It is a known fact that every culture has the responsibility of describing reality, its origin and models of structural development as well as the hidden knowledge and truth about being. This responsibility is evidently illustrated, addressed or depicted in Igbo paradigm in form of symbols. Devoid of these symbols, signs and images, the traditional life experiences of the Igbo’s will completely be void, abstract and meaningless because some of these symbols represented in tangible visible forms were believed to be real and living. This paper focuses towards understanding Aso-ebi cloth in the Igbo context through the examination of the dynamics of the cloth production, patronage, consumption and social significance of dress projecting high social solidarity and powerful cohesion in traditional Igbo paradigm. The proper underpinning of this social psychology of Aso-ebi cloth on the indigenous people of the Igbo’s will go a long way in the full integration of the Igbo people’s life and their immediate cultural ecology with messages it disseminate. It must be noted also that despite the significance of this integration, it must be informed that such is evidently limited in their transmission of reality. This paper investigates how the Aso-ebi clothe although an imported culture from the Yoruba tradition basically play significant roles in mediating and facilitating religious communication in Igbo Traditional Religion, giving rise to thought, interpretation, and symbolic meanings. In Igbo cosmology and leadership, the Aso-ebi fabrics encapsulate so many things which are very distinctive thereby representing so many things and ideologies.
This study investigates the meaning Igbo people of South-Eastern Nigeria attributes to Aso-ebi dress. In the perception of the Igbo people, Aso-ebi simply known as Akwa-Otu in Igbo tonal language is an aspect of African indigenous cloth which they wear with through the mediation of its symbolic functions in order to create meaning for life and general wellbeing (Kaplan, 2004:190). In this regard, the attire plays a significant role in nurturing, structuring and shaping their society and culture (Olupona, 1991:1). However, the wearing of Aso-ebi attire is basically an imported culture which has been integrated into socio-cultural and socio-religious inter-plays of every facets of occasions in Igbo land and as such it constitute part of the essential tools through which the people understand who they are and maintain Igbo identity. Yet, this indigenous institution continues to be relegated to the background especially as it concerns non acceptance and lack of understanding of its core tenets, and existence (Olupona, 1991:1). The Western man have tried as much as possible to see nothing good about the indigenous people, and this often leads to faulty conclusions ( Idowu, 1973 ):5). Samuel Johnson affirms that “there are two objects of curiosity, the Christian world and the Mohammedian world – all the rest may be considered as barbarous’’ (Carpenter, 1913:24). Fanon (1967:42) asserts that as pesticides kill germs so, does
Christianity destroy the traditions of the colonized peoples. Young (2003:140) affirms that such hasty conclusion and “translation becomes part of the process of domination, of achieving control, a violence carried out on the language, culture, and people being translated’’.
Ohadike (2007:142) argues that during the periods of the Roman and Byzantine, Europeans have tried to use Christianity to establish a pattern of domination over the people of Africa and to exert a deep impact on African cultures and institutions. By and large, the observers of indigenous religion viewed African culture as primitive and associated African attire with paganism (Dube, 1996:106) which Ekeh (1975:97) refers to as “the backwardness of the African past’’. Although, “that is not exactly accurate’’ (Mohawk, 2004:111). Onwudiwe (2001:217) argues that “the policy implication of this uncomplimentary term for Africa is not frequently acknowledged and the attribution to Africa of the status of such terms damages the image of the continent’’. According to Sulaiman Osho (2011:5) “Africa remains a continent that its history, heritage, culture, and customs have been distorted’’. He argues that the historical accounts about Africa are mostly incorrect, slanted, and dented to tilt the true account of history from Western perspective (Osho, 2011:5). They branded the symbols as objects of heathenism, a negation which is couched on racial and moral prejudice against the Africans (Nabofa, 1994:5). Insofar as secularization, globalization, and the expansion of dominant world religions affect indigenous peoples throughout the world, in every case, indigenous peoples have developed their responses to the challenges of multi-faceted modernity (Olupona, 2004:1). Pobee (1979:67) asserts that their negative views sometimes due to straight arrogance, often taking the form that anything non-European could not be good. Sofola (1973:60) argues that through “their self-declared superiority of their culture, a declaration which was strongly backed by ethnocentricism and racial arrogance and the points of bayonet and machine guns, they went all over the non-western world and Africa to impose their culture’’. He insists that “the result is the cataclysm and the warped mentality in which the world suffers now’’ (Sofola, 1973:60). However, it is no wonder, then that when Christianity came to Africa, the missionaries banned the use of African drum, and African dresses by a few convertees in their churches (Ayandele, 1996:29). Ekwueme (1974:13) recounts that “early missionaries tagged all indigenous forms of arts as the work of the devil, especially as almost invariably those associated with some religious or quasi-religious ceremonies…The amount of damage done materially and psychologically to the culture of the Igbo by these misguided zealots may probably never be fully assessed”. According to Adelowo:
It is on this position that Onunwa (2002:86) asserts that the early Christian missionaries behaved like social revolutionaries, but whole trying to achieve the goal of their mission – the conversion of Africans to Christianity. Nabofa (1994:12) affirms that is the reason why the early Christian missionaries that had contact with Africa, instead of developing, civilizing and educating Africans, they succeeded in under developing, deschooling, and eventually producing half-baked Christian converts. Achebe (2012:54) argues that when the Europeans came to Africa, they knew very little of the history and complexity of the people and the continent which made them to believe that Africa had no culture, no religion, and no history. They equally castrated and brain washed Africans by carrying the propaganda that Africans were savages, and their culture was primitive and barbaric, and cannot cope with the requirements of modern society (Metuh, 2002:239).
Horton (1968:628) argues that this “is an even poorer index which to judge traditional religions in pre-literate culture’’. Johann Reinhold Forster ( 1778 ) cited in Chidester (1996:18) affirms that Africans were so “degenerated, debased, and wretched’’ that they had forgotten their “ancient systems”. Pointing to this assertion, Eric Severied laments that “not that Britain really educated these people. Britain gave just enough of them the chance to educate themselves, and what they learned was why they must rid themselves of Britain and how to do it fast (Ndabanigi, 1959:47). Pobee (1979:67) asserts that outsiders misunderstood many of the African ways of doing things, while ignorance of the organizing principles of African attires prevented serious and more accurate study of the costumes. Insufficient research and lack of adequate knowledge of the language coupled in some cases with racial bias, resulted in a number of wild speculations and misrepresentations by certain missionary writers and ethnographers of the Igbo traditional belief and practice relating to wearing of such costumes contributed also to this negative attitude (Ejizu, 2002:114). Sofola (1973:xii) argues that some were either ignorant of the rich values of their African past or were made in their education to look down upon them or shun the values entirely. Ohadike (2007:13) affirms that “one of the aims of assimilation is to achieve political and cultural control by mounting a vicious attack on the victim’s consciousness and self-esteem. When put in motion, the victim begins to hate the customs of his people, their language, music and religion’’.
Nonetheless, by “throwing into the fire and locking into museums the most beautiful specimens in order to silence Africans, a significant access to understanding of African traditional thought was blocked” (Niangoran-Bouah, 1991:82). Nianoran-Bouah (1991:82) again argues that “by so doing, the colonial administrators through their prejudice ignored the fact that the black African has deposited the sum of his knowledge, his religious beliefs, and his attitude and behaviour towards the sacred in this art object”. This cloth called Aso-ebi attire is more than a book and it is a fundamental institution if studied.
Consequently, with the philosophy and ideology of boycott – the boycotable, Mbonu Ojike (1948:2) would not dress in any Western-patterned dress... According to Ojike again:
..Insofar as, this great and proud African nationalist saw and was highly disturbed by the ignorance coupled with insult which Westerners showed on the culture of Africans especially as it concerns indigenous attire, it did not stop many of the African indigenous communication outfits or systems which when used in producing scintillating impressions that are highly impregnated with symbolic meanings (Nabofa, 1994:36). All these were condemned by Westerners and were looked upon with disdainful eyes and in other to malign various African cultural forms and her rich cultural heritage ( Metuh, 2002236 ). All these were borne out racial arrogance and discrimination primarily to assert their superiority over Africans (Sofola, 1973:14). Sofola again asserts that:
This misconception, no doubt, prevented a proper understanding of the symbolism and major role of Aso-ebi clothes in the social life of the Africans like the Igbo race. Not minding what this creative expression symbolizes, outsiders are incompetent to decipher. Nevertheless, Sofola (1973:102) argues that “the fact of the existence of this cultural form he is ready to accept and strongly defend notwithstanding the fact that the existence of this peculiar African forms was recently made popular through Picasso who had copied it from Africa only to come and resell the forms to Africans”. Horton (1968:626) posits that “what is required in studying them is not an abstention from intellectualist analysis, but a delicate balancing of intellectualist with political, aesthetic and other analyses’’. According to Falola:
It is on this development that African elites like Olupona (1991:6) describe African clothes “as a living institution”. Niangoran-Bouah (1991:92) argues that the Aso-ebi clothe is to “Africans what the Bible and Quran are to Christians and Muslims: it is sacred, it is the repository of history, of values, and of the divine word, and it is the preferred mediator between humans and the sacred. He maintains that “he who destroys and burns the Bible cannot know the origins of Christianity. Similarly, he who burns the Quran has no access to an understanding of Islam’’ (Niangoran-Bouah, 1991:82). Soyinka (1999:ix) idiomatically affirms that “when a griot, or ancestor dies, it is an entire library that vanishes”. Niangoran-Bouah (1991:81-82) argues that symbolism behind the Aso-ebi clothe “was judged from the exterior and condemned without an effort to study and understand what it represented in the African traditional worldview’’. Carson (1996:230) idiomatically affirms that it is primarily through such symbolism or paradigm in dresses like the Aso-ebi clothe that “we enjoy intercourse with superior minds…. In the best books, great men talk to us, give us their most precious thoughts, and pour their souls into ours”. Samovar et al (2009:107) argues that “at the heart of each of the world’s main religious traditions lies a body of sacred wisdom’’.
For the Western man perspectives, on one hand, the indigenous Aso-ebi clothe symbolized the explicit nucleus of the elusive African paganism that is to say the evil that had to be annihilated (Rydving, 2004:100). Soyinka (1999: ix) affirms that “this same breed of intellectuals employ the alien yardstick of their spiritual and intellectual enslavers to annihilate the spiritual heritage of that same society”. Niangoran-Bouah (1991:81) argues that “the early Christian missionaries found in the indigenous dresses an excuse to wage socio-religious war against African traditional religion. They took away and destroyed thousands of..., convinced that this was the diabolic... that liberated satanic maleficent forces and energies’’. Metuh (2002:239) predicts that eternal damnation awaited those who failed to accept this Christian propaganda and soon the propaganda caught on. Guadeloupe (2009:139) affirms that those who wish to go against this prohibition are either not hired or fired.
Wave of African People towards Embracing Their Culture
Today Africans in Diaspora are trying to develop their own culture so that it would be admired by those who labeled the religion and cultural practices of the Africans as idolatry, fetishism, animism, paganism, and occultism (Iwuagwu, 1998:21). Olupona (2004:9) argues that such term serves as an ideological justification for Western hegemony which Long (2004:96) reminds us to be mindful of cultural, ideological, and linguistic parameters, which often conveys our very speech at cross-purposes. Nonetheless, indigenous religious systems of the Africans especially the Igbos are responding by carrying out internal reforms in beliefs and practices to reassert their contemporary relevance (Olupona, 2004:6). Njoku (2007:xxix) asserts that Africans in their spirited efforts and fights with each of these forms of foreign threats, have held strongly to the trilogy of religion, music and dance as a mode of dialogue with their ancestors, a symbol of strength, a means of cultural expression, and idiom of identity. This new development makes it possible to arrive at an enhanced appreciation of African traditional belief system and its concomitant artistic dimension (Fleurant, 2000:417) particularly where the Aso-ebi clothe is concerned.
However, some appreciation from the European and American audiences has been made where people are searching for exotic African images and music among them ‘jungles, drums, bare breasts, sweaty bodies, mysteriousness, spirituality and primitivism’ (Impey, 1992:173). The history of indigenous people like the Igbos would be discovered by referring to its native cloth of Aso-ebi ( Akwa-Otu ) group uniform cloth which they borrowed the idea from Yoruba culture and tradition. It is worth mentioning here that Aso-ebi as an imported culture that has been integrated into the mainstream of the Igbo cosmology when it is bought, “it serves as a medium of recording or earmarking these occasion—a supplement to the oral tradition of history recording” (Sofola, 1973:128). Chidester (1996:218) holds that the symbolic significance of the Aso-ebi (Akwa-Otu) uniformdress unlike every other cloth therefore, provided evidence for reconstructing the organic unity and culture like that of the Igbo people. Chidester (1996:213) again asserts that “savage tribe” like the Igbo race existed without sacred totem, whether an animal, a plant, a metal or a star, to which it traced its origin. Hooshmandrad (2004:52-53) writes that cloths like the Aso-ebi attire is deeply encapsulated with symbolic functions and in the absence of an agreed upon historical origin, it could be seen as an “absolute idea’’ which was designed and exists externally in “Divine Consciousness” that was only “manifested”. Buttressing this further, Adegbite (1991:45) posits that such native attire like the Aso-ebi to the traditional African peoples may be described as “the vehicle for articulating an abstract idea in concrete form – for communicating thought as matter’’. On the one hand, he argues that, such cloths are regarded in traditional African societies as the most immediate expression of Eros; a bridge between ideas and phenomena (Adegbite, 1991:45). Polak (2006:163) argues that native attires like the Aso-ebi “has become an integral part of a supra-ethnic, local culture’’ of Igbo tradition which “owe a great deal to the African religious heritage’’ (Behague, 2006:97).
Onwudiwe (2001:217) comments that “in Africa, anthropology was an instrument of colonial expansion. It could not have been objective in the application terms to Africa. Its term of choice for Africa’s peoples was tribe, a term that although it had graduated from savage still carries fraudulent historical and cultural presumptions’’. Chidester (1996:215) argues that drawing upon what has been called the ancient theory of religion; European comparativists would identify a motive in human emotions of awe and terror before the wild, uncontrollable forces of nature. Today, the world religions especially the Roman Catholic Church of the Christian folds have borrowed a leaf from African Indigenous religious ways of communicating to God, by introducing in their own ways of religious practices the use of those African fabrics as their style of religious practices (Arinze, 1973:52). Pobee (1979:66) insists that no serious student of the subject of costumes can maintain that the Aso-ebi attire per se is heathen or evil. It is gratifying to note that other churches, like Roman Catholics and the Anglicans, have for years used local fabric at worship. In fact, the Roman Catholic Church Council official declaration popularly known as Vatican 11 according to (Flannery, 1988:283-349), brings out clearly how the church has been using and should continue to use indigenous communication systems to enlighten her members and thereby promote and propagate dialogue among people’s of living faiths. This is because they see the whole process as simple as a two-way process of exchanging ideas or information between human beings (Herta & Herbert, 1991:3).
Apparently, this means that their methods of information dissemination, which are their evangelizing techniques, have been critically, carefully studied, documented and jealously guarded (Nabofa, 1994:vi). Although, the adherents of African traditional religion have been doing so wittingly and unwittingly since time immemorial, but no study has shown precisely how this is being done (Nabofa, 1994:vi), and this brings us to the discourse of projecting aristocracy, hegemony and symbolism in traditional leadership in Igbo land where Aso-ebi attire is highly priced as part of the culture, tradition and hegemony of the chosen people “a highly decentralized confederation of clans held together by a common language and a common culture’’ (Ojukwu, 1998:16). According to Isichei ( 1980 ) there is a long history, encapsulated in mythology of the Igbo people that recalled a man called Eri, sent from God, who lived in Aguleri and believed to be the progenitor of the Igbo race(Idigo, 2001:120). This infers that the Igbos as a distinct tribe of “one people – one destiny” (Arkin, 1989: xi) came from the lineage of the Lion of Judah. The origin of people would be linked to the migration of Igbo race to their present-day Nigeria as a nation which is believed to have been among the “Hebrew patriarchs” (Bright, 1981:23) through Gad, one of the sons of Jacob, who migrated from Mesopotamia and the father of Eri. John Bright concedes that although widely held, this position has been “vigorously contested in recent years by certain scholars who maintain that the patriarchal narratives are more or less imaginative literary creations of a much later date with no appreciable stream of oral tradition behind them, and without real historiographical intention or historical worth” (1981:73).
Man and Psychology of Symbolism
. . Clearly in behaviourial of human psychology, it is a known fact that ideas simply emanates from experience or revelation (Nabofa, 1994:3). Man being what he is, is always eager or inquisitive to ascribe meanings to each of its experiences and it is this kind of attitude that actually stimulates man’s instinct of curiosity from the known to an unknown, especially as it has to do with his religious awareness (Nabofa, 1994:3). In other words, he uses such religious ideas to elaborate rituals that inculcate decrees and doctrines “concerning the Nature of God, the Universal Being, Fatherhood and Beneficence of God, Eternity and Immortality of the Soul” (Akintola, 1992:2). Nonetheless, among all the things God created, it is only man that possesses that natural tendency or proclivity for creative powers in mental and psychic forms to reflect on his experience and express it with symbols, upon the fact that animals and plants have that power to reproduce themselves through natural methods or otherwise (Nabofa, 1994:4). Nabofa again asserts that:
Nonetheless, Nabofa (1994:21) went further again to argue that by studying and learning about symbols in their religious contexts, we can find a kind of back-door approach to a deeper theological understanding of what the Africans actually believe, actually practice and actually say about their faith. The symbols makes you think says Paul Ricoeur (1971:404f). According to the book of Genesis:
From the psychological point of view, Nabofa notes that:
Buttressing this further, Edwin Smith argues that:
Nonetheless, Nabofa (1994:3) in recognizing the significance of concrete terms as symbols of religions asserts that “the metaphysics of any religion cannot be fully and adequately studied, grasped and appreciated without a fair knowledge of its symbolic forms and processes which normally emerged out of the illumination”. Omijeh (1983:195) laments that “nowhere did early missionaries and Western writer’s misunderstand African cultures and societies as in the rituals and symbolism”. Sundermeier (1998:39) asserts that symbols relate to actual world and always have a material side; they can be heard, felt and imagined. He argues that because of their sensory character, they can speak to the emotional nature of human beings. They are satisfying; that is why it is in their nature to be accepted. They have to resonate with the feelings and value of the group and individual (Sundermeier, 1998:38-39). Nabofa (1994:77) argues that every scholar in the study of religion in Africa is aware of the fact that liturgical symbols, especially the non-physical ones, are enmeshed in the totality of African culture and that African Biblical scholarship really appreciates the benefits derivable from the use of appropriate African symbols in interpreting the Biblical message to mediate and suite the African situation. Samuel Abogunrin ( 1991 ) asserts in justifying the commentaries and importance of some scholars for the African culture opined that:
However, before we start the discourse on the concept of symbols, Ekeke (2010:6) argues that it is of paramount significance that we align our discussion on the symbolism to a theoretical framework to help us assimilate and understand in full details the orientation we are set to examine and in this wise, one main theoretical view that would be considered very vital would be the symbolic interactionism of George Mead which is a theory synonymous with symbols in social institutions of human interaction. Ekeke (2010:6) again asserts that “once we have conceptualized an object we can now think of that object even when that object is no more invisible. Therefore, the object is thought of symbolically’’. He argues further that symbolic conceptions and thought reduces this shortcoming of limited experience of human beings to what we actually see, hear, or fear, therefore concludes that almost all interactions between and among human beings are dimensions of exchange of symbols by presenting four primary and interrelated levels (Ekeke, 2010:6).
The first level is impulse and that “impulse which involves an immediate sensuous stimulation, the need to do something about it’’ (Ritzer, 2000:208). The second one is perception, and according to Ekeke (2010:6) “George Mead sees perception as involving incoming stimuli as well as the mental images they create. People do not simply respond immediately to stimuli but rather think about and assess them through mental imagery. They also actively select characteristics of a stimuli and release among sets of stimuli’’. Ritzer (2000:208) argues that such a stimuli, may have several dimensions, and the actor is able to select among them.
Buttressing this further, Ekeke (2010:6) asserts that George Mead calls the third level manipulation. He argues that sequel to the manifestation of the impulse with the object perceived, what follows immediately is action-taking with regard to the conceptualized symbol. The fourth and the last level according to George Mead is consummation and at this level that actor in symbolic interaction particularizes the specific objective of his choices of the many possible meanings or interpretations of the object, towards satisfying the original impulse (Ekeke, 2010:6). In another development, Giddens (1997:565) defines symbols as something that stands for, represents a person, idea, letter, figure, or sign that expresses a sound, a number, a chemical substance. The implication here is that, one symbolic form may be capable of several meanings or interpretations and this made Radcliffe-Brown (1969:142) to argue that whatever has a meaning is a symbol and the meaning or interpretation is what is expressed by the symbol, that is to say, the “translation, explanation, meaning or conceptualization of the sign-object would be in relation with a subsequent sign representing the same object’’ (Partmentier, 1994:5).
..Strictly speaking, symbols vary among different class of people and worshippers and we should not forget the fact that the adherents of the diverse religions believe that they are not worshipping or rather venerating images associated with their religions, but invariably they are using them to stimulate the whims and caprices of their imagination to the proper act of worship (Okoye, 2011:52). This is why Wosien (1992:30) posits that “when a symbol is made to have finite meaning, as opposed to merely being a paraphrase of the mysterious, an approximation to reality, then it becomes an idol’’. Those who are in the field of Psychology of Religion will be most concerned with how symbols are used to manipulate, and how they actually influence the mind and behaviour of the believer (Nabofa, 1994:5). In fact, images, emblems or symbols are not end in themselves, but means to an end (Adelowo, 1990:162), no wonder all professions or religious bodies, be it traditional religion, Christianity, Islam and other secular bodies expresses their experiences through symbols, while these expressions could be articulated and mediated in religious emblems, ideograms, icons, rituals, songs, prayers, myths, incantations, vows, customary behaviour and personifications (Nabofa, 1994:4). In this wise, Ezeanya (1994:8) opines that “one of the important customs of the Igbo people of Nigeria in connection with the birth of a child, is the naming ceremony. For the Igbo people, for the Hebrews, a name is not just a personal label for the sake of identity. It means much’’.
However, in indigenous religious practices the basic assimilation and understanding of these so called religious symbols makes itself to be comprehensive, rapid and compact to use, it equally assists in understanding and concentration during any kind of religious rituals to achieve divine essence (Nabofa, 1994:4). No wonder, when Christianity and Islamic religions came to Africa, because traditional religious symbols have their ambiguities and these could shroud their true meaning to the unwary, they branded those symbol as objects of heathenism, animism, idolatry, fetishism and so on (Nabofa,1994:5).
Thus, according to Geoffrey Parrinder (1987:127) “such religious symbols are means of expression used by Africans, scriptures of a sort, in the arts which Africans developed and whose originality and power have been recognized by European artists such as Picasso, Epstein and Henry Moore’’. He argues that “painting and sculpture, in stone, ivory, brass, wood, clay, cloth and other materials have been used since time immemorial for daily purposes and for important representations. These express people’s beliefs from the inside, though their interpretation by others is not always easy’’ (Parrinder, 1987:127). Because of the use of such derogatory terms by the Western and Arab scholars, visionary and articulated religious scholars, theologians and leaders of thought in various endeavours deemed it wise to consider giving this term symbol a definition, today the word symbol means an image, object that suggests or refers to something else (Hornby, 1995:1215). Thompson (1970:9) asserts that symbol is anything which exists for its purpose of pointing people beyond itself. Cohen (1974:26) sees symbols as “objects, acts, relationships or linguistic formations that stand ambiguously for a multiplicity of meanings’’.
This concept of symbol made Clifford Geertz to conceive of culture as a text (Crapanzano, 1986:68-76) which serves as a vehicle for conception (Geertz, 1973:91). Kreinath (2005:102) argues that this implies that any form of ritual action can be seen as a kind of religious behaviour, which is approached through the lens of a broad linguistic model. Here, what this tries to point out is that we have various symbolic forms and that there is every possibility for one symbolic form to be given several meanings and such meanings would equally be given at different segments depending upon the ability and capability of the interpreter’s level of consciousness and intelligence (Nabofa, 1994:6). However, Susanne Langer (1958:174) in her book Theology And Life , simply made a distinction between a mere sign and symbol and according to her, a sign merely or probably indicates a thing, while a symbol however represents it. Buttressing this further, Sundermeier argues that:
In one of his own contributions, to what symbols stands for, Carl Jung (1979:20) asserts that these are meaningless in themselves; they equally have acquired recognizable meanings through common usage or even deliberate intent. He further argues that:
Mircea Eliade (1987:861) asserts that symbol reveals certain dimension of reality that would otherwise elude our knowledge and this deeper dimension is disclosed or revealed not only through the reflection of the interpreters of the symbols but in the “internal or innermost logic” proper to the symbols themselves. Radcliffe-Brown (1952:143) argues that whatever has meaning is a symbol and the meaning is what is expressed by the symbol. Nonetheless, Symbol by definition is communal that converts latent power into energy (Sundermeier, 1998:53).
Buttressing this further, Paul Ricoeur (1995:5) explains that “symbol as a multiple-meaning expression characterized by a hidden logic of double reference. Symbols are like signs in that they intend something beyond themselves. But whereas the sign possesses a relatively obvious and conventional set of denotations, the symbol’s meanings are polysemic, difficult to discern, and virtually inexhaustible in depth’’. Benjamin Ray (1976:17) posits that mythical symbols and ritual acts are thus decidedly instrumental and they not only say what reality is, but they also shape the world to conform with, this reality. In this respect, religion plays an enormous role in African societies. He argues that archetypal symbols express a community’s past and they structure collective rites for corporate benefit and in the traditional context religion cannot be a purely personal affair; the relation to the sacred is, first of all, a communal one (Ray, 1976:17). According to Sundermeier (1998:38) symbols, unfolds reality in such a way that it communicates reality. He argues that “there is no other reality than that accessible in the symbol. The symbol lives from unity, even when it is directed at the partial. It does not cry out from within reality, but emanates reality in such a way that participation becomes possible. It comes from the whole and unfolds it before us. The ‘whole’ is the world around, of which the invisible world is an essential part’’ (Sundermeier, 1998:38).
However, this concept of symbol is seen as, a recognition of one thing as standing or representing another thing (Firth, 1973:79). Tillich (1959:54) asserts that “symbols are similar to signs in one distinctive respect: both symbols and signs point beyond themselves to something else’’ when “it finds acceptance in the group consciousness’’ (Tovey, 2004:12). On a general note, symbol from the above definitions given would be seen as a hall-mark of an idea, a logo, a sign, a ritual or perhaps a psycho-behavioural pattern that stands out as an overt representation of an inner experience or essence of the unconscious (Nabofa, 1994:7). Symbols themselves represent the continued role of tradition (Gibson & Dunbar-Hall, 2006:396). Symbols always contain something of them, sometimes strongly, sometimes faintly (Sundermeier, 1998:38). No wonder Montgomery (2016: 17) asserts that “most Africans used the symbol of the master as a cloak for their own spirits”. To sum up this, in traditional religious practices and systems, Aso-ebi attire for an Igbo man’s paradigm would be described as a “hallmark of symbol of dignity, royalty, respect” (NTI, 1990:86) in the tradition and hegemony of the people of Anambra State because of various symbolisms it carries. That is why Roberts (1993:65) affirms that the symbolism in Aso-ebi attire “implies a hierarchy of privilege and dependency”
Symbolism of the Aso-ebi Attire
However, the colours of the Aso-ebi regalia may be combined in significant ways, but their meaning/symbolism is situational and can never be read automatically; one cannot write dictionaries of symbolism in African art (MacGaffey, 2000:233). The Aso-ebi attire to the worldview of an Igbo man reflects the African artistic design and embroideries which unmistakably retains their African character. In fact, in Igbo cosmology, the Aso-ebi attire worn by some designated people especially the prestige in society express “value of identity and incorporation” (Smith, 1987a: 28). In terms of leadership context, the communicative significance and symbolism of Aso-ebi attire could act as “tracers of rank” and bolster the visual hierarchy cannot be over emphasized (Schneider, 1987:412).
Kaplan (2004:190) argues that in Igbo cosmology Aso-ebi attire is one the “the clothing the king chooses to wear each day is traditional and symbolic with meanings. It is a statement of occasion, intent, mood, power and all have meanings and evoke memory’’. Through, the symbolism it utilizes and the cultural ethos it invokes, however, the Aso-ebi attire retains the power to influence the spiritual state of its wearer and to play a role in the socio-religious consciousness of the person by whom or for whom it is worn. Ojukwu (2002: v) affirms that Aso-ebi cloth “symbolizes our comings in, and our goings out, our joy and our sadness. It symbolizes our positions in the society and our achievements and our failures’’. He argues that it “remains as a door through which our individual Igboness passes in to an assemblage of Igbo community’’ (Ojukwu, 2002: v). This is why Susanne Langers (1942:195) describes object based symbols like the Aso-ebi attire as an “unconsummated symbol, a significant form without conventional significance”. Hall (1928:136) argues that “the regalia must be worn correctly and must not be worn profanely”, because it is classified as a “robe of honor” or “coronation cloth” (Perani & Wolff, 1999:124 & 166). This royal ceremonial regalia create also a symbolic distinction between what Vansina (1978:185) axiomatically refers to as “the elite from the commoner”. Bayero ( 1981 ) attested that “to wear these gowns is to be different from other people. When you see them, you know this person is of the royal family”.
Mediating Functions of Aso-ebi cloth
From time immemorial, Igbo people have developed high level of interest in rich textile traditions and distinctive methods of dress to actually communicate and enhance cultural symbolism and meanings. In fact, in Igbo cultural context, dresses like the Aso-ebi attire has become a visible symbol apparently signaling gender, social status, and political office, allegiance to a deity or personal prestige (Perani & Wolf, 1999:28). Buttressing further, Perani & Wolf again affirms that Aso-ebi “cloth and clothing can also convey esoteric symbolic information understandable only to initiates. Whether sign or symbol, this ability to transmit information and mediate meaning through shared understandings in socio-cultural contexts is a primary characteristic of cloth” (1999:28). James Eze (2015:1) asserts that “beyond these totems and profound meanings lies another oasis of symbolisms and unspoken communication”. But beyond the basic functions in protection and warming the body, cloth like the Aso-ebi attire have since over-lapping mediating symbolic functions which Perani &Wolf summarized thus:
The Sociological Functions of Aso-Ebi ( Group Uniform ) In Igbo Cosmology
The sociological significance of this cultural trait and common custom among the Igbos as it pertains to Aso -Ebi ( Group Uniform ) which the Igbos call Akwa-Otu are basically numerous. The contention is borne out by the following belief of the African, albeit the Igbo. The Igbo would say : Ndi Madu bu akwam, mgbem leghachiri anya azu hu otutu ndi madu kaha na esom, anam enwe anwuri, nkea na emekwam kamu nwe ogologo ndu, that is literally “People are my very clothes. When I look back of me and see many of my people following me, I am very glad and pleased and I am lively”. Sociologically, people need the complete and favourable interaction and response of others based on the African attitude of love, respect, esteem and the like. Not the series of nostalgic and anomic suicides which are so rampant in the so-called advanced individualistic societies of the Western world which should find their reasons from the lack of response which the individual victim experiences in his neighbourhood. This is what Emile Durkheim, was pointing out in the latter part of the last century when he observed that many deadly suicides were committed in some specific Western societies because people lacked what he called social integration. According to Sofola (1973:126) it “serves as a means of identification of groups affording the members of the groups the opportunities for reinforcement of one another with sympathies to meet the trials and tribulations and pleasures of life and integrating the group”. However, system of uplifting mutual obligations and assistance created by the use of Aso-ebi is worthy of mentioning here too. In the thinking of an Igbo man, for mere reason an individual who buys an Aso-ebi for his friends celebration’s indirectly expects the friend to reciprocate in kind or cash when it is his own turn to have celebrations. According to Sofola:
He goes on to affirm that “ Aso-ebi serves as a recorder of history, and helps to establish and enhance status and prestige too. It also serves as a leveler of status if only temporarily” (Sofola, 1973
128). In Igbo societies today, Akwa-Otu ( Group Unifrom) is bought for age group annual festivals and since at many of the once-in a lifetime ceremonies, Akwa-Otu is purchased while it serves as a channel of recording or earmarking these special occasions—a supplement to the oral tradition of history recording (Sofola, 1973128). But it very significant to say here such clothes are not meant to be worn on daily basis because to do sends negative impression to other people that you cannot afford to wear or that you don’t have enough clothes to wear. This is why Sofola (1793128) again opines that “once an Aso-ebi is bought for a specific occasion, one does not feel entirely free to wear it every time afterward. To do is to tell others in vivid terms that one does have other clothes one would normally be expected possess to enjoy high prestige and have good evaluation by others”. Arguably, looking at the economic impact against the backdrop of constant sowing of Aso-ebi (group uniform) in Igbo world view, it has been observed or noticed
that constant sowing of the Aso-ebi virtually every month of the year amounts to an economic wastage. This conclusion has been reached through careful observation because as Aso-ebi is basically a kind of attire that is not meant to be worn once an occasion it is meant for is over and to wear it, it sends negative signal to the public that the wearer is not well to do. So, everyone in the community sees to it that the Aso-ebi is worn sparingly, if at all (Sofola, 1973:128). Equally significant is the fact that for the have not’s to level up temporarily with the prestige/rich individuals in the society, they will go at length to borrow money to enable them sow the Aso-ebi, even if it is given to them as a free gift.
Another significant sociological function of Aso-ebi ( Akwa-Otu ) is that by personal or proxy it levels the marginal gap between persons of higher status and those of lower one and thereby eliminates, if only temporarily, the built-in antagonism between the haves and the have not’s. Buttressing this point, Sofola comments that:
Figure 2 Another group of women on Aso-ebi (Courtesy of Madukasi Francis Chuks)
All wearers of the Aso-ebi by this common uniform are equal—at least for the occasion on which the Aso-ebi is worn. The poor man ( talaka ) feels that he is at least equal to the rich man ( Oloro ) because he wears an identical dress with him. Such feelings, albeit for a brief moment, purges him of his previous feeling of financial inadequacy. He may also feel so honoured by this temporary leveling of his status that he seeks accord with the rich man. The individual may become less inclined to commit criminal acts against the society, particularly where property destruction is involved” (1973:129).
Psychologically, it has been observed that Aso-ebi in Igbo paradigm plays a therapeutic function in releasing social tensions considering the ceremonies at which it is worn especially during parties. In fact, “where camaraderie and pleasure are shared, one cannot help to see the additional therapeutic function performed by this gathering” (Sofola, 1973:130). Writing under the title: “What the hell’s bad in throwing a lavish party” the party going observer asserts that “those parties, I assure you, are some kind of pep pills. When you are under their spell, you’re completely lost in a new world. And who wouldn’t want to live in a world different from this wretched one for a change.....If you don’t have to die to be there” (Sunday Times, 1972:9 cited in Sofola, 1973:130).
Tackling the study of Aso-ebi dress from the viewpoint of art patronage recognizes that certain artifacts are to the expression of culture both as aesthetic products and as consumer goods. Nonetheless, beyond the initial production and consumption processes, Aso-ebi dress as an.
Figure 3 Another group of women on Aso-ebi (Courtesy of Madukasi Francis Chuks)
imported culture of the Yorubas gains symbolic meanings as part of culturally-constituted body make up of complete Igbo man. The clothed body make up is very paramount to the projection of social self by expanding the aristocratic and hegemonic vocabulary of the body and visually reinforcing social roles. By extension, Aso-ebi ( Group Uniform ) Akwa-Otu in Igbo paradigm draws close boundaries between the cultural and symbolic worlds in social and ritual contexts. So the printed Aso-ebi different fabrics have been widely adopted by diverse cultures across the world as a symbol of solidarity and cohesion projecting high social status and political power. It is has been storified in different folklore. It is clear therefore that the fulsome adoption of the lion as an iconic totem is a heritage the Igbo race share with many advance cultures across the world. It however says a lot about the advancement of Igbo civilization that only few of these societies, if any, wear Akwa-Otu ( Group Uniform ) clothes to show this affinity as the Igbo do. Its inter-dependent activities, consensus, and morale are the basic principal elements affecting the integration of groups which Aso-ebi contributes. I can say tersely that to every titled Igbo person, what is more profound is the fact that the colourful Akwa-Otu fabric is one of the most revered pieces of clothing among the Igbo and there is a belief that there must be a communicative ritual synergy about the Aso-ebi cloth and Ndi-Igbo in diaspora which has an artistic connection of Yoruba origin “for an audience of art connoisseurs’ revealed that long standing patronage relationship existing between Nupe artists and the Hausa-Fulani aristocracy” Perani & Wolff (1999:123-124). In affirming this assertion, Soludo (2017:9) comments that “having an identity is not inconsistent with a global or national outlook. There are probably few who would question President Obasanjo’s patriotism as a Nigerian. But that has not made him to wear Isi-agu dress or our red cap to prove that he is detribalized”.