Fashion & Culture/The Cultural Value of the "Ashobie"

06/11/2014 23:42

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

This Thing About 'Ashobies'

More Than the Dress and the Chic, Culture and Identity Take Center Stage 


Gambian Women at an Independence Day Celebrations in Banjul


By the Editors

The Ashobie (group-wear) is a hardy perennial of Gambian social gatherings. On special occasions, say, weddings, christenings, Christmas celebrations, Muslim festivities, end of circumcision rites, political campaigns, folks can be seen dressed in similar, breezy outfits. On the surface, it looks as if the intent is to engage in glitzy, fashionable wear, and by design, preoccupy the minds and eyes of on-lookers. But behind it all, the Ashobie has become synonymous with culture and identity, a purveyor of cultural motifs and sensibilities. 

From what it seems, the concept of wearing similarly in The Gambia came elsewhere, perhaps from Sierra Leone, where in the Krio language, Ashobie means "uniform". But among the Yorubas of Nigeria, who are believed to be the originators of the practice of Ashobie, the name for it is aso ebi (group-wear). Perhaps, the word Ashobie is a derivative of the original Yoruba name. Sierra Leoneans of Yoruba descent (a lot of Muslim Yorubas from Lagos and Abeokuta settled in Sierra Leone in the 1700s) claim to have started the practice of Ashobie in Sierra Leone long before anyone latched onto it. Could the idea have also migrated into The Gambia following the arrival of the Akus or during the times Gambian affairs were being managed from Sierra Leone at certain inflection points of British colonial rule in West Africa?

Its ambiguity of history notwithstanding, this practice of wearing alike, of being collectively outfitted to impress, has a genuine social function, if abstractedly, in the way we live as a community. The idea of uniformity in dress communicates a shared identity, a sense of connectedness, and a sense of belonging to one another. "The idea of Ashobie signifies equality," Jojoh Jobarteh, the publisher of the London-based fashion and culture magazine Jojo's Mag told My Basse recently. "In Ashobie, everybody looks the same. It breaks down the barrier between those who have and those who don't."

Taking the Culture Overseas: Celebrating Gambian Cultural Week in Stockholm, Sweden

Well, at least, temporarily. Wearing the Ashobie for a day or two, has a way of masking the boundary lines between the haves and the have-nots. But the yawning chasm in social standings soon returns. In these days of hard economic times in The Gambia, the choice of amassing resources for short-lived flashes of sophistication or for a ceremonial exercise in community-togetherness, is becoming an increasingly painful one to take. The economics of it, factoring in the scarcity of resources, the pecking order of needs and wants, and the biting realities of poverty, makes it all the more imperative for a re-imagining of priorities.

But the Ashobie's push-pull effects are such palpable that the practice will not go away. And nor should it. There is still a strong case for the Ashobie in our communities. The cultural significance in a group-wear, and exclusively in traditional, African styles and fabrics, cannot be overlooked. The dress is still pretty much an avatar of cultural uniqueness. Communities and peoples are also differentiated by what they wear, and known for in both personal and public accoutrements. True, the economics of the group-wear is increasingly becoming untenable in The Gambia, but the sociology of it still runs deep. 

Yet, one of the glaring misgivings of the Ashobie is its inability to move the needle on the gender divide. Still, it is mainly women who tend to gravitate towards the idea of group-wear. Men tend to be standoffish. Perhaps, it is a male thing; their psychology about Ashobies is imbibed differently.

The Ashobie, a West African Fancy; a Miss Soninke Beauty Pageant, Abidjan, The Ivory Coast

"Over the years," Fatou Jaw Manneh, the editor and publisher of the online publication Maafanta, and a keen follower of fashion trends herself, told My Basse that "African politicians have used the Ashobie to show their popularity among the women folk rather than the men." Electoral politics and the Ashobie have often gone in tandem in many parts of Africa. The Ashobie is often associated with the rollicking aspects of campaigns, particularly when "Big-Man" politics, embodied by the Omar Bongos, the Mobutu Sese Sekos, the Siaka Stevens, held sway over much of Sub-Saharan Africa. "The Ashobie is associated with dancing and activities, and women tend to be more geared towards it than men, especially in Islamic communities where men are not often seen dancing in public like women," said Jaw Manneh.

But that's just in the political arena. Even in other areas, it is still the women and not the men, who are more drawn to the allure of the Ashobie. In his article, "Remembrance of Basse Christmas" on this website, our colleague Momodou Billo Krubally gives a searing anecdote about the implicit gender lines within his childhood group pertaining to the way an Ashobie outfit was chosen during the occasion: "The final decision on the chosen fabric lied with the core group of ladies within the club. The boys, as we proudly called ourselves in those days, would pretty much go along with the ladies' decision."

In The Gambia, it is mainly the men (tailors) who make and alter the garments, and it is mainly the women who get to wear them. There has hardly been any shift in this cultural practice. Not that this matters immensely adversely, but would that many more men, especial of the younger generation, got as much interested in the art and the practice of the Ashobie. It is not even about the dress and the glamor associated with it. It is about the culture.


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