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By Karen James
Without any signal or signpost display, a conscious traveler will know he is in Akwete, by merely sighting the giant statue of Daada Nwakata, the matriarch of Akwete and originator of their art of weaving, standing tall at the town’s gate.
The name Akwete is not new nor strange, especially to women who enjoy wrappers. One baffling thing about Akwete is that the name represents both the name of a town and a the name of certain cloth made by the women of the same town.
Geographically located 18 Kilometers North East of Port Harcourt and 18 Kilometers South East of Aba, precisely at the rain forest of Ndoki, Akwete is the Headquarters of Ukwa East Local Government Area of Abia State and one of Igbos most strategic towns.
The inhabitants of Akwete are predominantly the Ndoki clan of Igboland who kith and kin are also found in Rivers State and Akwa-Ibom State. The town has many routes to Ogoni land and Annag land who are their neigbours.
It is also a riverine town that played huge role in the early 19th-century slave trade as it was one of the main destinations of Aro slave traders, as it lies few nautical miles away from Atlantic Ocean and was a big route where slaves are bought and moved to the coast.
However, one thing is unique about Akwete and that is the ingenuity and creativity of her women in cloth weaving.
Igbo being a tribe that does not joke with fashion, has so many festivals like; Ichi Ozor (taking of titles), Iri ji (new yam festival), Igboto mma (retiring from all village involvement), Igba-Nkwu(traditional marriage), Ikwa-Ozu Okenye (burial ceremony of a very old person) etc. where clothes are displayed.
In all the mentioned occasions, Akwete will never be found missing, as it adds more feathers to the crowns of celebrators, because of its uniqueness and special designs.
Akwete is also a particular kind of fabric made through weaving by women of the town who are the only people permitted by their customs tradition to weave.
It is usually wove in pares, which is in accordance with Igbo custom of a compulsory occasional two wrappers dress code for women, who must tie the first to ankle length, then the second to exceed mid-calf length.
Akwete is not only for Igbo women who enjoy it with their elegant blouses. The men do sew all kinds of traditional wears like: shirts that they wear over their trousers and senators (a well designed shirt and trouser of the same material).
Igbo men also take Akwete as special wrappers used during the taking of chieftaincy titles and the ofala festival (celebration of kingship enthronement anniversary).
THE ORIGIN OF AKWETE CLOTH AND THE STORY SO FAR
In Akwete, it is an abomination for a man to get involved in cloth weaving business as it is customarily for women. Akwete men are aware of this and do not venture into weaving.
“I was born to meet it that way. No matter the joy and love we men have for weaving, we dare not venture into it because it’s a taboo and a serious affront to our women. It’s their rights, it’s their inheritance. No man born by a woman can take it away from them,” says Elder Chidi Adiele.
Adiele, who is a retired school teacher said that from time immemorial, Akwete men have always being Fisher men while their women weave clothes.
He however said that Akwete’s oral history had it that weaving began around 15th Century before the arrival of the British colonialists into Igbo hinterlands.
Adiele said necessity became the mother of invention in Akwete when the slave trade ended and the challenges of what next to replace the once lucrative slave trading faced the Akwete man and woman.
According to him, some men who are already used to the sea and river took to fishing while left with nothing except weaving.
Adiele however said that the art of weaving by Akwete women is not just ordinary, as it was a gift from their ancestors to a woman called Daada Nwakata who in return gave same gifts to all Akwete women.
“However strange it may sound, it’s our tradition. The ancient gods of Akwete gave Daada Nwakata the vision. Our fathers warned us that few stubborn men who tried to go into weaving got terrible spiritual problems.”
He however said that women could tell a little boy to help them get some weaving materials, but will stop allowing him come close when he starts becoming an adolescent.
Madam Esther Chukwu said the gift is usually transferred from mother to daughters, stressing that they teach their daughters from childhood that weaving is their pride and a household business that will make them financially strong.
“I’m from here and I’m married here. My own mother told me that the gods gave it to Dada Nwakata as women’s business.
“I’ve nevseen any man weaving since I was born because they know they cannot change the decisions of our ancestors.”
MATERIALS USED FOR WEAVING AKWETE CLOTH AND PROCESSES INVOLVED
Pechilly Investigative discovered that Akwete requires materials of different types, but compulsory ones includes: Loom, raffia yarn (thread), cotton yarn, silk yarn, heddle and twine/rope.
However, prior to contact with modernization, the raffia fiber which is processed into a yarn was the main thread used for making the Akwete fabric. Back then all items needed for the production were gotten from Raffia trees in Akwete.
As modernization steps in, changes came in and improved the type of raw materials used like the durable embroidery threads from China.
The Akwete weaving is done on a vertical loom as depicted in the sculpture of Dada Nwakata which is placed at the gate of the town.
Akwete weaving is beyond just twisting threads together, the women apply their experiences in discovering how to use combination of threads of different colours.
They create aesthetic texture, create decorative patterns and add effects to make their fabrics have unique look.
President, Akwete Cooperative Women/Weavers Association, Madam Hellen Ebere said that high cost of yarn (thread) and low sales are their major problems.
She said that many years ago, the white people usually come to Akwete to buy their clothes, but the era of serious insecurity like kidnapping scared them away and impacted negatively on their sales.
Ebere said that their major customers currently are their neighbours from Rivers State and Akwa-Ibom State plus some other persons who visit Aba from places like Lagos.
“Government officials will come, make promises after showcasing our works and skills in many trade fairs and at the end you’ll not see them again,” she lamented.
Mrs. Justina Wogu said the price of the yarn is a huge problem, adding that buying the yarn, other materials has made it impossible to see any Akwete fabrics selling for N20,000 and N15,000 unlike before.
She begged the government to help them get the silk yarns and cotton yarns at cheaper rates so as to enable them buy things that people can afford.
Wogu added that they will appreciate it if government can help them get some loans to enable them buy items and employ more hands to help in weaving.
She explained that the weavers respect personal inventions in the practice of weaving, as one does not just reproduce a peculiar style created by another without consultation and permission.
Wogu said that the beauty of Akwete clothes do not fade, as one can hardly look at them to be old and out if fashion.
She explained that there are no fixed price or standard price when buying at home from a Weaver because someone who needs money to solve a problem can sell at whatever price that suits her.
She however said that within their cooperative, they have price tags on all Akwete. She added that when the demand is high, cost will be reduce because they usually look at the quantity and use that to reduce price.
Also speaking to New Echo when our reporter visited their homes while they were weaving different brands of Akwete fabrics, Mrs. Nnenna Onyeju, Mrs. Ngozi Nkure and Mrs. Chizuru Nwaulu all corroborated initially raised concerns.
They said the high cost of yarn which now sells above N250 for one and requires plenty of it to make one fabric is a huge worry.
Mrs. Onyeju, who said that should she abandon every other thing she ought to do and concentrate on just weaving, it will takes her one week to make one her Akwete specifically said that the cost of yarn is her major setback.
Mrs. Nkure who spoke to our reporter of Umuibari village, Akwete while she weaving explained that she learnt from her mother and has been doing to support the family.
“I want Government to help us on the yarn because the price is too much for the quantity required to make one complete fabric.”
Mrs. Nwaulu who also said she learnt from her mother and will want her daughter to take over from her, said that she is benefitting from making Akwete financially but needs more help.
“I’ll sell this one N25,000 and a pair of it will be N50,000 since we wear two piece wrapper in Igboland. The price of materials for production is the major reason why it seems costly.”
GOVERNMENT NEGLECT, A MAJOR SETBACK FOR AKWETE INDUSTRIOUS WOMEN
Mazi Christian Chukwuemeka Uwaezuoke described weaving business by Akwete women as a neglected industry by both past and present Abia State Government.
“This Akwete cloth industry here has made some contributions especially on the area of gainful employment. I call it industry because that’s what it is and what it should be.
“Government is always talking about local content policy, looking inwards, diversification and all manner of talks, but they’re absolutely nothing to help these women.
“Our women are hard-working. They’ve already embraced a God’s given technology that should have placed them in sound financial positions if things are done properly here.
“These women are creating employments for themselves and others. They’re helping their families and younger ones without disturbing anybody or asking for too much.
“All they need is just that support from Government that will serve as a boost to their several decades of unrelenting efforts and commitments.
“Aside when we were in the old Imo State led by late Chief Samuel Onunaka Mbakwe no other state administration has come to show our women support.
“Mbakwe in his wisdom through his wife recognized the creative ingenuity and contributions of Akwete women weavers to the development of the Old Imo state.
“Part of his programs then was to encourage local industries. He visited Akwete women and one of the questions proposed during the visit was how can the government assist them?
“He donated the sum of N50,000 as at then which led to the erection of the building that houses the Women Weaving Cooperative Society which the women are using part of it as their show room today.
“Currently, Mr Uzoma Abonta has re-roofed the building because his mother, late Mrs. Rosalind Abonta was a pioneer leader to the women. But that entire structure was bequeathed to the women by Mbakwe.
“Beyond that all subsequent governments have not done anything. There was a time the women Akwete women weavers hosted a team from a government agency, the Raw Materials Research Institute.
“They said they had come to understudy the cloth production and know how they can help boost its marketability, but after that nobody has done anything. It is over three years now but nothing has been done.
“Some time ago, some youths also said they came to understudy it and know how to leverage its marketability through linking some companies overseas, but after that nothing came.
“One of the original pieces of Akwete is showcased in the British Museum in London and there its is showcasing Nigeria and the contributions of the Black women towards civilization.
“During some of the trade fairs, government comes to take our women to display but nothing comes out of it.”