Igbo People: Clothing & Cosmetic Makeup
at the Time of Things Fall Apart
Written by Dele C. Ukwu
in consultation with Anthony Ikebudu
In the novel, Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe provided a vivid picture of the Igbos, especially highlighting their social life and customs, religious beliefs, seasonal festivals, ceremonies, myth, political structures and their rich traditional wisdom handed down from one generation to another through oral history and proverbs.Makeup or Body Decoration
Achebe described various aspects of dressing and makeup among the Igbos at the period the book was set. Traditionally, the Igbos (Ibos), especially Igbo women, believed in and valued decorating their bodies for a variety of reasons including aesthetics. There is a saying in Igbo, "One's body is his/her temple."
Ekwe = Wooden Drum
Body decorations for women included various styles of hairdos and also involved painting the body with temporary traditional cosmetic makeup, using nzu (white chalk), uri or uli (black dye used by women to draw ornamental patterns on each other's body), edo (yellow dye), and ufie or uhie (carmine). Later, during this period, women started wearing loose natural black eye powder (tanjele) on the eyelids. In preparation for the Feast of the New Yam, Achebe noted on pages 37-38 of Things Fall Apart:
Okonkwo's wives ... set about painting themselves with cam wood and drawing beautiful black patterns on their stomachs and on their backs. The children were also decorated, especially their hair, which was shaved in beautiful patterns.
She (i.e. Akueke) wore a coiffure which was done up into a crest in the middle of the head. Cam wood was rubbed lightly into her skin, and all over her body were black patterns drawn with uli.
The bride's attendant maidens ... "were putting the last delicate touches of razor to her (i.e. Akueke's) hair and cam wood on her smooth skin."
Uli and Ufie are not used for decorative purposes only. Women rub ufie on their bodies for medicinal reasons. It refreshes and rejuvenates the body. Since ufie stains clothes, women often designate a cloth or one of their wrappers as"akwa ufie" (akwa means cloth).
Uli is circled around the eyes of a person suffering from measles or chicken pox to prevent the spots from going into the eyes. It is also rubbed on the joints of someone suffering from joint pains, known in Igbo as mgbuji, to relieve pains.
High or chief priests also decorated their bodies with cosmetic makeup during rituals. At Ogbuefi Ezeudu's funeral, men "wore smoked raffia skirts" and painted their bodies with chalk and charcoal (p. 121, Things Fall Apart)). Depending on the clan or village, more permanent scarification marks (igbu ichi) may be carved on the faces of titled men (ozo) and on the faces and stomachs of titled women.
Clothing, Accessories, and so on
At this point in history, the only purpose of clothing in Igboland was to cover private parts. Children are believed to have nothing to hide and are usually naked. A child may wear a string of beads around the waist for medicinal purposes or reasons. Igbo women always carried babies on their backs with a strip of clothing. A tradition that has continued until today.
In most cases, women did not have to cover the breast area. As Achebe noted on page 71 of Things Fall Apart:
She (i.e. Akueke) wore a black necklace which hung down in three coils just above her full, succulent breasts... and on her waist, four or five rows of jigida, or waist beads.
She (i.e. Ekwefi) began to run, holding her breats with her hands to stop them flapping noisily against her body.
Both men and women wore native wrappers (akwa omuma or akwa owuwa). On page 10 of Things Fall Apart, Achebe wrote:
He (i.e. Ogbuefi Ezeugo) then adjusted his cloth, which was passed under his right arm-pit and tied above his shoulder.
... the men (i.e. the elders) ... were all fully dressed ... They passed their cloths under the right arm-pit ...
Additionally, men wore loin clothes in place of wrappers to cover their private parts. The loin clothes would go under the crotch and were tied together with a rope around the waist. This type of clothing appropriately provided much needed freedom of movement due to the nature of the jobs (farming, hunting, and palm wine tapping) and social activities (wrestling , etc.). Another "style" of loin cloth was the underwear described by Achebe on p.82:
Okagbue "was in his underwear, a long and thin strip of cloth wound round the waist like a belt and then passed between the legs to be fastened to the belt behind."
Ozo men wore special treads on their ankles. Achebe mentioned several times in Things Fall Apart, that men carried goatskin bags in which they kept essential items such as their drinking horns--animals' horns (opi) or a special gourd shaped like a cup for drinking palm wine, as well as snuff-bottle and its spoon. In Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo drank palm-wine from his first human head (his first war victim) at great occasions such as the funeral of a village celebrity.
Men also carried with them to ceremonies, animal skins, especially goatskins with which to sit on the floor, or carved wooden stools usally brought o the ceremony for them by one of their sons. Hunters who have slain a hard-to-kill animal, such as a lion, carried the dried skin of the animal to ceremonies to serve as a mat for sitting.
Women wrapped thick locally made textile fabrics (ekwerike) around their waist areas or dressed in strung beads known as jigida in place of ekwerike, and painted or rubbed uli andufie on their bodies. Wealthy women wore carved elephant tusks, the odu, on their arms and/or legs to ceremonies following their initiations into the odu women's society.
Eventually, Western influence began when Africa was colonized. Missionaries came to Igbo land and other parts of Africa. Christianity was introduced. Males began to wear jumpers, shorts, trousers, and shirts. Females wore skirts, wrappers, and blouses. Clothing was redesigned to cover the entire body, not just private parts. Western manufactured makeup was prized over the traditional natural counterparts. Several villagers still maintain the old traditional beliefs and values to this day. Recently, Westerners have begun to value and to prefer traditional African products with natural ingredients, such as the black soap.
©2000. upd. 07/01.
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor Books, 1994.
Ogbaa, Kalu. Understanding Things Fall Apart: A Student 's Casebook to Issues, Sources, And Historical Documents. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1999.
For more information about the Igbos, including the asethetics of body painting, see: Igbo (Ibo--Nigerian) Language & Culture at: http:/culture.chiamaka.com/igbopeople.html
To see traditional Igbo attire, visit: http://www.igbo.net/who.html
For pictures of Igbo villagers, take a look at Igbo musicians at
G. I. Jones -- Igbo Music, Shrines and Architecture by John C. McCall. http://www.siu.edu/~anthro/mccall/jones/misc.html
Dele Chinwe Ladejobi Ukwu