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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

History 1: Meet your (very recent) Ancestors

The following pictures are of two Igbo women in different traditional Igbo attire. The first is of an Igbo woman wearing the huge Igbo ankle plates that were very fashionable at the time, a torque, a short wrapper and a head scarf. Notice also the mbubu marks that run down the middle of her torso and on her arms. These marks are raised scar bumps that are made on a girl either right before or right after she is pregnant for the first time.

The huge ankle plates deliberately overlap in order to give the woman a rolling gait when she walks which is of course, more attractive. At the time, girls were so crazy about them (and the effect they had on men) that they wouldn't take them off, and many fashionable young Igbo girls would even sleep with their legs hanging off the bed just so they could keep them on at all times!

Also, covering the breasts is optional in traditional Igbo society. Girls and women could wear tops or they might choose not to. It was entirely up to the personal discretion of the individual and public display of the breasts was not frowned upon at all.

In the second picture below, a young girl is dressed in all her finery for her wedding. She is wearing a beautiful woven hat with a line of coral beads coming down the middle and ending in a loop across her forehead, a necklace, bracelets and armbands, coral jigida (waist beads) around her waist, anklets, leg bands, and of course, a huge ivory bracelet to denote her exulted status as a bride. In her right hand she carries an intricately carved wooden staff and in her left hand she carries a horse tail whisk. She is also wearing a waist cloth (ogodo) that passes between her legs and hangs on the other side to cover her privates and buttocks. This young lady hasn't had her mbubu done yet but will when she has her first child.
What is fascinating about these pictures is that both of them were taken in 1922. Most Igbo people have no idea that this is the real traditional Igbo dress because Igbo children are not taught about their ancestors in school. In fact, it is very rare to be taught about anything in Nigerian history that happened before 1960.

The fact that these photographs were taken in 1922 is extremely significant because it shows that most of Igbo traditional culture was still preserved and highly pervasive as recently as the 1920s and 1930s before the missionaries and the colonists managed to wipe it out.

Now a lot of people when they think of traditional Igbo attire immediately think of something like this:

What most people don't realise is that these clothes are fashions that have arisen as a result of European influence in Nigeria during colonialism and especially in Eastern Nigeria where most Igbo people are because of the extensive activities of the Catholic Missionaries who weren't exactly fond of bare breasts.

Most of the fabrics used in so-called 'traditional' Igbo clothing today isn't even Igbo in origin. Igbo fabrics will be discussed in more detail in future 'History' posts on The Ndebe Project.

What does this mean for you? If your grandparent was born in 1912, they would have been 10 years old when this picture was taken and they would be 97 today. That means that quite a number of the people that were born or that were children during this time are still alive today. If you're lucky a grandparent (or a great grandparent if you're fortunate to have one) might still remember stunning and precious details about their childhood especially the aspects that have almost been destroyed by westernization such as traditional Igbo dress, and certain customs.

Have fun mining your grandparents, great grandparents and those of your friends for information!! You'll be surprised and delighted at what you find!

The original photos can be found here (along with the date taken):