Cloth and Society

While the spiritual realm is an important dimension of cloth production and use in parts of Africa we should not overlook the fact that for many cloth weaving is simply a craft and an occupation. This does not however, diminish the social significance of cloth itself. Among the roles cloth has played in the past in certain African cultures is to act as a form of money. Examples of the use of cloth as money have been documented from East Africa and the Congo, but the practise was most widespread in a broad band of societies in the northern Savannah belt that stretches across West Africa from Senegal to Lake Chad. In each region the width of cloth strips was normally standardised, and there would therefore be a regular number of such strips of a standard length needed to make a woman’s wrapper cloth. This would become the unit of value, with smaller transactions paid for with one or more strips, and larger ones with a whole roll of cloth as it came from the loom. Arab chroniclers recorded cloth money of this type in use as early as the fourteenth century. Cloth was a convenient form of money because it was useful to everyone, relatively durable, easily subdivided into quite small units, and could be transported to meet the needs of the long distance traders who were vitally important to the regional economy. In the Congo in the C16th the Portuguese colonial authorities tried to establish control over cloth money by stamping each raffia sheet with an authorising mark.

Plain raffia cloth squares used for ritual transactions, Kuba peoples, Congo. Author’s collection.

Another dimension of the social significance of cloth in many African societies provides a stark contrast to the abstract economic role as money. Textiles worn regularly next to the skin, whether for everyday use, or in particular ritual contexts, take on something of the personal identity of the wearer as they absorb the secretions of the body. This close tie between cloths and their owners, a symbolic extension of the day to day reality of cloth use, makes them a powerful metaphorical ingredient in a variety of indigenous medicinal practices. A section of an cloth worn regularly would often form part of the ingredients attached to a Fon bocio figure intended to act as a substitute target for any ill-fortune of malevolent forces directed against its owner. Yoruba herbalists would burn small pieces of hand-woven cloth as an ingredient of amulets, while they were particularly appropriate for curing barren women or those troubled by persistent miscarriages. It is likely these remedies drew symbolic force from the significance of the cloth mothers used to carry their baby securely on their back.

Charm, Yoruba, Benin, from Vaudou (Fondation Cartier, 2011) Note use of red cloth.

Although many of the more simple types of African cloth were basically interchangeable, allowing them to be used as a currency, African textiles are also characterised by a wide variety of distinctive local styles and traditions, many of which were confined to the weavers of a single town or region. This localised pattern of stylistic development had two apparently contradictory impacts on issues of personal and group identity. On the one hand it contributed to the development of notions of localised group identity, as people of a particular area often dressed in a distinctive cloth design allowing them to be readily distinguished from strangers and travellers. This assisted in the formation of senses of tribal or ethnic identity in the colonial period, with textile forms among the cultural resources available for the construction of new dimensions of group identity. A conventionalised picture of “tribal” dress styles, for example, for the Yoruba, Igbo, or Ijo of Nigeria, or the Asante of Ghana, often developed, although usually from a considerable oversimplification of the true complexity of local textile fashions. On the other hand however, the existence of these localised styles in the pre-colonial period was the basis for much of the long-distance trade in textiles. Cloth didn’t just move from weaving areas to clothe people in regions where no cloth was produced. Equally if not more important was the demand for different types of cloth than could be produced in the home region. In some cases this was due to economic specialisation – in highly developed textile producing areas such as Kano cheaper cloth was imported for local everyday use while weavers concentrated on making higher value styles, much of which were intended for export. In other cases, particularly among the wealthy kings, chiefs, and trading communities, the motive was to enhance prestige by accumulating and displaying the sheer variety of cloths. This interest extended to both locally-woven and imported cloths – since the sixteenth century Europeans had been importing a huge variety of silks, velvets, and damasks to Africa. Samuel Johnson, the pioneering Yoruba historian records one example of such a competitive display when the Alaafin, ruler of the Oyo empire, was visited by a wealthy King from the coast. In front of a thousand of Oyo’s subject kings the visitor matched each of the Alaafin’s changes of robe with an equally rich robe of the same cloth. The Alaafin was finally only able to outshine his visitor and sustain his royal prestige by instructing his weavers to weave an unique robe from the fibres of a silk-cotton tree.

King of Oyo, the Alafin, circa 1900. Vintage postcard.

Further Reading: 
Cloth as money:
Dorward,D.C. “Precolonial Tiv Trade and Cloth Currency” in International Journal of African Historical Studies IX (4) 1976
Douglas,M. “Raffia Cloth Distribution in the Lele Economy” Africa XXVII 1958
Johnson,M. “Cloth as Money: the Cloth Strip Currencies of Africa” in Textiles of Africa ed. Idiens,D. 1980
Martin, P. “Power, Cloth and Currency on the Loango Coast” African Economic History 15 (1986)
Cloth as Medicine:
Aremu, P. “Yoruba Traditional Weaving: Kijipa Motifs, Colour, and Symbols” Nigeria Magazine (1982)
Blier,S.P. African Vodun: Art, Psychology, and Power (1995)
Buckley, A. Yoruba Medicine (1985)
Renne, E. Cloth That Does Not Die (1995)
Eicher,J. ed. Dress and Ethnicity (1995)
Hendrickson,H. ed. Clothing and Difference: Embodied Identities in Colonial and Post-Colonial Africa (1996)
Perani,J. & Wolff,N. Cloth, Dress, and Art Patronage in Africa (1999)



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