Of Agbada, Babanringa and Other Matters
By Adetokunbo Abiola
Everybody wants to wear suits and ties. Bankers, teachers, businessmen, lawyers,
managers – they all believe in the craze of moving with the latest in Western fashion. If
you do not believe in it, you are cast away like a leper – and they’ll say, as my teacher
used to say, "He doesn’t belong."
This craze for suits and ties is becoming too much. The other day, I went to the park
where people boarded buses for Lagos. Lo and behold, I saw an Agbero (a motor-park
tout) wearing suit and tie. He was strutting around as if he worked in a first generation
bank, unaware of the contradiction of his situation. What has gone wrong with our
Even Okada riders (commercial motor cyclists), like people who have taken too much
local gin, have adopted this dangerous and alien fashion. I saw one of them last Sunday
(his plate number was OD 2561 A) wearing a coat torn at the armpit (yes, torn at the
armpit!). If my father rises up from the grave and sees this, he’ll say: "What is Nigeria
Suit is not part of Nigerian culture. The same thing applies to jeans, ties, shirts, skirts and
others. When we wear them, we become Judases to our culture, and a traitor to our
tradition. It is time we turn away from forty pieces of silver.
Why am I talking like a town crier who has drunk too much palm wine? You see, like a
thief in the night, Christmas has crept on us once again (did the last one not seem like
yesterday?), and we have to buy clothes for our children, brothers, sisters, wives, aunties
and friends; if not our children’s children, our brothers’ children, our sister’s husband or
our sister’s grandchildren.
We should forgive ourselves for the mistake we made last Christmas. We did not know
the implications when we bought those symbols of Western civilization for our
dependants. We were misled, like men dazzled by too many beautiful women, and we
acted in error. This Christmas, we have the chance to act like Barnabas on the cross, and
our sins will be forgiven. In essence, we must celebrate Nigerian culture and fashion.
I know the question you want to ask – what do we mean by Nigerian fashion? I mean
fashion created from materials like lace, jacquard, Ankara, Adire (my personal favorite),
"tie and die", Aso Oke, George, Hollandaise, Akwete, Nigerian wax, etc. They are unlike
those bought from America and Britain; they do not make us sweat like fowls in the
afternoon. After we buy them, they make our wives say to us: "Darling, I’ll cook sweet
ewedu soup for you this afternoon."
For those of you who don’t know – I mean non-Nigerians reading this piece – men's
materials are styled in the following pattern: a wide-arm, flowing piece of clothing; a loose-neck shirt; pants or trousers and a cap. The Hausa man calls the combination Babanringa. The Yoruba man calls the wide-arm piece of clothing Agbada, while the Hausa man calls it riga. Both of them call the loose-neck shirt Buba (pronounced Boo-bah) , while the Igbo man calls a variation of it Isiagwu. The Yoruba man and the Hausa man call the pants Sokoto, while the Igbo man calls the
variation of it Akwa.
Mention must be made of the Agbada or riga . The first type (according to our
classification) is called small Agbada, the second medium Agbada , and the third big
Agbada. As the name suggests, small Agbada is not very big. It is worn by thin and
skinny men, and fat men who want to look slim. Medium Agbada is the average type. It
is for those who are not thin or fat.
The last, big Agbada, is not only the largest, but it is worn by all manner of very
interesting people. The first among them are important men such as kings and chiefs,
using it on important occasions such as funerals and weddings. The second are those
seeking political offices. It makes them look extremely powerful and ‘majestic’, and they
can fold their garments like Very Important Personalities (VIP).
The third users are those who regularly attend Owambe parties. It makes them stand
out among a multitude of people. The fourth are extremely fat people. It hides
their big bellies so young girls won’t know how fat they are. The fifth are thin and skinny
men who want to look rich and powerful. They are rumored to pad their bellies with
pillows, belt them up and put on the big garment.
Beyond the Agbada and Buba, we have the informal Danshiki (men's shirt), used by both men and women. The Danshiki and Buba differ in that the former is boxy and baggy with a straight bottom, while the latter is fitted with a curved bottom,or baggy with a V-shape bottom.
As for caps, the Yoruba man calls it Fila or Abeti-aja ("eye of a dog" in English translation, a triangular-shaped cap). The Igbo man calls his matching cap Opu Ogudu. It is rare seeing a traditional Igbo man without his cap (some say more rare than a leopard without its spots).
Irrespective of what materials are used, the fundamentals of a Yoruba woman’s apparel
are four. They are Buba (a blouse going a little below the waist), Iro (pronounced E-roo,
the bottom part of the outfit that goes to the ankles), Gele (pronounced Geh-lay, a
matching headpiece), Iborun or Ipele (an extra scarf piece) and Kaba (a one-piece dress).
Mention must be made of the Gele (no Yoruba woman will tolerate any man who
trivializes her Gele). Indeed, the Gele is a crucial element when the Yoruba woman
wants to dress. Some people tie Gele for a living. Some photographers feed their
children through Gele. For the person who ties Gele and the wearer the moment of truth
is when others see it. The only barometer for further contractual agreement is how much
the wearer is admired by other women. If the person wearing it is admired by all and
sundry at a party, the person who ties it is guaranteed a ‘meal ticket’ for a long time to
come. If the contrary happens, the person who ties it will never be forgiven.
Some people go as far as say love alone cannot guarantee the Yoruba woman marries a
man. What does the trick is how much you admire her exquisitely tied Gele. That is why
Lagbaja, the masked musician, sang praises of the Gele in a hit album a few years ago
(yet some women say his praises were not enough!).
When it comes to the style of Gele, it depends on the fabric used, the shape of the head of the woman and face type. A style that fits a person may not look good on another. This is why customized Gele, like a customized car or customized wristwatch, is stored in
special places, ready for use at customized occasions where Yoruba culture is exhibited
(and there’ll be many of such occasions in the fast approaching Christmas).
However, after a Nigerian woman dresses up, other things are added (these are the salt
and tomatoes added to soup to make it tasty). In other words, women, to portray our
culture, need to make their hair. A typical Yoruba traditional woman weaves her hair into
styles such as Adimole, Suku and Shade, as well as makes tattoos on her skin (Faze, the musician, did not know what he was singing about when he said Nigerian women do not have tattoos).
The accessory of women from the Edo tribe includes the lavish use of beads, called Ivie,
on their bodies, with a wrapper tied around their breasts and waist. Tiv women, apart
from wearing dress made from fabric called Anger, Viav, and Tyo, also weave and thread
their hair. The local fabric makers, like good wine, become experts at making these
fabrics with time. The Igbo woman not only plaits her hair with thread, she uses
traditional make-up (Uri, Angele and Uhe) to beautify her face.
Generally, wise husbands, to prevent World War Three with their wives and a breakdown of law and order at home, obey a simple law: "Give Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give women hat belongs to women."
The importance of dressing in Nigerian fashion cannot be overstated. Is it an
overstatement to say it impacts on national unity?
I will tell you how. From experience, when we wear Buba, Kaftan, Agbada, Danshiki,
Agwa, Isiagwu and other assorted clothing of the ethnic tribes in the country, we are
slapped at the back, accepted by people who wear these styles and catcalled. If all of us
do this, will it not promote unity and oneness than contraptions like ‘federal character’,
football, ‘zoning formula’, ‘even development’, ‘quota system’, the National Youth
Service Corps and all other what-not?
There is another reason why we should go traditional this Christmas. When we wear a
Euro-American two or three-piece suit, or put on blouse and a skirt, no matter how smart
the clothes are, nobody bows down for us. As far as Nigerians are concerned, we are a
lost lizard (a white man in black man’s skin).
When a Nigerian puts on a Kente dress from Ghana, or a Boubou from Senegal or
Guinea, or a Blousa from Algeria, no matter how smart and rich he looks, his
countrymen will give him only little respect, perhaps just half a bow. As far as they’re
concerned, though he has identified with Africa, he has still lost his way by not wearing
a Nigerian attire (hence the half- bow).
But when we put on an Agbada, Isiagwu or Babanringa, and we have just a little money
to spend, everybody will bow down at least eight times for us. Some people will add an
‘extra ration’ of respect by prostrating and rolling on the ground. As far as they are
concerned, we are the ‘sons of the soil’ (men of ‘timber and caliber’ who, like wise
philosophers, respect the culture and tradition of the people).
Pop culture and folklore demonstrate the importance of wearing Nigerian clothes. Thanks
to Nollywood films, we know dresses such as Akwa, Isiagwu and the Opu Ogudu play
vital roles in Igbo culture. In a musical sequence titled Akwete, Sir Victor Uwaifo extols
the beauty of our traditional cloth material with exciting guitar work.
No doubt, Western fashion is out, what about those of nearby West African countries?
For instance, Ghana’s Kente. I bought one on a recent trip to Accra. Its colours were so
strange in Nigeria, I felt like a fish out of water (may God never let me feel like that
again). The Cameroon Boubou? I saw one on a colleague in Togo. It was as big as the
Agbada, and looks just as impressive. But if I wear the dress, I cannot say with pride:
"I’m a Nigerian." Togolese and Guinean dress? No! I prefer the Nigerian Adire any day.
Can I wear the fashion of other African countries? For instance, the Moroccans have the
Takhita, a two piece ornately decorated dress. It does not have the flow and comfort of the
Agbada. What about the Shuka from Kenya and Tanzania? It cannot protect me from the
heat of the sun. Ethiopia’s Habesha quemis? It does not have the motifs of Nigerian dresses. Somalia’s Sarong? No, no! I want something uniquely Nigerian.
My dear reader, our traditional fashion, like oxygen, is very important in this country. We
win and lose out on contracts because of fashion. We marry or divorce because of
fashion. Even a two-year-old girl, already a professor of our culture, will tell you:
"Fashion makes the woman." Our federal government (yes, our federal government) does
discuss the merits of our fashion and culture every time (and with so much big grammar
– far more than on politics and economics - spoken in the process).
So this is my Christmas message to you. In these perilous times, when our culture is in
danger of going to hell, Nigerian fashion is the answer to cultural survival. But I’ll not
overstate the point like a man who loves speaking too much. Just disregard what I say,
and you’ll discover you’re on your own. We must love our culture and tradition so we
can make Nigeria an enviable place for us all.