‘Turn up in your Aso-ebi’: The dynamics of identity construction and homeland connection among the Yoruba in Canada
Identity construction among migrants is often woven around culture and tradition. Taking two Yoruba migrants’ social groups in Canada, this piece explores the concept of Aso-ebi, the customary clothing of the Yoruba of South Western Nigeria, and examines how these migrants deploy Aso-ebi as a cultural expression of their identity, as well as its role in reinforcing the cultural connections between these migrants and their homeland.
Among the Yoruba of Nigeria, one of the most enduring cultural practices is the use of Aso-ebi. Literally translated, Aso-ebi means ‘family outfit’. It speaks of uniformity of sartorial appearance, derived from common textile, colour and style. Aso-ebi connotes familial and fraternal relationships, and exclusivity. Aso-ebi is also worn by groups, associations, and associates. It carries the spirit of connection and closeness among the wearers and gives a distinct identity during special occasions. It is grounded in the Yoruba concept of ebi (kinship), thus wearing an exclusive but common outfit or colour is a signifier of relationship, especially with the celebrant. It attracts special treatment from everyone at the event, which can include getting a good seat position and recognition at the celebration, and is a guaranteed ticket for being served choice foods and drinks. Usually, before the date of the event, the celebrant or organiser buys a large quantity of the chosen fabric, and in turn sells it to invitees at a slightly ‘higher-than-market’ price, with a view to making a financial gain. Invitees, although not oblivious to the hiked price, rarely break the unwritten cultural code of Aso-ebi exploitation out of respect for the celebrant or organiser. Some regard this as an indirect way of supporting the celebrant.
Yoruba migrants in the diaspora have continued the practice of wearing Aso-ebi during special events and it remains one of the most enduring identities of Yoruba migrants in the diaspora. Egbe Omo Alare is an association of Ijebu migrants based in the city of Vancouver, Canada. The Ijebu is a sub-group of the Yoruba tribe, spread over two states – Ogun and Lagos – in Nigeria. A common language and culture is the basis for their fraternity in Vancouver. For their social events, members of the group often turn out in their uniform attire, also called Aso-egbe (group’s uniform). Although the chosen fabric is rarely exclusively customised for their members, wearing the Aso-ebi during the group’s social events is the first and principal identification as a member of the association. Members see this as a unique way of sustaining their cultural connection with their original homeland, and projecting their unique identity in a multicultural country like Canada.
Due to transcultural influences and infusions, Aso-ebi has undergone a significant transformation. It is now adapted to include, amongst others, common colour(s) and different styles or outfits made from diverse textiles. Contemporarily, Aso-ebi amongst the Yoruba migrants in Canada is no longer about the full ensemble of outfits, but is now reduced to single and simple items like gele (headgear), ipele (scarf), or fila (cap). This is with a view to sharing the fabric with as many people as possible, especially in situations where the buyer may not be disposed to buying the entire ensemble. In addition, young generations of migrants born to members of Egbe Omo Alare are slowly integrated into the culture of Aso-ebi. Their integration is woven around the appreciation of the beauty and community significance of these adornments. In 2018, the group organised a fashion and design competition among children of members, within the age range of 13 to 18 years. They competed to make multiple African dresses from Ankara fabrics and then modelled the designs. It created some excitement amongst the youngsters as they saw how their unique cultural clothing could be adapted for modern fashion. According to Mrs Yinka Osilaja, a member of the group, the youngsters created different designs and made outfits like jackets, shirts, pants, and dresses out of a hybrid of Ankara Aso-ebi fabrics and other textiles like denim and polyester as well as cotton. This hybridisation is common among designers, stylists, fashion enthusiasts, and even celebrities both at home and abroad.
For the members of Orisun Club, a Yoruba socio-cultural group made up of migrants from the Ibadan sub-group of the Yoruba tribe, their use of Aso-ebi during special events such as dinners, weddings or birthday ceremonies underlines the importance attached to this cultural practice, especially the spirit of kinship behind it. The group’s Aso-ebi is made out of Ofi, a locally woven textile traditionally produced in some parts of Yorubaland. The individual styles, designs and outfits made out of the Ofi may not necessarily be uniform but that does not take away from the uniqueness and commonalities of colour and fabric which are fundamental elements of Aso-ebi as a cultural concept. One of the officials of the club, Mr Kehinde Olagbemi pointed out that the Ofi which is also the Aso-egbe, is the most recognised Yoruba traditional textile and it reinforces members’ identity as indigenes of Ibadan, which is regarded as the cultural and political capital of Yorubaland. To them, wearing Ofi signifies another strand of exclusive identity within a larger multicultural milieu, thus members wear this uniform for the club and non-club events, even if there is a specific Aso-ebi chosen or picked for the event by a celebrant.
These modifications have allowed immigrants to sustain their cultural and family connections, even away from the original homeland. They have also helped second-generation immigrants to embrace their parent’s culture, even those who may not have had any direct engagement with the homeland. These young Nigerian-Canadians have bought into the Aso-ebi concept and infused it with their style, creativity, and ideas, making it a hybrid concept with a wider generational appeal. Within Nigeria, the concept of Aso-ebi has long been common among non-Yoruba ethnic groups, who, in reflecting their own unique tribal flavours, use local textiles customary to them, and in the diaspora, Aso-ebi has been adopted as a marker of a common Nigerian identity.
Feyisitan Ijimakinwa writes from the Institute of African Studies, at the University of Ibadan, Ibadan, Nigeria. He is interested in exploring Environmental Migration as well as Migrants’ Identity Constructions and Homeland Connections.