THE ASO-EBI CULTURE
They come in all kinds of diverse fabrics; ankara, French lace, George wrapper and recently, velvet or the Igbo traditional cloth, akwaoche! Sometimes, it could be the headgear, aso oke, scarves (gele) fascinators or even hats. They are called aso ebi!
The concept of Aso ebi originated from the Yorubas of South West Nigeria. Aso ebi simply and literarily translated means (cloth of the family). It refers to uniform, a common cloth worn by members of a family during special occasions such as wedding, burial or naming ceremonies.
In the early, days, the inexpensive ankara was the common fabric used for Aso ebi. For one, it is cheap and a lot of people could easily afford to pay for it. This way, family members show solidarity and support for a bride or groom by buying and adorning the said uniform made into various styles.
Over the years, this socio-cultural concept has spread to other parts of the country. Fully embraced, there is hardly a ceremony that does not require one buying one fabric or the other. With development and sophistication and the quest to stand out, aso ebi is no longer restricted to the simple prints, Nigerians have since grown in taste and sophistication. Celebrants now go for more classy fabrics and matching head pieces. By their aso ebi, you can tell a person’s class and social status. Aso ebi in some instances are sold for stupendously high amount. Therefore, by their aso ebi you shall know them. In the South West, it is usually lace done into skirt and blouse or the classic Buba and iro and matching aso oke or gele. In the south South, it is usually the George wrapper and lace blouse with gele and ankara skirt and blouse for the younger generation. In the south East, the traditional akwa-oche holds sway for the men while the women subscribe to George wrapper and lace.
Nigerians have also exported the aso ebi culture to other countries where they live. A London based Nigerian who wouldn’t want her name in print says, “the situation is even worse abroad. Those who belong to one village meeting or the other, spend a lot of money acquiring new wrappers for their various associations. We pay as much as £200 or more to buy aso ebi just to belong and to show to others that you are doing well. I buy when I can afford it but I don’t like being under any pressure to do so”. She added.
Beside the financial burden it brings on people, aso ebi adds colour and glamour to any event. An otherwise, simple event could be elevated to one of glamour, beauty and radiance when a group of people choose to wear same fabric and accessorize their outfit well. The varieties of styles that emanate from one fabric add an interesting mix to the whole ceremony.
For those who wish this culture could fade away, they may have to have a rethink. There are those who have come to attach so much importance to this tradition because they believe that adorning aso ebi gives them the ticket to gain preferential treatment during the event.
Angela Okonkwo 28, was on holiday in Lagos and attended a wedding with her cousin with whom she was staying. The bride was her cousin’s colleague at work and all friends of the bride had taken aso ebi. At the reception, two tables were reserved for members of staff of that cousin’s establishment. Angela said she had the misfortune of being the only one on that table who was not wearing the coral lace aso ebi. “Everything looked nice until it was time for gift sharing. Almost everything nice you can imagine was shared at that wedding from pressing iron, to bread toaster to power bank, to cute jewellery boxes and fine towels. Each time they got to where I was, the person will skip past me and just say ‘only for those wearing aso ebi’. I have never felt that bad in my entire life. It was one of my cousins colleague on that table who made some gift items to share that eventually took pity on me and put me out of my misery by giving me one of her gifts. And guess what it was, an handkerchief!”
Beside preferential treatment, with aso ebi, you can be sure to get a good space to sit when you get to the reception.
Tunde (surname witheld) was not so lucky. The reception for his influential landlord’s son, was done under tight security. Unfortunately for him, by the time he arrived at the reception, the hall was already full to capacity and the bouncers wouldn’t let him in. While he tried to explain to the security men, others in aso ebi were allowed to enter freely. The uniform which he smartly avoided buying would have been the only means of authenticating his association with the groom. “It was so embarrassing. I practically had to beg the stern looking security men to be allowed in. I had to do that because I didn’t know what excuse I would give to my Landlord for not attending his son’s wedding”.
Like Tunde, there are still people who will not touch aso ebi not even if they are given for free.
While aso ebi sometimes unite a group of people with their friends or family celebrating, the unusual price hike remains a great put off. A simple ankara of N1, 500 could be sold for N3,000 once it is taken for the purpose of Aso ebi. Temmy, an ankara print distributor in Lagos says laments that the reason why the price is sometimes unusually high is becase the celebrant wants to make more profit than even the seller. According to her, “they buy from me for example at N3,700 and sell to friends at N5,000 thereby making more profit than me”.
But this is just the beginning. With the type of fabric and class, the price gets even more ridiculous. People in an attempt at wanting to be like the Jones’ have had to cough out so much money to buy a cloth that they will wear for just a few hours. In some situations like this, family members are put under pressure to buy now and pay later a situation that leads the buyer into indebtedness and all to avoid being starved because at some of these functions, you can almost tell for sure that no aso ebi no food.
For designer, Lanre Da silva, the culture of aso ebi is something she hopes would be left behind soon. According to her, “people are getting fed up of Aso ebi. Yes, you still have weddings where you’d like to see your family and friends wearing the same thing but when you walk into a hall and half of the people are wearing one thing another half another, I think that is too much. I am hoping for a change”.
Will this ever be possible again? In the market today, you have fabric sellers who specialise in ordering unique fabrics just for this purpose and for exclusivity. To be or not to be, the debate can go on forever.
But if the truth must be told, the reality on ground remains that the glamour aso ebi brings to a ceremony cannot be ignored. Also, to grace an occasion only to be ignored like a plague and not given gifts hurts more than you can imagine. If the price is moderate and you can afford it, support one of your own. Affordability is very key here. People should not be exploited. It will only spoil the fun.
For those in the South West from which the culture originated, especially the party- loving Lagos crowd, as far as this culture is concerned, the beat goes on.