Guest Blogger: Kofi Akpabli – How Cloths Tickle the Ghanaian

In today’s global village many would find it hard to understand why we make a fuss about cloths. But the truth is that in Ghanaian society cloths mean the world. Beyond adding style and colour to our fashion sense their usage reflects a range of cultural values.
Be it wax print, fugu, or kente; cloths, more than any other fabric, provide Ghanaians with the basic material for their clothing needs. Cloths allow us to display our elegance. They also serve as mediums to convey traditional symbols. For instance, when some folks want to express a gesture, all they do is select a particular cloth for an occasion.
Our relationship with cloths actually began with tree barks, animal skin and sack cloths (kotoku). The first level of the refined stage is the calico. The advent of colonialism and more specifically, the Dutch connection raised the bar. Cloths thus joined the value list of items such as guns and foreign alcoholic beverages.
But the Dutch involvement was really only accidental. Creatively, designing wax prints is an ancient culture of the people of Java, Indonesia. Because Indonesia was a Dutch colony the Europeans copied the practice and made big business out of it. In dealing with other countries, the wax print became one of their commercial offerings. When it got to the then Gold Coast our ancestors loved the cloth at first sight. Little wonder Holland textile (Dumas/Vlisco) is still top of the range today.
If cloths tickle the Ghanaian, it is because we connect to it in a number of ways every day. This is also true for special occasions. It must be admitted that modernity continues to change our fashion sense. Today’s woman, for instance, could dress attractively over a long period without a piece of cloth item. However, it is also a fact that nothing brings out the African feminine shape than when she is clad in cloth-sewn kaba or boubou.
In Ghanaian society a woman’s attachment to the cloth is special. Among other reasons, the item is part of the dowry when she is given away as a wife. Beyond the bride price, a man’s worth is determined by the quality of cloths his wife puts on. This is because the husband is supposed to take care of her clothing needs.
In the traditions of Northern Ghana, when a women dresses in a cloth it is a sign that she is married or responsible. As a result, many women who prefer a pair of trousers for house chores or farm work still wrap a piece of cloth on top to avoid being scorned.
Cloth wearing in the traditional Ghanaian way requires some skills. The general technique is to hold the cloth from behind and throw the right side across the left shoulder. Experts execute this in one clean swoop. Images of ancient Romans show them in cloths (toga) as we wear them in Ghana today. Any connection?
It must be noted that among men the cloth is worn over a pair of big shorts (knickers) and not with trousers. Also, it goes with sandal-wear, never full shoes and never, ever with socks. Wearing the cloth with ease is such an admirable feat. A very confident man is he who can don the cloth and perform everyday activities gracefully. If he is endowed with a well-built body, all the better. Add some sprinkles of hair on his chest and we are talking about the traditional Ghanaian hunk.
There are different styles of wearing cloth and all have their special names. For instance, if the cloth is worn so that a portion flows and actually sweeps the ground after the wearer, it is called ”me yere be si” to wit, my ”wife will wash it.” In contrast to this show of flamboyance is the Borrower’s Style. This is where the cloth is wrapped very tightly round the body and way off the ground. The borrower must return the cloth unsoiled, remember?
Talking about kaba, there is simply no end to the styles! In general, there is the kaba (a cloth blouse) and slit (long flowing, leg-lenght skirt with a vertical cut). There is also the blouse over skirt. Making the trends lately is kaba blouse over jeans. An accessory of the kaba and slit is the two (2) yard cloth. This stole is held as part of the dressing or folded and placed on the shoulder. Alternatively, it is wrapped round the slit. When our women are facing off for a fight, there is a wild manner in which they tie it round the hip.
Because of our climate in Ghana we don’t do duvets. Sleeping cloth is the way to go. There is nothing more comforting than tucking oneself in a bed completely covered in a cloth whilst it rains on the roof top. It is a cosy escape from an uncertain world.
For wives whose husbands are away, the man’s sleeping cloth is believed to work miracles. In some traditional communities, when the woman is sick she is advised to cover herself in it. Same for young children who become restless during their father’s long absence.
Among the Ewe people, the sleeping cloth is so important that it has a personality of its own. It even has a name, Zavor. Zavor simply means ”night cloth” and it is the closest companion one could ever have in life. The night cloth accepts you for who you are. At the end of each day, whether one is sacked from work, jilted by a lover or rejected by family, Zavor is there to comfort you throughout the night. Zavor will never betray you.
For some families, the cloth serves as an item of stock. Many are the women who have had to sell off treasured cloths just to bail out their husbands in financial trouble. Others do this to pay a child’s school or medical bill. That explains why women never sew up all the cloths in their wardrobe.
The cover cloth is put to a range of romantic uses when it comes to the Ewes. In the morning the traditional man ties the woman’s cover cloth (nyornuvor) around his waist. You may call it his morning coat. Indeed, after a good night’s experience, no gesture seals the union better than when a man ties the woman’s nyornuvor round his waist. This is a luxury the bachelor cannot get.
When day breaks and the wife fetches the husband’s bath water and lifts it to the bathroom, she offers him two things: the towel and her cover cloth. The man puts the cloth around his waist and towel round the neck. In polygamous homes the cloth the man ties shows which of the wives ‘turn’ it is. (Talk about possession).
Another romantic link to the cloth is with the agbadza dance. First of all, it is a taboo for a man to enter the dance ring (not floor, mind you) to do the agbadza without tying a nyornuvor round his waist. If he has to dance, custom demands that he is costumed in a piece of cloth round the waist. This is irrespective of how he is dressed. Therefore, whether a man is in suit or smock he needs to wrap the cloth on top. Distinctively, this is tied ending with a big, suggestive bulge in front of the waist.
Normally, a lady’s nyornuvor is either offered or snatched for the performance. In some instances, after the agbadza dance she must find a way of going to the man for her cloth. Many are the untold tales that such encounters have led to.
Cloths are used to mark the rites of passage. Up to about half a dozen pieces are requested as part of dowry. Among Muslims it could be more. Indeed, in several Muslim communities in Ghana the six (6) yard piece plays a crucial role in marriage rites. After the dowry and all else have been agreed and settled, the bride is released to go and join her new husband in his home. However, before her personal belongings are sent to her, indeed, before she is even introduced to her husband’s family members, the groom must send to the bride’s mother a six (6) yard cloth known as kari kae.
At the birth of each child a husband is supposed to give a light shaded cloth to the new mother. At the onset of puberty an adolescent girl is given a new cloth, usually her first full piece (six yards). Finally, when it is time to bury the dead a cloth is demanded.
Cloths are used to mark auspicious occasions. Sometimes they are commissioned for an event. Other times, the advent of a design coincides with an important happening. For instance, in the colonial era King Prempeh I was captured, put in a ship and exiled to the Seychelles for 20 years. Asante history relates that upon his return to the Gold Coast the King made a trip to Adanwomase to see his Mfufutomahene, (chief weaver) Nana Amankwah.
As a mark of honour, woven blankets were laid upon the ground for the king to walk on. His visit lasted a few hours during which he commissioned three special cloths to mark the return to his homeland. Among them was the designs Ohene a foro hyen (The King has boarded a ship).
When in 1958, Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah married Madam Fathia of Egypt, a kente cloth in vogue was the famous, ”Fathia fata Nkrumah” (Fathia is compatible with Nkrumah).
To buy a cloth for an elder is like the ultimate token. It is not forgotten, nor taken lightly. Conversely, no insult is more demeaning than when you are asked if you have ever bought a cloth for someone you are supposed to buy for.
But gifting a cloth to another person is quite a tedious task. The range, texture, size and colour are all loaded with meaning. For example, cloths for men are generally, not as bright. Even for women, there is a distinction between what one could buy for an elderly woman and a younger one.
For the uninitiated all these could be confusing. But trust our women to know the nuances. In these times of proliferation and imitation they still are able to identify the difference. All they need to do is feel the cloth or even taste it with the tip of their tongue!
In Ghanaian society, some ladies are known never to have worn the same sewn cloths more than once. Not that they don’t like them, but like the haute couture patrons of Paris, each wearing is an event, a celebration of glamour and taste.
Times may have changed, but cloths used to be hard-to-acquire commodity. Because they have such a high value it is said in Ghana that ”if a naked person promises you cloth you need to first cross check his reputation.’’
Whether they have it in abundance or they cannot afford, cloths excite Ghanaians a great deal. It is ironic but one item that shows the importance of cloths is rags. When a young woman delivers her first child it is the grandmother’s duty to present her with a set of cloth rags for the baby’s toiletry.
The idea is that neither the woman nor her mother has accumulated enough to spare. Rags signify life’s journey and the succession of generations. And like the cloths we own, there is a story behind every rag. So whether it is uncut, sewn or tattered, cloths are a souvenir. That’s how important they are to Ghanaians. We love them …to the rags.
Excerpts from the new book:
‘Tickling The Ghanaian- Encounters with Contemporary Culture’ to be launched on Friday August 26, 2011 at the British Council Hall. Time 5:30pm.

4 Responses to Guest Blogger: Kofi Akpabli – How Cloths Tickle the Ghanaian

  1. A Steele-Dadzie says:

    I enjoyed reading this! Now I know why cloth is used the way it is, especially by our female farmers and in our Ewe community!

  2. Hahaha, Etor, thanks for your feedback.

  3. Jemimah Etornam Kassah says:

    I really love this piece! Reminds of another of Akpablis’ works on good ol’ Akpeteshie. Keep up the good work. Thanks to Nana Awere for this feature. I guess this explains why i have seen my dad on a few occasions with the old girls’ cloth around his waist. 😉

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