Over the hilly and rocky plains of Iseyin, nestled in the Ara-Oke countryside of Oyo State, is the ancient art and indigenous textile industry of aso-ofi that has been passed down from generation to generation in unbroken rhythm. The unique textile, also known as aso-oke in urban Yoruba parts, to refer to the hinterland source of this cultural industry, had its day in the sun last week, when Oyo State Government collaborated with Iseyin weavers and marketers to celebrate it as the state’s next cultural product for the global market.
Aso-ofi has enjoyed thousands of years of the artistry among its Iseyin weavers and worldwide patronage. But like most African indigenous cultural products, it is facing a threat from outside, particularly the Chinese, who have seen its global market potential and have tapped into it. So that while Iseyin local weavers are still stuck with only the traditional, wooden, painstaking loom method of weaving, the Chinese have applied modern, faster machine methods. If Iseyin weavers do not wisen up fast and move along with modernity, they risk loosing their ancient, inherited business.
Coming on the heels of Adire Heritage Festival held barely two weeks ago in Lagos, it would seem there is more awareness and value-addition to Yoruba cultural textiles than anywhere else in the country. The celebration of two Yoruba indigenous textiles, adire and aso-ofi, should serve as wake-up call on other ethnic groups with unique indigenous textiles to begin the process, of not only celebrating theirs, but also taking them to national and international markets for enhanced patronage.
For instance, the Tiv in Benue State have a’nger (black & white stripes) and Idoma (black & red stripes variant of it), the Efik have onyonyo, while the Anioma in Delta State have akwa-ocha, as indeed other ethnic nationalities have their own indigenous, cultural textile products worth celebrating. But to what extent are owners of these other traditional textiles aware of the immense economic potential inherent in their inheritance if properly packaged, promoted and marketed? This is where the Yoruba have set the pace.
It was apparently what informed the Abiola Ajimobi-led administration of Oyo State, through its Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism, to collaborate with Iseyin Weavers and Marketers Association to hold a festival that not only yearly celebrates aso-ofi and other cultural products in the state, but also harnesses the business potential inherent in them. Commissioner in charge of the ministry, Mr. Toye Arulogun, was emphatic when he stated that it was time to air these hidden asserts, modernise and give them a global outlook and audience for their economic worth, as alternative sources of wealth-creation.
The occasion of the celebration of Aso-Ofi Festival 2017 saw the foundation of Aso-Ofi International Tourism Market, Iseyin, being laid by the governor, represented by his deputy, Otunba Moses Adeyemo, a gesture that would transform Iseyin and its ancient craft in aso-ofi into a global tourism market. The 500-stall market will boast of a clinic, police and fire stations, and a museum that documents the history of aso-ofi over the years and related businesses. Arulogun believes Iseyin aso-ofi weavers need to move to the next level through modern methods and markets, with government’s help through enlightenment and infrastructure.
The festival opened on Friday, September 15, with weaving competition that showcased the processes that lead to the making of aso-ofi. Indeed, it was a delight watching the men at work. But because it is all manually done, one gets the sense of a cumbersome process that takes days before a piece of aso-ofi is finally made.
One of the supervisors of the competition, Mr. Ganiyu Akeem Adetunji, said he started out fully as a 15-year boy, when he couldn’t secure admission into a higher institution. At 40, he said he has worked the loom for 25 years, as an inheritance from his father, who also inherited the business from his own father. Aso-ofi, he noted, is the symbol of Iseyin, as the town is generally referred to as ‘Home of Aso-Ofi. Adetunji also stated that it takes six to seven steps from gathering cotton wool to spinning to get a piece of aso-ofi out of the loom.
Like an old guard, Adetunji is suspicious of introducing machines in the making of aso-ofi, arguing that the aso-ofi that would come out of machines would not last, as the case with the Chinese products already indicates. He also feared the loss of the cultural element associated with aso-ofi, as an indigenous textile that was yet to be adulterated with machines and all forms of quackery. He has some 20 hands working with him, and feared for the resultant loss of jobs, as machines would render many redundant and unemployed.“Aso-ofi alleviates poverty,” Adetunji concluded grimly.
IT is precisely for aso-ofi’s poverty alleviation potential that the state government decided to step in to take the indigenous textile from its current cottage industry format to a bigger stage, with the second edition of the festival that started last year.
As Aulogun noted, “Culture is dynamic. You cannot enter or play in the global space without modernising the production process. This issue of weaving with hand will still remain. However, the Chinese are already making aso-ofi and they are eating into the market, and you want to stay in this same position? You can’t satisfy the global market with that. What we are saying is that the hand-woven aso-ofi should cost more than the ones made with machine. If I were in the business, I would produce enmasse and also do hand-woven.
“Old habits diehard, but I believe aso-ofi can compete favourably with jeans in the market; even the quality of jeans has reduced in terms of strength. We no longer wear those hardcore jeans again; we now wear softer ones, and it’s trending. If you use aso-ofi as your bed sheet, heat will kill you. We are saying we must introduce aso-ofi along the lines of variation to use it for shoes, for bags, for furniture. Right now, it is not particularly African weather-friendly and if you want to play in the global space, you have that end of the market and you also have this other end of the market. So you must vary it such that you can meet different needs of the market. You can’t stay in one particular position (forever).”
Already, the Bank of Industry and Nigerian Export Promotion Council are in talks with Oyo State Government to give Iseyin aso-ofi weavers financial backing. But with the making and business of aso-ofi still at individual, family levels, the government listened to the weavers’ plea for a structured market as first step to internationalising the cultural product.
As Arulogun noted, “Even for aso-ofi, you have different grades and styles. For most of the women, they will rather use the softer ones for their head-tie because of the heat. So, the point I am making is that people have to adjust; we need to enlighten and educate them. That is our job as the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism. That’s the benefit of this festival, to structure the market. Right now, it is unstructured. And what we need to do is to market our culture, show people what we have. There is a strong economic viability and sustainability content that is important.
“Bank of Industry and Nigerian Export Promotion Council came on their own because they have seen the future in this cultural business. That is why government is providing a market for them. Once there is a market here, we can go to some of these companies in Ikorodu and ask them to establish ancillary companies to provide materials for aso-ofi weavers – from the cotton to the thread. We need to show them where the future is. If not, we might just lose this market to the Chinese entirely and all our efforts will be in vain.
“The name is Aso-Ofi International Tourism Market and you will be wondering, because market naturally should be trade, but it is our own idea. After we did the first edition of this aso-ofi festival, we found out that the market was lacking. It was an unstructured market. So, we decided to build a market. And of course, we added tourism dimension by having a museum. When you get into a place like this, you can trace the history – what this oba used to wear, you know – something that is educational and also instructive. We are working on about 500 shops, opened stores, closed shops; we are also providing police and a fire station.”
GOVERNOR of Oyo State, Sen. Abiola Ajimobi, who was represented at the festival by his deputy, Otunba Moses Adeyemo, said his administration wants to “make Oyo State a haven for tourists to appreciate the numerous cultural and tourism entities that abound in the State,” adding, “It is, however, time we communicate the importance of tourism sector. We must mainstream it in the economy of the state. Oyo State is endowed with diverse cultures, which include a wide variety of indigenous festivals such as Sango and Oranyan in Oyo Town, Oke-Badan in Ibadan, Beere in Saki, Olele in Ogbomoso, etc, and beautiful landscapes such as Ado-Awaye Suspended Lake, Oke-Badan Hill in Ibadan, Igbo-Oba Royal Forest in Igboho, Iya Mapo Hill in Igbeti and other numerous species of flora and fauna with their scenic values. However, most of these tourist sites are yet to be fully maximised to generate revenue.
It is, therefore, our duty to plan, package and market them for overall development of the state. The idea behind Aso-Ofi Festival is to celebrate aso-ofi, one of the state’s tourism products, towards propagating this unique, indigenous textile material globally and promote youth empowerment agenda of this administration, as one of the solutions to the present economic challenges facing the country. To this end, youths should be encouraged to learn this trade without waiting for white-collar jobs that are not always there. Farmers should be encouraged to grow the cotton trees, as part of agricultural agenda in the state to boost our indigenous textile industry.
EARLIER at the Aseyin of Iseyin palace, when Adeyemo and other government functionaries paid the royal father Oba (Dr.) Abdul Ganiyu Adekunle Salau Ologunebi, courtesy visit before the festival started proper, the traditional ruler told his audience that without aso-ofi, which he wove as a young man, he would not have been able to pay his way through university to study veterinary medicine. He expressed happiness that governor Ajimobi has seen the future in indigenous cultural industries and the need to tap into them for their economic benefits, saying reliance on a mono product was no longer fashionable.
Oba Ologunebi urged the governor to stand firm and fashion better ways of running the affairs of the state, adding, “There is too much decadence in the system. We thank you for promoting aso-ofi. Whatever I am today is because of aso-ofi. I used to weave in my younger days. We thank God that we have aso-ofi in Iseyin.”
Aseyin urged his Iseyin folks to take aso-ofi seriously and take it to next level beyond a cultural heritage, saying people never know what they have until it is taken away from them.
Arulogun further stressed the importance of modernising aso-ofi business from its current state and urged Iseyin people to see government’s efforts as complementing whatever they were doing and not as a competitor, who has come to take away their business. He said the stalls would be made affordable for them when they are ready.
“The job of government is to provide the enabling environment; government is not going to teach them how to modernise the business. They know more than government. It is a generational trade; they’ve been transferring it from one generation to another. But nobody likes to leave their comfort zones; nobody likes change, but when we build the shed for them they were happy because they used to live under trees and in the open. In this market, we are going to have the weaving sheds. So, it’s for both the weavers and the marketers and that is very important.
“What we are saying now is this: people need serious enlightenment. Sometimes, the word goes round that government wants to take over their business from them. Meanwhile, we are helping them because they need to move to the next level. Most of the ladies now, wear the gele that is bought from China; it’s softer. I’m hot because of the thickness of the aso-ofi I’m wearing now. It’s not like the ones our mothers used to wear. So, you have to be dynamic and we must all embrace that dynamism.”