ILE-IFE, a city in southwestern Nigeria, may not seem the center of the modern world. But according to the Yoruba, the people who live there, it is the place where the gods assembled to create the universe.
In its environment of intense heat and sun-baked color, traditions continue that appear to reach back to creation itself. One of these traditions is the production of cloth.
The Yoruba believe that wearing cloth is what makes them human - it differentiates them from animals. Cloth is also wealth.
Nigeria lies only 17 degrees above the equator, yet Yoruba women adorn themselves from head to foot with a gelee (head-tie), buba (blouse), wrappa (wrapped skirt), and iboru (scarf). Even in the most remote village it is impossible to be overdressed. The vibrant colors and patterns of the artisically-tied cloth combine to create moving sculpture. Indeed, to the Yoruba, art and life are the same thing.
There is no separation between what is secular and what is sacred. Clothing - along with sculpture, dance, story-telling, and song - has elements of both.
Andrea Benton Rushing, a professor of Black Studies and English at Amherst College, spent a year teaching at the University of Ife. As an African-American scholar, she had long been interested in the continuities between Africa and the New World. ``I can see Africa in the lives of people of African descent everywhere,'' she says.
And yet despite what she calls her ``umbilical relationship'' to Africa, she found herself separated from Yoruba women by a vast distance. ``I was struck by how I looked different, how people stared,'' she says. ``Because I couldn't get them to talk to me, I began to watch them. I could ask people questions about what I had seen.''
What she saw can be illustrated by an incident that occurred when she visited an open-air market in Ile-Ife. As she and a friend stopped to make a purchase, a small group gathered around and spontaneously began to dance and sing. When Rushing questioned her companion, she was told that the people were singing a song to honor a particularly treasured piece of cloth that her friend had on.
Rushing also found that she was unknowingly ``signing'' information to the Yoruba. A stranger on the street noted a childhood scar on her face and stopped her. ``I see that you're from Ondo,'' he said. And then, puzzled by the lack of a corresponding scar on the other side of her face, he asked, ``But where is the other one?''
Cloth is typically given such symbolic names as: ``Capable Woman'' and ``If My Husband Goes Out, I Go Out, Too.'' To Rushing, the implications of this were clear - clothing and body language are both important methods of communicating.
Thus began a continuing research project which assesses Yoruba women's clothing in terms of semiotics, or the study of signs. ``My focus is not on what attire says to outsiders, but what it `signs' to people inside the culture,'' she says. Rushing reads dress and ornamentation as a language in which she is becoming more and more fluent.
``A central tension is between being an individual and being like everyone else,'' says Rushing. This owes to the fact that relationships among people are ``signed'' through clothing as well. Families and friends will often wear the same cloth in public or incorporate elements of it in their attire and its ornamentation. To Yoruba eyes, this indicates a clear attachment, and such cloth is known as aso-ebi, or ``association cloth.''
This attitude has much to do with keeping distinct roles in Yoruba society. Professor Rushing believes that for Westerners, clothing is a disguise that allows the wearer to imagine himself or herself in any number of stereotypical roles - hence, the ``James Dean'' look and ``Madonna-Wannabe's.''
In Ile-Ife, where ritual ceremony is still a part of life, the clothing people wear is not an escape, but rather reveals information about them - age, religion, marital and economic status. In this way, each can be given proper respect.
Women's aesthetic tastes in Africa and the US differ considerably. Rushing writes: ``Thin is not `in' in Nigeria. The clear preference for women is stature and substance. A beautiful woman has a clear complexion, excellent teeth (a gap is an added fillip), and is clean and neat.''
In Yoruba clothing, everything can be seen as more significant than its face value. Pattern, color, design, and fabric - all convey messages. Bracelets and beads are meant to be heard as well as seen. Neat hair alludes to spiritual order. Clan marks and tattoos are understood as another part of this vocabulary.
Above all, taste in women's clothing is always an expression of femininity.
``No Nigerian woman would dream that `dressing for success' would mean to dress like a man,'' says Rushing. ``The Yoruba believe that women and men have separate, complementary spheres and roles.''