeing us in the Punch newspaper and saw that it did not fall victim to too much Africa time. They gave us beautiful cloth as gifts (adire for the girls and guinea for the boys). After the program we moved outside where we stood in one spot smiling for almost an hour while groups of students and adults filtered through and clicked obscene amounts of pictures. All the while, journalists and camera crews stood by desperately trying to interview us. I felt a little like an animal in a zoo, but it was all for a good cause. Right before we got in the car to leave, a young girl, she must have been no older than 12 ran up to me and asked, “can I hug you?” She wrapped her hands around my waist, pressed her head into my chest and gave me the tightest hug. Hopefully that’s a sign we got through to them.

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I finally got out of Ibadan this weekend. My host mom invited me to go with her to a funeral in Ilobu, a village in Osun State, about 100 km north east of Ibadan.

A map of Ibadan to Ilobu

I was ecstatic at the idea of traveling to another part of Yorubaland, especially for a funeral. When an agbalagba (old person) dies, his/her children throw a huge celebration with lots of food, dance and music. A funeral for a person who lives a long life is cause for celebration here, not sadness. The burial ceremony for the late Chief Moses Ojo Anwo brought hundreds of people from all over Yorubaland to Ilobu to celebrate his “glorious exit” after 90 years of life.

We were five in the car to Ilobu: my host mom in the drivers seat, the wife of my dad’s brother in the front seat, me in the back squished between my host grandmother and the wife of my dad’s other brother.

My host mom, Peju Layiwola and I outside the church.

The road to Ilobu was in decent shape for the most part. You should expect to thrash from side to side on any road around here as the driver dodges pot holes. We stopped on the side of the road for 10 minutes when we noticed the temperature gauge on the car all the way up. I stood up outside the car, with my hands on the top to escape the heat inside the car and watch the heavy traffic pass around a semi-truck stuck in the mud. Wearing my traditional Yoruba dress, I attracted a lot of attention from drivers. It probably didn’t help that I was yelling “Good afternoon,” and “greetings for taking a trip” at drivers in Yoruba. A driver kept his eyes on me for so long, in complete shock at this Oyinbo woman dressed like a Yoruba and speaking Yoruba, that he lightly crashed into the car in front of him. The police man helping us tend the overheating car just laughed at this and the whole incident dissolved without a single argument or exchange of insurance information.

We arrived at the church in Ilobu just in time to miss most of the service. Every pew was completely full, so without space to sit we stood outside taking pictures and scrutinizing all the different traditional outfits.

Young girls hold their markets on their heads to sell to guests looking for something sweet or refreshing.

The church grounds were a flurry with activity. Young girls and boys carrying trays of sweets, sachets of water, little donuts and ice creams on their heads to sell to the guests, people greeting each other, cars coming in and out, demanding everyone move aside. I, as the only white person there, added to the commotion.

Dancing up to the front for Thanksgiving at the church with all eyes on me.

We did enter the church briefly to participate in the Thanksgiving; this entails dancing down the aisles up to the front to put 20 Naira or so to the donation bag. Of course I danced like a Yoruba woman does (video coming soon) and instantly all eyes in the church diverted to me.

Sellers, guests congregate outside the packed church.

After the service, all the guests drove a ways down the main road to a big field for the reception. Empty plastic tables and chairs arranged neatly under big tents covered the perimeter of the field and two band tents with huge speakers situated in the middle. Anwo, the man who died, had one wife with many children so different children sponsored a different band tent, conveniently located right next to each other, speakers facing the same way. The sound was horrifically loud. When we arrived drummers playing the talking drum swarmed me and started drumming the tune of “O-yin-bo” to amuse me and earn some naira.

My ear drums felt like they were going to burst from the bombardment of talking drum.

Three of them followed me all the way to my table, until finally after a lot of drumming my ear drums had had enough and I gave one 50 Naira. He promptly left my side. The caterers served us a choice of rice, moinmoin and beef or pounded yam with stew. I chose the pounded yam as it is becoming one of my favorite foods here. After eating, the lead musician invited the celebrants (the children of the deceased) to come and dance on the dance ground where their friends started spraying them with money. I wish I had pictures of this now, but it will have to wait for a later post. Basically people drop money, mostly small bills, on your face and all over you while you dance. Meanwhile someone collects the money from the ground in a bag for you. When I hear music it’s hard for me to stand still. I started grooving in my chair a little bit when my mom told me to stand up and dance. I did and she sprayed me with 100 Naira.

Guests of the funeral seated under the tent waiting to be served food.

All eyes of the guests seated under the tent were on me again. I must say, I can dance like a Nigerian woman pretty well. I have the arm/butt coordination down pat. Before long a man from the dancing crowd approached me to bring me into the crowd. My mom and grandmother encouraged me to go so I danced into the crowd of celebrants and within no time women and men started spraying me with Naira. I must have danced for no more than 2 minutes and I came out with 2,400 Naira, about $15. A couple women even sprayed me with 500 N bills, very rare for spraying! I am kicking myself now for not dancing longer.

So goes a typical funeral for a person who lived a long, fulfilled life in Yorubaland. Not one person at the event wore a black suit or a black dress. In fact, observing the clothes was one of the most incredible parts of the day for me.

Outside waiting for the church service to end, in aso ebi.

Each cloth is beautiful and bright, and of course an outfit is not complete without a gele or fila on top. Women wrap stiff geles that complement their clothing perfectly and the man’s fila sits proudly on his head, dropped to one side depending on if he is married or not. Then you see the “aso ebi” or family clothing. At big parties like weddings or funerals, families-men and women-will all dress in the same cloth. It will all be sewn in different styles but it is totally coordinated and is a stunning sight to see. Dressing is such a beautiful part of the Yoruba culture, I could never be bored at a party just for examining all the different clothing styles.

I am coming to love this country and culture more and more after every day that goes by, especially with every new Yoruba outfit I get back from the tailor. I may just come home with an entirely new wardrobe.

Women adorned in aso ebi at Anwo's funeral.


The Layiwola wives and me. I didn't have time to coordinate the aso ebi.

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Strange symbols

On a recent trip to the Baagi cloth market my host mom had me on the lookout for fabrics with images and symbols that do not relate to African culture.

Perrier, top hats, high heels and wine glasses.

Top hats, high heels, bottles of Perrier and bubbles.

She is writing a paper about how these foreign symbols are coming to be recognized and accepted in Africa through clothing alone. My job as her Oyinbo daughter/assistant was to convince the cloth sellers to let me take pictures of the cloth, something that is not really accepted in these markets. We made up a crafty story that I was buying fabric for my friends in the U.S. and I wanted to photograph the cloth to show them what it looked like (in reality I would never ever select these cloths for my friends.)

Almost all of the cloth you see in the markets here is imported from Europe.

Lamps on tables.

It is curious why certain images and symbols that are so random to this culture appear all over clothing and it surprises me that you see a lot of Nigerians actually wearing them! I’ve seen women wearing iro and buba and men wearing buba and shokoto covered with multicolored unicorns, computers, hammers, whales, planets and spaceships. Iro and buba, and the buba and shokoto for men are traditional Yoruba outfits so it seems contradictory to wear computers and planets when these images have nothing to do with traditional Yoruba culture.

Bottles of champagne and bubbly glasses.

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When Kevin “Kayode” Barry turned 21, his host family threw him a modern-day Yorùbá birthday party. Naturally, I made a video. Enjoy!

Here is a video of Keegan “Kolade” O’Neil’s speech to the birthday boy, all in Yorùbá of course.

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The Cloth Market

One thing stands between me and full Yoruba-ness, well maybe three if you count the color of my skin and the fact that I’m American. But that one important thing is clothing. Yoruba women dress in vivid, colorful, patterned cloths. In a woman’s traditional outfit, an iro and buba, the buba is wrapped around their waists as a long skirt and the iro is a loose long sleeve shirt. Then they wrap a gele around their heads with their hair tucked in. I love the way it looks and I would feel like my Yoruba assimilation is complete when I can wo iro ati buba. To my delight, my host mom took me to one of the biggest cloth markets in Ibadan this weekend, called Gbagi.

The Gbagi market in Ibadan. Expanses of cloth forever.


When my mom, Ossai (my mom’s friend) and I got out of the car cloth sellers, women and men, started flocking to me, grabbing my arms to lead me into their stalls. Once I told my name to one person on the strip of stalls where we parked, everyone started yelling “Titilayo! Come buy now. Come to my store. Come here now!” Names of the ‘Oyinbo’s’ who speak Yoruba spread like wild fire in Nigeria.

My mom and Ossai dragged me away from these people because middle men kept interjecting between the sellers and I, trying to ‘help’ me purchase cloth so they could get a cut of the price. Walking through the market was no easy task for us, seeing as I was so overwhelmed by the amount of fabric I had to stop and look at every other stall. It didn’t help much that my Yoruba skills astounded all of the sellers. If I approached a shop and greeted the women ‘greetings for selling’ I could be sure 20 other people sitting near that particular stall would hear that I speak Yoruba. The secret is out. Men would approach to observe the conversation before inquiring about my marriage status, if I would marry them and bring them back to America. All of this slowed our pace. I am bad at shopping as it is-my mom can attest to this- so me in a massive market with hundreds of different patterned cloth at my fingertips was a serious dilemma. I had to consult Ossai about every other one, asking her if the cloth was ‘fine’ enough. (Yoruba people say ‘O dat’s fine,’ or ‘Aso (clothing) fine,’ when they really like something. I know what I like, but I like to know that other people like it too. The options are so plentiful that I just had to say, I like this one enough, cut it.

You can buy cloth in 6 yards or 12 yards. Prices vary based on the quality of the material and the dye. I came out of the Gbagi market with two beautiful cloths. I bought 6 yards of each. The first one for 500 Naira, about $3.50 and the second for 1,200 Naira, about $8.

Now the cloth is with a tailor. The possibilities are endless of what you can get made. I am getting a iro, buba, gele and a dress that I designed myself made. All together, 2 new full outfits will cost me under $20. Success.

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