There lies my purse of cowries, shells and beads, strung and unstrung, my hero of a thousand years years. Is this the future I so looked forward to seeing? My hopes, imaginations, aspirations dashed.
In the beginning:
Sitting on a cane chair amidst an array of exotic flowers with leaves broad and small, in the courtyard, by the woman who bore me, witnesses all three – me, my mother, and the moonlight, she would tell me the story of the woman.
For my mother every woman was one woman manifesting herself in different beings. She would tell me the story of the woman as goddess, warrior, wife, mother, friend, femme fatale, nurturer and bearer of an entire civilization. She would tell me of her grand mother who wielded a gun and fought during the 1920s Aba women’s riot, and of her mother who stunned the village with her beauty and the historical day in 1956 when she wore the same dress as Queen Elizabeth who upon beholding this, singled grandma out from the crowd and shook her hand… her husband had bought it at Kingsway in Port Harcourt, I was told.
It wasn’t so much the stories told but the associated images and symbols that etched the tale of the woman in my heart. The house was decorated with natural items – I can still perceive the natural fragrance of the earthenware pots from Enugu and Abuja, calabashes and wooden spoons from Jos, gourds from my village, coconut shell candle stands from Lagos, wall-to-wall hangings of fabric mostly Akwete the trademark of the Igbo, Aso-oke, tie-dye and batik; all three are Yoruba fabrics, and Kente from Ghana.
There were endless books and journals on literature, artists, poets and dramatists; I remember rummaging through her study not once or twice, enthralled by the picture stamped on one of her collection of poems, ‘The spring’s last drop.’ I had never been so marvelled by such a tiny drawing which depicted a crawling plant dripping its last droplet of water into a spherical, clay pot decorated with earth writing. She drew this herself and I always wondered her inspiration. My mother was art itself because I could hardly tell the dancer from the dance. She was and still is a designer, artist, poet, dramatist, writer… and so much more.
I am and have always been fascinated by beads. My mother had a fascinating collection of beads, stones and sea shells from different countries across the world. There were also cowrie shells and ‘the trial of the beautiful ones’ –one of her traditional plays about woman hood, where all the women celebrated their beauty, decorated in neck beads, ankle beads, waist beads or jigida and wrist beads, ede ala or earth writing (similar to tattoos). This play shaped my earliest appreciation of womanhood.
Growing up, I learned a lot about the different uses of beads by women in different parts of Africa and Nigeria. Made either from stone, wood, bone, glass, brass, egg shells, clay, sea shells or pastic, they were an embodiment of woman hood, they were used for trade, decorating the body, status symbols, weight watching, puberty training, covering up nudity, healing, femininity, sacredness, etc. Well all these exultations I didn’t know, were relegated to history, tradition, documentaries, folklore, books and traditional events as I would discover when I strung my first set of anklets (consisting of cowries and beads) and stepped out on the street to the shocked stares of people who called me and asked if I didn’t know I looked like a high priestess. Little did I know that the culture which I romanticised at home would be greeted with disdain by the outside world. I thought I was celebrating my Africanness. This was in the ‘90s, the era of hip hop. I quickly cut the string and tucked them away in reluctant favour of their silver and gold plated counterparts.
By the turn of the millennium was the digital age with Nigeria trying to find its place in globalisation. It was no longer difficult to see what the rest of the world were doing and the rich cultural diversity that was the common heritage of mankind. Knowledge was shared across borders; countries flaunted their cultural heritage and soon began the Ankara craze in Nigeria, which placed Nigeria In the fashion world map. Beads, my hero of a thousand years had a field day on the runway, balancing on the head, ears, wrists, waist, anklets and neck. Some even wore coconuts on their heads! Once again I strung my beads, as many Nigerian women of different social statuses and tribes still do today, no matter the attire – traditional or modern, this time on the waist, partially covered by a blouse, and stepped out. I got a mix of admiration and suspicion.
Curious to know what lay behind the suspicion, I posted an open question online about the wearing of waist beads. I received so many responses but the most interesting were these:
‘You ashawos are trying to turn it into a fashion trend but its not. It’s a cultural tradition. They are not meant to be seen.’
‘I hate those waist beads. They are ugly and make a girl look cheap. Take them off!’
‘Are you a cultural dancer?’
‘Waist beads are ogbanje and fetish’
‘They are evil’
‘It’s not cute when girls show off their waist beads’
‘They are charmed and used to catch men’
I ask; should culture not find new aesthetics, meanings and adaptations in the life of the modern day African? Are these comments borne from the stereotype perception of women as the primordial seductress and cause of sin into the world? Which also leads me to the question; when are we (women) going to rediscover ourselves and embrace the unique, cosmic and mystical attributes of the entire essence of womanhood of which we are not just a part but a totality? Are we going to take the easy way out by confining to status quo, negative tags and labels from the media which objectify the woman? We are today more than ever challenged to counter all forms of stereotypes and negative press. What better way to do so than through the new media, sharing information and knowledge beyond borders?
We are challenged to either take the active stance of the poet, Okigbo who in his quest to be liberated pleaded, ‘O mother, mother earth unbind me; let this be … the sword’s secret prayer to the scabbard…’ or decide like Elliot’s ‘Prufrock’, not to ‘disturb the universe’ and rather wallow in shame, self pity and indecision. May the spring not drop it’s last, the spring will not be left barren for all vegetation around it will be scorched, withered and trampled. May we hold on to mother earth, to nurture, to nourish and to flourish.