For centuries, Egba women had ensured that the Adire (tie-dyeing) industry does not die by passing the intricate designing skills to their daughters.
The expansive Kemta Adire market in the heart of the historic town of Abeokuta bear vestiges of an age long trade that has engaged women for centuries. Sprawling at the feet of the Itoko , with its old red roofs, the market attracts tens of thousands of traders and tourists alike on a daily basis.
But construction work at the market is threatening to the market of its age and history. A bridge construction near the market has resulted into some stalls being pulled down and some of the Adire traders displaced. Business, however, still booms at the market as the displaced traders have found new spots to display their exotic fabrics.
Our reporter who visited Kemta found the regimented structure of the market intriguing. Some of the Egba women, who adorned themselves in their traditional Adire Bubas and towering headgears to match, sat at the doors of their stalls with bales of assorted Adire piled to the ceilings, patiently waiting for customers. Any attempt to engage them in light-hearted talk failed as they all kept mute. Attempts by our reporter to get information about the market from several of the women did not yield results. They had to hold an emergency meeting before they decided that our reporter speak with one Iya Oloja, who appeared to be the market superintendant."Nobody will speak with you even if you walk around the whole market for the next few days. This is the way we operate at the market. We are all disciplined. Your best bet is to strike an agreement with the Iya Oloja or any of the officials of the market. They are the only ones who can persuade any of the market women to speak to you." One of the women who was a bit sympathetic to our reporter said.
A quick phone call to Iya Oloja, an affable elderly lady did the magic. Women who appeared to have their lips were sealed suddenly became loquacious. With enthusiasm, they narrated how, for centuries, the trade has endured. They are very passionate about what they do. They have a common trend in their testimonies. Having received the baton from their mothers in time past, their greatest wish is to pass same down the line to their children.
Tie-dyeing of the fabrics into flamboyant traditional styles has been in existence for ages. The exquisite patterns which bear traditional Yoruba emblems and artefects are made by tying and stitching with raffia or cotton thread, or by using chicken feathers to dab painted cassava paste on the cloth which then, acts as a resistant dye, much like the wax method used on batiks (the Indonesian version). Adire is a sparsely-dyed cloth produced and worn by the Yoruba people of southwestern Nigeria in West Africa. The Yoruba label Adire, which means "tied and dyed," was first applied to indigo-dyed cloth decorated with alternating patterns at the turn of the twentieth century. With the introduction of a broader colour palette of imported synthetic dyes in the second half of the twentieth century, the label "Adire" was expanded to include a variety of hand-dyed textile using wax resistant batik methods to produce patterned cloth in a dazzling array of dye tints and hues.
Angela Sancartier, a clothing and fashion researcher traces the genesis of adire to Abeokuta. She said: "As a distinctive textile type, adire first appeared in the city of Abeokuta, a centre for cotton production, weaving, and indigo-dyeing in the nineteenth century. The prototype was tie-dyed kijipa, a handwoven cloth dyed with indigo for use as wrappers and covering cloths. Female specialists dyed yarns and cloth and also recycled faded clothing by re-dyeing the cloth with tie-dyed patterns."
She also explained that when British trading firms flooded the textile market with colourful, inexpensive printed materials, the adire industry rose to meet the challenge. The women discovered that the imported white cotton shirting was cheaper than handwoven cloth and could be decorated and dyed to meet local tastes. The soft, smooth texture of the imported cloth, in contrast to the rough surface of kijipa cloth, provided a new impetus for decoration. The soft shirting encouraged the decorators to create smaller, more precise patterns with tie-dye methods and to use raffia threads to produce finely patterned stitch-resistant Adire Alabere. The smooth surface of shirting led to the development of hand-painted starch-resistant Adire Eleko.
Abeokuta has remained the major producer and selling centre of Adire, but Ibadan, a larger city to the north, become a nucleus of women artists who specialized in hand-painted Adire Eleko. The wrapper design Ibadandun ("Ibadandun" meaning "the city of Ibadan is sweet") is popular to fill this day.'
Otun Iya Oloja, Mrs Olukemi Odunlayo insisted that Abeokuta will continue to lead the way in the Adire trade. She also took the reporter down an intricate lane spanning the making of the locally made, but internationallly acclaimed fabrics.
Chief Mrs Olukemi Odunlayo is the Otun Iya Oloja of Kemta. She said the trade is an ancient one, as old as Abeokuta itself, adding that the trade was handed down to them by their progenitors and they in turn, intend to pass it on to their descendants.
"Here, we focus mainly on the sale of adire and Kampala materials. There are other marketers of other goods in our midst but they are few," she said.
According to her, Abeokuta is still the largest Adire market in Africa. "This is an ancient trade that has spanned centuries in Abeokuta. This is the tale we met when we started. We were told that the trade is a strict family preserve. It is passed down from one generation to another. The shop that I was using for my trade that was demolished by the state government was passed down to me by my mother, who also inherited it from her mother.
"When our mothers started the trade in ancient times they used local lanterns to press the fabrics and people patronised them from many parts of the nation. When modernity came, they started using some modern equipment to make the trade easier. Nowadays that the trade is blossoming even white men come all the way from their countries to buy the fabrics," she added.
With nostalgia written all over her face, Iya Oloja recounted how she participated in the making of Adire as a child.
"When we started as kids we were the ones who would gather the materials to be processed. We would also be the ones to gather candles to be used in making intricate designs on the materials. We usually did that after school hours. Then, we used to process the materials in bales of five yards each. Some had close to 120 pieces while others had about 60 pieces. We usually did just one design which we called Alaale. Alaale then was the nearest to maroon colour we have today. With modern technology we now have brown and the gold, and different other colours.
"We usually used the Aro Dudu (black dye) back then, which was used to process the ancient Adire fabrics we were taught by our forbears. Then it was the same dye used for painting houses that our mothers made use of. We still make use of it today but with modern technology we now have different variants of the dye-yellow, navy blue etc. Nowadays with the aid of computers, we now have different designs which we play with, that our mothers never envisaged was possible. In time past, some of these things were done manually, especially the use of candles to make intricate designs, but nowadays that has reduced, though it is still an integral part of the process. Today we are mainly into what we call freehand processing. This means that, apart from the use of the candle to bring out the design we also use needles to enhance the various colours. There is the Eleko variant, the thread variant etc. These are just some of the rarities we now have that were not there in the past," she explained further.
She added that, when she was young, her mother insisted that she learn the trade but she was a bit reluctant. "The stress then in the process was just too much for a young person like me. Soaking the materials especially was hectic. The stress is still there. Look, you met us arranging the clothes. We have been at it for some days now. But with time, I have come to appreciate the uniqueness of the trade and have come to love it. Many of us are now passing the knowledge down to our children. Some people come to us that they want to learn, but at the end they don't show seriousness. I have a graduate daughter and an undergraduate son who are both learning the trade under me at present. We know that if we do not pass the knowledge down to them it will die a natural death. Now with their academic knowledge we all sit down to plan how to make more intricate designs that were not possible during the ancient times. There are some designs that if you have not been adequately trained to do, you will not be able to do, so we teach them everything while urging them to reach the pinnacle of their academics," she said.
Asked if the fabrics are affordable, she said they are not expensive. "Nigerians by custom love flashy and expensive things. But here, we make sure all classes of people can afford to buy materials once they come here. There is always something for you to pick up no matter how much you have. If you want the cheaper ones you can have them. If it's the expensive ones, special designs like the ones used by Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, you will also have them. But one thing you will be sure of, is that they are all of good quality. Your bargaining power is also essential.
She said most of the raw materials used in the industry are imported from other countries. China, according to her, is a major supplier of cotton materials. She said importers bring the materials to Kano, where they go to retail.
She lamented, however, that Custom officials harass them on the road and extort money from them. "A consignment of goods just came in a few days ago that was delayed for several days by customs officials. They only released it when N1 million was paid to them. Several consignments have been seized in the past and nothing was done about them. Why should we be harassed just for going to bring down goods from Kano? We need the federal government to look into this issue as it is affecting our business. We are just business people making honest and legitimate living. We also want government to resuscitate our moribund textiles industry like the United Textiles, Gaskiya Textile, Arewa Textiles etc so that we will not need to look outside the shores of the country to get materials. Even the candles we use in processing the Adire is imported from England. We also urge the state government to quickly finish the road construction at Kemta, so that our members that have been displaced can return to their stalls. God has blessed this country. It is only in this small Kemta enclave in Abeokuta that people come all the way from different parts of the world to buy Adire. So why don't we celebrate ourselves?"
Mrs Temilola Sadiq is one of the numerous traders at the market. She said she has been in the trade for over 17 years. "I was born into it. Initially I was not so involved in it. I was just soaking the fabrics for new to production. But now I am fully into it. When I started I was using a small shack at the roadside but over the years I have saved enough to have my own shop in the market. We are making sure that the trade does not die with us that is why we involve our kids in the day to day running of our businesses. Although I do not have a daughter, I have a son who I am training to take over from me."
Princess Mansurat Adunni also shares the same excitement. "I started over 17 years ago. My mother introduced me to it when I was young. The proceeds from the trade were used by our parents to train us. We are doing the same. My daughter follows me to work every day to learn the trade. We face challenges everyday but with God's grace we are surmounting them."
One of the products of the informal 'Adire making' school is young graduate, Folashade, who spoke to Sunday Trust. She said she has taken her mother's line of work when she could not get gainful employment after graduating from university.
"When I graduated I waited for like three years without a job. Then I decided to help out in the trade. This is what I have been doing since I was in primary school, so deciding to use it as means of making ends meet, was an easy decision for me. I have no regrets. If I get a white collar job today I will not abandon the trade. I even intend to pass it on to my kids when they come of age and show interest."
A customer, Mrs Adeko who came from Ondo town to buy the fabrics, told Sunday Trust that the Kemta market is a magnet for all lovers of quality fabrics. 'I came all the way from my base to buy materials here. Here you get the original. They have unique Kampala products you cannot get anywhere else. I also brought my faded clothes so that they can dye them for me with quality dye," she said.