BY TAIWO ADEBULU
His striking, vulnerable eyes pounced on every object in the large earthen compound where he gathered his toys. Mojeed flocked around his 25-year-old mother, Taiwo Abduljelil, while she got busy with cloth weaving. His father was also seated at the entrance of the compound where he was weaving a bundle of polychrome threads. Mojeed was born a few months after Nigeria announced its first total lockdown in March 2020 as part of measures to check the spread of the COVID-19 in the country. So, they call him “Corobaby”. A happy child, Mojeed, teetered from one end of the compound to the other as though on an undercover mission – from his mother to the father and paternal grandmother who weaned him.
Although the lockdown was not observed in Iseyin, a rustic Yoruba community in Oyo state, south-west Nigeria, where Mojeed and his parents live, the effect of the economic shutdown in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, and Abuja, the nation’s capital city, was felt everywhere. States locked their borders to curb the spread of the virus; there were travel restrictions and businesses began to nosedive.
For most households in Iseyin where traditional cloth weaving is the major source of livelihood, they all disembarked from the wooden loom. They had woven enough clothing materials at home, but there was no one to buy them. Hunger and frustration dealt a massive blow.
Taiwo and her husband, Jelil, had nowhere to go. They had no other business or means of survival and life became unbearable. Yet, they welcomed Mojeed into the world with open hands.
“It was a tough time for us. The pandemic and the restrictions came to us unexpectedly. We had to stop working and we were sleeping all day. That was when we had our third child, Mojeed. I do not pray to witness such a pandemic in my lifetime again,” Taiwo said.
“We suffered. We sold out the materials we had at home for peanuts just to feed. I took my children to my mother-in-law to take care of them. Businesses have started picking up again, but so many of us have not recovered from the shock of COVID-19.”
Before COVID-19 disrupted the traditional cloth weaving business in the community, Taiwo, who only attended a basic primary school, would wake up at 6 am, cook for the family, feed the children and step out into the compound to begin the business of the day. She used to weave two packs of materials daily. A pack, which consists of eight pieces of woven materials, is sold for N800. In other words, she used to make N1,200 daily. But the pandemic altered everything.
‘WE SURVIVED COVID BY LUCK’
It was 4 pm and the blazing sun was already lowering its gaze. Under a huge mango tree, 40-year-old Oluwayemisi Kehinde was at her best as she shuttled a small wooding boat across threads and locks them with the reed. Her feet were swift on the pedals of the ofi, which is the local name for a loom. The warp was long, about ten meters away from the ofi where she sat to knot it with the weft to form a beautiful pattern.
In Yoruba language, aso means cloth; so, aso-ofi loosely translates as the hand-woven textile from the loom. The process is hectic and takes days, from sorting the raw cotton or synthetic fibres to combing, spinning and warping — all done manually.
Oluwayemisi has been making aso-ofi for over 20 years – from 7 am to 6 pm. She only rests on Sundays. Her dexterity and energy were contagious as she answered questions smoothly without a break from weaving. She learnt the job when she dropped out of school after her primary education.
According to her, the height of the COVID-19 pandemic was the toughest period she has ever experienced over two decades of making aso-ofi. She sold out all the materials she had in store for lesser amounts. At some point, Oluwayemisi fed her six children with mangoes. Schools were shut, so they all woke every morning thinking about where the next meal would come from.
“We feed our family and also pay children’s school fees with proceeds from this business. Customers used to come to Iseyin from different parts of the country to order various designs, quality and brands of our material. Suddenly, they disappeared, and we starved,” Oluwayemisi said.
“I used to sell a pack of aso-ofi for N5,000 or 6,000 depending on the quality because I use 100 per cent cotton. I can make ten packs in three days. So, things were good for us and we were able to meet our needs. Now, the profit has thinned owing to the recent increase in the materials we use, but the demand is increasing because we make quality aso-ofi here.”
Weaving is the primary employment of many women in Iseyin. As business starts picking up again, Oluwayemisi works overtime just to make life better again. But Rebeccah Ayodele says with the absence of capital, they are still finding it hard to heal.
Rebeccah, a 43-year-old mother of two, practically eats and relaxes on the loom just to make up for the time lost to the pandemic. As soon as she places her feet on the pedal at 8 am, she works till 9 pm under the cover of darkness. Sometimes, her husband puts on an electricity-generating set for illumination.
“On a pack of material, I make a profit of N500 to N1,000, although I used to make more before COVID happened. Things were so bad that feeding became a huge problem. We prayed fervently and waited endlessly for the pandemic to end,” Rebeccah said.
Kudirat Azeez, a 26-year-old expectant mother, survives on a paltry N500 she makes from producing a component part of the reed. She retreated to her bedroom when the pandemic knocked.
Resuming back to work after the COVID-19 restrictions were relaxed, the women found out the cost of materials had tripled. They had no choice, So, they diversified. Instead of waiting for ceremonial seasons when the material is in high demand, they now use the fabric to produce bags, shoes, belts, pillows, suits, upholstery and interior decorations. The supply to Ibadan, Abeokuta, Lagos and other urban cities across the country has begun to improve.
ASO-OFI: A COMMUNITY’S LIFELINE
In Iseyin, the making of traditional fabrics is not just an art or trade, it is a religion. The ancient community is reputed as the home of aso-ofi also known as aso-oke as it reportedly began there some centuries ago. In fact, the art of traditional cloth weaving reflects in their ancestral praise.
Years back, in a typical Nigerian ceremony beaming with colours and glam, aso-ofi used to be the centre of attraction. It is the staple of special occasions like coronations, weddings, chieftaincy, festivals, naming ceremonies, burials and other important ceremonies. Some are sewn into agbada, trousers, cap; and for the women, iro and buba with a shawl. How thick and colourful the signature design of the material shows the social and economic status of the wearer.
Call it a relic of the past, it has struggled over the years to keep itself relevant in the contemporary fashion industry. While it may no longer enjoy the popularity and huge patronage of the past owing to the prevalence of imported textile materials in the market, aso-ofi has maintained its class among the royals and the rich. Most of the textiles imported into the country include brocade, ankara, damask or lace materials from China, Japan, the United States, Malaysia and India, according to the World Integrated Trade Solution (WITS).
Nigeria has a huge appetite for importation. In 2019, the Nigerian Textile Manufacturers Association (NTMA) said the country spends $4 billion importing textiles annually. The National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) trade report shows that the importation of textile and textile articles rose year-on-year by 258% in the first three months of 2021 to N171.8 billion from N48 billion in the same period of 2020.
According to Chimera Iheonu, a research analyst at Kwakol, a finance and technology firm, textile importation undermines the domestic industry and leads to job losses. Despite the ban on forex for imported finished textiles in Nigeria to protect local producers, foreign products are still making their way into the country.
WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD FOR ASO-OFI?
Even at that, the women artisans, mostly uneducated, are doubling their efforts to ensure aso-ofi gains wide acceptance again. Despite the toll of the COVID-19 pandemic on small-scale businesses, they have decided to keep the craft alive and boost their family income. For them, it is beyond a livelihood. It is a communal activity that was passed from one generation to the other and must not go into extinction.
Such is the case of Raimot Lateef, an 18-year-old senior secondary school student at Islamic Girls High School, Iseyin, whose father taught weaving at a very young age. Rukayat, Ramot’s 22-year-old elder sister, is also a prodigy at the job.
According to Moshood, their father, teaching her daughters how to weave fabrics is to ensure they have the skills that can fetch them money in the future and not go hungry or stranded. He said he believes female children should be empowered to fend for themselves and also contribute significantly to their families when they eventually get married.
So, as soon as Raimot comes back from school in the afternoon, she eats, freshens up and mounts the loom to weave some fabrics till late in the evening. Yet, she believes the time she spends weaving cannot stop her future ambition of becoming a doctor.
“When I am not weaving, I create time to do my assignments and read my books. I was born into traditional weaving and I have been doing it since I was six years old. I really enjoy weaving these fibres into fabrics,” Raimot told this reporter, while she was busy weaving.
“I use part of the money I make from the job to buy the things that I need. I also use it to pay my school fees and that is what I will use to purchase forms for the West African Examinations Council (WAEC) examinations next year. I hope to continue with the craft after secondary school and when I become a doctor.”
However, there is still anxiety among weavers in the community about how technology may disrupt the indigenous industry. In 2012, some weavers organised a rally in Lagos to protest the influx of China-made aso-ofi in the market. They said the machine-woven fabric with oriental blend was counterfeit.
On September 27, 2016, during World Tourism Day, the Oyo state government launched the aso-ofi festival in the community with the aim of preserving the rich cultural values of the craft and also giving the fabric a global appeal. The aso-ofi international market and museum were also inaugurated.
According to Wasiu Olatunbosun, commissioner for culture and tourism, the exportation of aso-ofi textile products to various countries across the world has been in existence from time immemorial before COVID-19 disrupted the supply. He added that the export has improved the state’s internally generated revenue.
“Aso-ofi textile products are being exported to United States, United Kingdom, Brazil, Canada, Trinidad and Tobago, among others. Recently, the state facilitated a N5 million loan from the Bank of Industry (BOI) at a very low-interest rate to the weavers and also influenced the direct supply of cotton to them. This is really important as the state is currently focused on boosting its revenue base through tourism and other non-oil sectors,” the commissioner told this reporter on phone.
The government’s commitment to the development of aso-ofi means a lot to the women weavers in Iseyin. The resumption of export of the indigenous textile translates to more money to feed the family, take care of themselves and pay for children’s education.
This report was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.