Nigerian Women's Weaving
In the art traditions of pre-colonial Africa male and female roles were usually clearly defined. In sub-Saharan Africa sculptors in wood and metal were almost invariably male, while in most but not all areas potters were women. With weaving the picture is more complex. Until very recently the double-heddle narrow strip loom was used only by men, as were certain types of single heddle loom, such as ground looms and Central African raffia looms. There was however a large area extending from parts of Togo, across Benin and Nigeria into western Cameroon where women wove, using single heddle looms mounted upright against a house wall. It seems likely that this is an ancient technique in the region, although it may have spread up into northern Nigeria only in the early nineteenth century. Fragments of raffia fibre cloth that may have been woven on this kind of loom uncovered at Igbo Ukwu in southeast Nigeria were dated to the C9th AD. In the C16th and later Portuguese slave traders bought huge numbers of indigo dyed cloths woven on these looms from the Ijebu and Benin for sale in Congo, Gold Coast and even Brazil. In the C19th the north eastern Yoruba and their neighbours wove large quantities of cloths which were traded to the north. Among the central Oyo Yoruba and in northern Nigeria women's weaving overlapped with that of men using the double-heddle loom, but in other districts, in particular among the Igbo in eastern Nigeria women were the only weavers.
In the years since the 1950s this kind of weaving has declined drastically in both the Yoruba and Igbo speaking regions of Nigeria, partly because it is an extremely slow and laborious process, but also because women now have wider opportunities for trading, education and other careers. In the south of Nigeria it only survives today on a very small scale in a few areas where local specialisations are still in demand, notably in the Yoruba town of Ijebu-Ode, and far to the east in the Igbo village of Akwete. In central and northern Nigeria, where there has been less development, the picture is brighter. There are still a relatively large number of women using these looms in the Ebira town of Okene, the Nupe capital Bida, and in Hausa cities, particularly Kano. Although these are largely traditions in decline (except in Okene,) fine examples of older cloths can still be found, and where the weaving continues, as in Akwete, some very high quality new cloths are woven for local use.
For centuries, the Yoruba (Nigeria, Benin, Togo) have lived in large, densely populated cities where they are able to practice the specialized trades that provide goods and services for the society as a whole. Traditional Yoruba religion is centered around a pantheon of deities called orisha. When a child is born, a diviner, or babalawo, will be consulted to determine which orisha the child should follow. As adults, the Yoruba often honor several of these deities.