Paul Osuyi, Asaba
Akwa Ocha, the popular hand-woven cloth, is peculiar to the people of Anioma (Delta North senatorial district) of Delta State, which has three sub-constituencies of Aniocha/Oshimili, Ika and Ndokwa. The area is the Igbo-speaking part of the state.
Among the people of the various constituencies are certain cultural affinities, including language, that define each of them. But Akwa Ocha, a fabric that has evolved over time, is a uniform clothing material for the people. It is a ceremonial material that is not worn every day.
Although it is not clear where Akwa Ocha, which literally means ‘white cloth,’ originated from, many are of the opinion that the people of Ubulu-Uku in Aniocha South Local Government Area started it.
Ubulu-Uku is one of the several communities in Aniocha/Oshimili constituency, otherwise referred to as Enuani people, and the community is believed to have started producing Akwa Ocha after processing harvested cotton, which was widely cultivated in the area.
Mr. Joseph Ogoegbunem, a native of Ubulu-Uku, told our correspondent that Akwa Ocha is part of the culture of the Enuani people as it represents certain aspects of their culture, adding, however, that the process of making it used to be very tedious.
Ogoegbunem compared the laborious process of making Akwa Ocha to the energy-sapping process of turning raw cassava into garri before the advent of mills and other modern techniques.
Ogoegbunem said: “Akwa Ocha is part and parcel of the culture of my people, that is, the Aniocha/Oshimili people, or Enuani, that constitute part of Delta North senatorial district (Anioma) of Delta State. We grew up to meet it, it was handed over to us by our forefathers.
“It is a combination of male and female endeavours in some ways. It is a combination of male and female efforts in the sense that the males go to plant the cotton and do the harvesting. Then, in the evening, you see the women trying to filter the cotton.
“It is now that some of these things are so modernised that you can go to the market and buy cottons in rims. Otherwise, it starts from the planting and eventual harvesting of the cotton buds.
“And trying to dry them and treat them in such a way that you have a roll of cottons, they have a way of turning them round and they become a string and become a roll over time.
“But the process is very laborious and time-consuming. It is just like processing cassava into garri, when they were using hand grater, you can imagine the quantity you would get.”
Another native of the town, Godfrey Ubaka, also said that Akwa Ocha is part of the culture of the people, noting that “it represents certain aspects of our culture.” Ubaka gave further insights into the making of the treasured fabric.
“The women treat the wool in the Akwa Ocha stuff. There is a stand or a loom just like you have at the blacksmith’s. The loom is where the woman stays, because it is more of a feminine thing, doing the knitting.
“They know where to put it in between the loom, and the point to hit it, before you know it, the thing is forming, until they get up to a yard. In those days, not everybody had the privilege of wearing cloth but there is a point it gets to, when you are becoming a man, and you get a yard,” he said.
Ubaka went further to explain the cultural and religious significance of Akwa Ocha and distinguished it from other hand-woven cloths in other parts of the country.
“It is called Akwa Ocha because it is entirely white. These days, you see designs that distinguish one from another. In Benue, there is also a distinct one that the Igbirra people do with which they perform the swange dance.
“So, it is essentially an aspect of the culture, a statement of our values. The Akwa Ocha has its own cultural and religious significance because we are talking about purity.
“I still remember that, growing up, it was part of our culture that, if you come to marry my daughter, and I expect that I have trained her pure and I give her to you in marriage, she does not just go like that. I accompany her to your house with one yard of Akwa Ocha.
“That is what you lay on the bed on the first night of mating. It is expected that during first mating, some blood drops on the Akwa Ocha.
“Eventually, it is with joy that you return the Akwa Ocha to me as a testimony that you met my daughter at home, that she was not wayward. I would receive it with greater joy.
That is part of the culture of significance, talking about purity.
“Then the men would tie it as they go out. There were also stages, as a man, when you could tie one across your shoulder. And it is used during some occasions. During burial ceremonies, it is usually a sight to behold the Akwa Ocha contrasting with the red cap.
“Red in that sense is about royalty, it is also talking about valour. You don’t just wake up and start wearing red cap,” Ubaka said.
According to him, as young ladies grow up in Ubulu-Uku, there are certain things expected of them. One of such things is the making of Akwa Ocha.
“As a young man growing up, there were certain things expected of you. You should be able to set traps and catch animals. You should be able to climb palm trees and cut down bunches of palm nuts. Those are attainments.
“The women should be able to weave cloth. If you cannot weave, you should be able to buy from those who weave, as a gift to your man or husband,” he said.
As a treasured item, Akwa Ocha is among the most important two-dimensional art forms in Nigeria. It is not the everyday clothing material, as it is reserved for special occasions.
And it is used as precious gifts for people considered important visitors, according to Emeka Mgbodo, a native of Asaba in Oshimili South Local Government Area.
Mgbodo was not, however, certain about the origin of Akwa Ocha, saying it is contestable to say that the fabric originated from any of the communities in Enuani.
“Talking about where it originated from, that is where historical bias can come in but I know that it is a culture of the Aniocha/Oshimili people. We have a cultural link with Benin people till date.
“The palace of the king of Ubulu-Uku, for instance, still has a role to play before the final coronation of the Oba of Benin. These are integration, cultural linkages. So, I can’t be certain where and when it originated.
“I would rather say that it is an industry of Aniocha/Oshimili people, the Enuani people of Delta State. If I say it is from Ubulu-Uku, some persons may say that it is from Issele-Uku or Ogwashi-Uku, as the case maybe. These are people living within the same geographical territory, with same culture,” he explained.
Mgbodo said people are not attracted to learning the skill of producing Akwa Ocha because of the laborious and time-consuming processes, noting that when it was done manually, it used to take over two weeks to produce just a yard of the material.
“If you go to where they are doing it and drop a million naira, it cannot give you Akwa Ocha by tomorrow morning, It goes through a process. It is about creativity. You need to book it ahead of time.
“To what extent has the process been commercialised for mass production? Government may have put some machinery in place but nobody knows how sincere those efforts are.
“I think that there are one or two aspects of technological inputs needed in order to see that the time it takes to come out with one yard is reduced drastically. In Benin, for instance, there are the bronze casters, which is not for everybody.
“There is a link between that Benin culture and ours. But producing Akwa Ocha does not require that one must be an initiate to be able to do it. It is just about transfer of skills, it is essentially feminine.
“It takes time, a gestation period, for us to weave one; it might take two weeks or thereabouts. And in this era, I don’t see why a woman would be ready to sit down and go through that kind of training,” he said.
Uniform for feasts
In celebrations in Anioma, Akwa Ocha comes in more than one colour, with customised designs to suit the taste of the wearers. It is an indication that the industry has gone through various innovations.
Some Akwa Ocha are embellished with motifs and symbols reflective of the people’s religious and social beliefs. The motifs may range from the mundane to the spiritual, and incorporate plants, animals, man-made objects, geometric shapes and cosmological symbols.
Mrs. Mary Igbudu, popularly known as Oyibo, is reputed for the production of Akwa Ocha. She lives in Ubulu-Uku but she is the presently the chief trainer of beneficiaries of the Delta State government’s skill acquisition scheme under the state’s job creation office.
At the shoe leather factory, Issele-Uku, where 23 beneficiaries are undergoing training in the production of Akwa Ocha, Igbudu gave credit to the Governor Ifeanyi Okowa for bringing about innovations, especially with the introduction of other colours of the fabric.
“Akwu Oma was introduced by Okowa to give different varieties of colours. He told us that people see Akwa Ocha as burial cloth. It is with the white that you will know that there is a burial ceremony in any place but with Akwu Oma, it can be used in any occasion.
“Our governor frowned at the situation where our people will be wearing materials for other cultures and people, but now you wear this one so that anywhere you go they will easily identify that you are from Anioma,” she said.
Igbudu stated that she inherited the art from her forebears when the raw cotton was processed manually into wool for the making of Akwa Ocha. She added, however, that, these days, they get the raw materials from the market.
“We buy the raw materials, that is, the thread, from Onitsha in Anambra State. Before, we planted cotton seeds, harvested the cotton and processed it to become the wool for Akwa Ocha. But we now go to the market to buy the processed wool.
“In those days, we would harvest the cotton, remove the seeds, and process it locally. It took a lot of time to process. But this is machine thread and it is lot more easier. The old one was not pure. After processing it from cotton, you would wash it. Akwa Ocha is our tradition,” she said.
She explained that the Delta State government has introduced new and modern methods of producing the material, adding that it is now less time-consuming while at the same giving her the opportunity to train the younger generation on how to make it.
“Our mothers handed it over to us. It was manually produced in our community but the state government has introduced a modern method of making it.
“You just fixed it against the wall; that is how we used to do it. We normally did one wrapper, that is, two yards (four pieces) for a period of two weeks in the old system, but now it takes just one week to produce.
“I am training people and it takes them three weeks to graduate. We have trained 110 under the job creation scheme. Those we have trained are all over the state weaving the material.
“People are buying it from all parts of the world; the demand is high. We export it to Europe and America upon demand from our brothers and sisters over there.
“The material is expensive because of the energy-sapping effort of producing it. There is also the issue of the creativity in the finished product. You sit in one position for hours while your brain is working.
“I want to appeal to government to continue to encourage local industries, especially in the area of producing local fabrics. Government should train more people, particularly the youth, to take over from us,” she said.
One of her trainees, Christiana, a native of Oleh, Isoko South Local Government Area, Delta State, informed our correspondent that she developed interest in the Akwa Ocha because of its uniqueness and commercial potential.
Christiana claimed that she is a trained fashion designer, but decided to add the Akwa Ocha aspect to her knowledge in order to have an edge over her competitors in the fashion world. She added that she also went into it to save it from extinction.
“Akwa Ocha is a cloth associated with Anioma people but for some time now, the people producing it are getting old, and it is almost going into extinction. I love it and decided to join in the production to sustain it.
“And because the producers are few, demand is high. Sometimes, it is even difficult to cope with the high demand. So, I am in it because I know it will be economically viable than the normal fashion design, where I am already an expert,” she said.
Another trainee, Theresa Okafor, said that she would definitely establish an outfit for Akwa Ocha production after graduation.
On the innovations whereby a variety of designs and colours now exist in Akwa Ocha, Ubaka described it as a welcome development, noting that it has enhanced the economic viability of the industry.
“We also use it to welcome important visitors, people we feel have accomplished something. These days, people don’t just tie the cloth, they take it to the tailor to get designs that suit them, but it is not a fabric for every day,” he said.
According to him, “Cultivation of cotton, picking and processing it is still on, but it takes a longer process. So, what is more common now is that the weavers go to the market and buy processed cotton in bundles and use that to do the weaving. It is faster.
“What they use is not sewing machine; it is loom, which is a wooden stand, manual and not mechanised. That was why it was taking long to process.
“Recent innovations are good, particularly the various designs on the fabric. We used to tie it as wrapper, with the other one crossing the shoulder with a red cap and hide fan to march as a titled man.
“But, over time, people now take that yard or spread and go to the tailor to make what suits them. It is just about what we inherited as a culture and are trying to modernise it and use it to express ourselves, and as a means of livelihood.
“The skill is not common. Go to Ekiti, you are given Adire, or Benin you are given bronze, so it is with Anioma and Akwa Ocha. It is one of the things we are known for in our celebrations, festivals; it and speaks a lot about our creative ability because you begin to wonder about the intricacies.
“At the end of the day, all the things they teach in science about symmetry, about alignment, you just see that everything is in order while making Akwa Ocha. That is the level of creativity, the beauty of it all.”
Ubaka opined that there was need to expand the production of Akwa Ocha because of the high demand from both within and outside the country even as he expressed concerns over the seemingly inability to transfer the skill to the younger generation.