Tears of Akwete cloth weavers

Akwete cloth is a uniquely weaved cloth that originated from Akwete community in Abia State. It is an industry owned by women only. Since the 15th century, they have been weaving the cloths, but lament that except the late Sam Mbakwe administration in old Imo State, they have been denied of government’s support. EMMANUEL IFEANYI reports from Aba

Cloth weaving is not rocket science. It’s an art that is widely practiced in many parts of the world, including Nigeria. Weaving means many things to different people, depending on the setting of their society.
However, when the name of a town is synonymous with a certain style of cloth made through weaving, then something must be peculiar with that town and calls for a closer look.

Akwete is a riverine town in Ukwa East Local Government Area of Abia State. The inhabitants of Akwete are predominantly the Ndoki clan of Igboland whose kith and kin are also found in Rivers and Akwa-Ibom State.
Akwete is one of the largest and most ancient towns in the entire Ndoki clan and has three autonomous communities namely: Umuihueze, Amakam and Umueze.

Just like the name of the town itself, Akwete is also a particular kind of fabric made through weaving by women of the town, who are the only people permitted by their tradition to get involved in the weaving art.
In accordance with Igbo traditional two wrappers dress code for women, Akwete is usually woven in pairs.

When an Igbo woman wants to go out for an occasion, the first among the pair is tied to reach the ankle length, while the second is tied not to exceed mid-calf length.
Igbo women always supported their beautiful Akwete wrappers with elegant blouses of different patterns that make them look extremely unique.

Igbo men also use Akwete to sow all kinds of traditional wears, including shirts that they wear over their trousers, senators ( a complete shirt and trouser of the same material.

The men also take Akwete as special wrappers used during the taking of chieftaincy titles and the ofala festival (celebration of kingship enthronement anniversary).
New Telegraph in separate interviews with Mazi Christian Chukwuemeka Uwaezuoke, Secretary, Akwete Joint Council of Chiefs and Mrs. Patience Okere, an old weaver of Akwete cloth, moved deeply into the history of Akwete cloth.
The two sources told New Telegraph that in Akwete town, it is an abomination for a man to get involved in cloth weaving business as it is traditionally gender defined.

Giving the historical background of the Akwete weaving, Uwaezuoke said: “From the beginning, our people (men) were traders and fishermen because Akwete is a riverine town.

“Oral history told us that the cloth industry began around 15th Century, about 1485 or so even before the British colonialists were said to have ventured into the interior.

“Akwete people supplied slaves to the British slave traders following contact with the Aro and others, but when the slave trade ceased, the challenge now was what next would the average Akwete man or woman do?
“The men, who acquired minimal literacy, took to improving their lives while others kept their fishing businesses. Our women were left with weaving of this cloth we’re talking about now.

“However, the weaving didn’t fall from the sky. There was a woman called Dada Nwakata, who initiated this local technology called Akwete cloth.

“The ancestors showed the vision of the Akwete cloth to Dada Nwakata in her dream. We were told that some men of that era who tried to venture into weaving were visited by the gods and they stopped.

“In our own generation, we also avoid it so we don’t repeat history. In fact, as a little boy, the women may ask you to get this and that for them during weaving, but immediately you come to the age of knowledge, they’ll push you out of the scene.
“Personally, I have seen even men who tried to venture into it, even in distribution, but they didn’t do well. This is engraved in our belief system and the men have that consciousness that weaving is not for them.”
Mrs. Patience Okere, who said she was born in Akwete, married in the town and started to weave when she was about 12 years old, corroborated what Uwaezuoke said.
“We teach our daughters from childhood because we don’t joke with it. It’s a household business for all the girls and women.

“Dada Nwakata, who founded it said she was shown the thing in a dream by our ancestors as women’s business and it’s not what our men will dare to venture into.”
She said:”Akwete weaving is only for women. It’s a gender defined job because it is in our tradition just as Dada Nwakata was shown.
“We cannot leave it for men and even the men will not even go into it because it will not sell in the market and they know the other consequences.
“Many women in Akwete produce it. It’s not something you’ll begin to say we’re of this and that number involved in making the cloth. All families do it as long as there’s a woman there.”

Making of Akwete Cloth
Speaking on the production and it’s processes, Mrs. Okere told New Telegraph that they require materials of different types and have over the years been affected positively by contacts with the rest of the world.
According to her, the materials used for the production of Akwete are: Loom, raffia yarn (thread), cotton yarn, silk yarn, heddle and twine/rope.

She said that when there was no contact with the modern world, the raffia fibre, which is processed into a yarn was the main thread used for making the Akwete fabric.

Okere said that then, all items needed for the production were got from Raffia trees in Akwete, but contact with rest of the world has brought changes, as it improved the type of raw materials used like the durable embroidery threads from China.
She said that unlike other places, the Akwete weaving is done on a vertical loom as depicted in the sculpture of Dada Nwakata, which is placed at the entrance of the town.
According to her, aside twisting threads together, Akwete weavers apply their experiences in discovering how to use combination of threads of different colours and texture to create decorative patterns and effects which they add to make their fabrics have unique beauty.

Challenges for women in weaving business
Mrs. Hellen Ebere, President, Akwete Cooperative Women/Weavers Association, told New Telegraph that their major problems were high cost of yarn (thread) and low sales.

In her words: “Sales aren’t moving as before. The dwindling economy has affected everything. Years before, the white people usually come here to buy from us, but the era of serious kidnapping scared them away.
“Currently, our major buyers are our neighbours in Rivers State. Some other persons come here, buy and take to sell in places like Lagos. In Abia, it doesn’t sell much.
“We’ve showcased our works and skills in many trade fairs. Government officials will come, make promises and at the end you’ll not see them again.

“We’ve explained our major problems to them, which is cost of the yarn used in weaving. Before now, we had some produced fabrics we sold for N20,000, N15,000 and even N10,000, but it’s difficult to see that now. The prices are now higher.

“Buying the yarn, other materials and the time put to weaving means the price will always be higher. The government in some ways can help us get the silk yarns and cotton yarns at cheaper rates.

“They can also help us to get some loans that’ll enable us employ more hands to weave. This is a gift God gave to us. Akwete women are not good traders.
“The only thing we do and know is to weave and we love it. Here, whenever someone brings out a style, you don’t just go ahead to mimic it. You must consult the inventor of that style to get her permission to try such.
“Our clothes are of different types. The beauty doesn’t fade. You can hardly look at our products and say it’s old. We’re even re-inventing our old designs because they’re even more fanciful.

“In the villages, there may not be standard price because someone who needs money to solve a problem can sell at whatever price that suits her, but within our cooperative, we have price tags on them.

“When the demand is huge, the cost will reduce because we’ll look at the quantity and make some discounts to the benefit of our customer and ourselves as well.”

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