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) 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.
The utility value of cloths is almost endless. The commonest use is simply tying it round the body. This is informal and usually by women. Another way is wrapping it round the body and tying two top ends at the back of the neck. The style is known as ''collar.''
The ''collar'' fashion is unisex and folks use it for a number of activities. Though this style is convenient, it is hardly taken outside of the home. The ''collar'' is also children's preferred way of donning the cloth.
Speaking of children, they enjoy playing with the cloth in a way that is hardly in vogue. Two ends are tied round the waist with the other two tips held in each hand and raised up from behind to above the shoulders. This forms a sagging half bag of a sort at the back. Now when children run, air fills the bag up, making it taut like a blown up balloon. The fun is that because it is filled with air, running becomes easier and faster.
Seriously speaking, cloths are far from being a play matter. To flow socially within traditional community one must invest in a good cloth wardrobe. The average Ghanaian male, for example, is required to have a set of ten (10) yard cloths for funeral, church, out-dooring and marriage ceremonies. For the female it is the six (6) yard piece, and she needs more.
When you consistently avoid funerals, rumours make the rounds that it is because you do not have cloths. In some communities young mothers (usually with out-of wedlock children) shy from taking their babies to post-natal care (''weighing'') because they are taunted for not having cloth dresses.
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?
It is not only men who wear cloths toga-style. Royal women and respectable elderly females put on their four (4) yard cloth over a two (2) yard under-cloth. Unlike the men's mode which flows to the feet, this one ends around the knee.
Typically, cloths are worn for traditional and formal events. There are two ways that men display the worn cloth. One is with the bare upper body and the other over a buttonless shirt or ''jumper.'' Broadly speaking, the forest Akan areas prefer the former whilst along the coast of Ghana cloths are worn over this shirt.
It must be noted that Ivoirians, Togolese and Beninois also wear cloth over the ''jumper.'' Some ethnic groups in Nigeria and Cameroun have men wear the cloth by wrapping it round the waist Ewe-style. This fashion has been made famous by the popular cartoon and TV character, Papa Ajasco. It must be noted that to be costumed for dances such as agbadza, adowa and kete, male dancers wear the cloth round the waist. This is also the dress mode required for the pouring of libation.
When they are worn, clothes exude traditional authority. In southern Ghana, it is the official costume for chiefs and their elders. Actually, there's a whole set of protocol to observe when it comes to cloths and royalty. To begin with, no one wears the cloth with such elegance like our traditional chiefs. To address a chief whilst in cloth, one must drop cloth from the top of the shoulder to the upper arm. This shows an open heart. The greeter executes this gesture with one foot removed from the sandals.
Crucially, at a public function it is improper for anyone to be robed in the same cloth as the Chief. For any palace worth its salt, procedures and systems are in place to enforce this.
Apart from wearing the cloth a man may use it to sew shirt and trousers (''up and down''), ''Joromi'' and ''danshiki.'' Some Ghanaians also sew it the Francophone style, i.e. padded with low double pockets like a suit. In the corporate environment members of staff appearing in the same cloth uniform improves esprit de corps. The ''Friday Wear'' concept at workplaces in Ghana has increased people's use of cloth dress.
One is ushered into a whole different world when it comes to women and cloths. For instance, at funerals and engagement ceremonies, the rule of thumb is that a woman must be in a cloth dress, preferably, kaba and slit.
Talking about kaba, there is simply no end to the styles! In general, there is the kaba (a cloth blouse) and slit. 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.
When it comes to what this two (2) yard accessory is used for, it is legendary. Indeed, there is no single item that could be handier to a Ghanaian woman. This wonderful piece of cloth is also known as ''cover cloth,'' akatasuor (Akan) and nor-haa (Ga). In Nigeria and Cameroun, the stole is called ''wrapper.'
Beyond the fact that it is a clothing item, this piece is used as a handy or an emergency tool. One thing which ensures this is its size; not too big and not too small. Additionally, it is light, comfortable and easy to wash.
In a shawl fashion, women use the cover cloth as a sun shade or an umbrella. It is used as a bed sheet, as a sleeping cloth, as a head gear, as a napkin and as a handkerchief. It doesn't end there. When you see nursing mothers carry babies at their back, it is the two (2) yard piece that supports this action.
If the woman has to carry something heavy on her head, the wrap can be folded and wound round into a pad. Additionally, the cover cloth serves as a wallet. How? Some women tie money at the tip and wind it round the body at chest level before tucking the money portion between cloth and body. Pick pockets are welcome. But they must as well undress the woman first.
To be converted into a carrier bag, the cover cloth is folded into a desired size and spread flat. What is to be conveyed is placed in the middle. Two opposite ends are brought together at the centre and tied first, followed by the other two opposite ends. All four corners are then held together as the handle for the makeshift bag. This is similar to the much celebrated Japanese Fukido. Items the cloth bag can carry range from dozens of vegetables to a sewing machine.
An ingenious use of the two (2) yard accessory is as a screen. Here, the phrase ''a cover cloth in hand keeps the Peeping Tom away'' is apt.
Ordinarily, when a Ghanaian woman has to undress in the presence of others all she needs is a cover cloth around herself. Unless she intends to, nothing is given away. In the average rented shared house the bathroom is not the best-maintained place. Where the door is defective or totally removed, the two (2) yard is enough to cover the doorway.
Still on screening. Away from home and on the road, decent washroom facilities are hard to find. To get around this problem a man just unzips and targets his ''delivery'' practically anywhere. It is not that easy for women. Imagine there are three women faced with this challenge. All they need is their cover cloths and a ''free range area.'' Whilst two stand and hold their cloths end to end to create a makeshift booth, the third woman goes inside, squats and relieves herself. The roles are then reversed. If the woman is alone she wraps herself, spreads the legs and lets herself go. Easy.
Cloths have a way of bringing us together. The ankoh (encore) phenomenon of bygone years cemented relations when friends and family wore the same cloth dress. Still, it must be noted that a man and woman do not sew the same cloth and wear it for the same function if they are not married.
At funerals it is fashionable for members of the bereaved family to wear the same type of cloth. In some cases different levels within the family wear specific motifs. Thus, children, grandchildren and siblings appear in particular designs.
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.
Over time, Zavor adopts one's personality. Indeed, few items hoard specimen of an individual's DNA like the night cloth (come on, what with all those body fluids). Among boarding school boys and bachelors, Zavor has a special reputation for smelling bad. See, this group is not eager to regularly wash as private an item as a sleeping cloth.
Emotional attachment to the night cloth is so real that many boys have maintained theirs for years. Some have even taken their Zavors through college to their marital homes.
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 brand 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.
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