A few weeks ago, I was roaming around the Obili neighbourhood in Yaoundé. For those who know the capital city, this is one of the neighbourhoods with a large community from the Northwest and Southwest regions. One of the consequences of the crisis in these two regions has been a noticeable increase in “Anglophone” businesses, some run by IDPs who have “exported” their capital from Anglophone Cameroon. the number of small businesses lined along the streets has increased, especially those selling the “Atoghu” or “Toghu”, an apparel which is native to the Cameroon Grassfield.
To satisfy my curiosity, I stepped into one of these shops and asked if I could view the items they had on sale. A very polite salesgirl (a rare occurrence in Yaoundé) presented me one costume after the other and watched in dismay as the “graffi” man in me cringed at 70% of her inventory. Don’t get me wrong. There was nothing to reproach about the aesthetic and material quality of her products. The stitchery too was excellent, but most of what I saw in the shop were beautifully decorated black attires.
And so? Isn’t that what you are looking for when you enter a shop selling “graffi” clothes? Uhm…not really.
The Toghu is not just a beautifully decorated black garment. The Toghu is how “graffi” people represent their world view on fabric. The images on the Toghu are the same as what you would find on other pre-colonial and contemporary Grassfield art like sculptures, wooden drums, palace architecture and other artefacts.
There is therefore nothing fortuitous or accidental about the objects and animals that decorate a Toghu. Let me elucidate on three items commonly stitched on what should be a Toghu, and what these signs represent: the lizard, the spiderweb and the gong.
The spider web is a standard staple on the Toghu. Usually woven along the neckline and cuffs of a Toghu, the spiderweb alludes to its maker, the spider, and this creature’s forward-looking ways that Cameroon Grassfielders try to emulate.
Unlike other creatures, the spider does not go out to hunt its prey. The spider laboriously spins an intricate web. And then the web catches the prey. The spider eats after following a meticulous process and not after an instantaneous incident of catching a prey. The spiderweb on the Toghu reminds the one who wears it to live like the spider: avoid instant gratification. Constitute capital, capital earns profit and you gratify yourself with the profit. Plan, invest, invest and invest, and gratification will take care of itself in the future. “Ma’a calcul, ma’a plan” as the Bamileke brothers have put it.
The spiderweb also represents connectedness or the value of community. A single thread does not make a cobweb. It takes several, and each one of them is equally important for the whole. That is why the cobweb is alternatively presented on the Toghu as two intertwined threads snaking their way across the fabric. These tortuous lines will go their separate ways only to come back and bond with each other.
Another interesting Toghu motif that is increasingly in disuse in the collections of contemporary designers is the lizard. Lizards are very inoffensive but resilient creatures. The lizard will go over, under, around and through any obstacle. That thing will walk up a wall, crawl through tiny cracks and run upside down across your ceiling without falling.
The lizard is therefore about purposefully pursuing your goal and doing the impossible to succeed. The lizard epitomizes the hustler attitude or the desire to go out there and achieve. Be disruptive. Invade new spaces and consolidate your hold over them. It is what some have derogatorily termed the “kam no go” mindset of Grassfield people.
So, when you wear the lizard on your Toghu, you are making a bold statement: I am a hustler and I will not let anyone, or anything hold me back. I have come, and I will not go or let go till get it.
Finally, the U-shaped double gong. You may know it as a musical instrument, but it is also the “voice” of the Kwifon: a secret and sacred order of warriors that regulates and protects Grassfield chiefdoms. People who have been inducted into the Kwifon earn the privilege to SEE and HAIL the “Juju” or physical representation of the Kwifon and know its secrets.
Uninitiated or common people are supposed to run and hide when the personification of the Kwifon comes out of its secret grove to perform its ritual purpose (usually at night and only exceptionally in broad day light). So, commoners are only permitted to HEAR the gong of the Kwifon and the chants of the initiated, not see the “Juju”.
It is worth noting that in Grassfield societies, some people are more equal than others. The kind of privileges a person can enjoy depends on their function in the community, and the contributions they have made or are making to advance the common good. As the “voice” of the Kwifon, the gong is the symbol for the ones in the community imbued with so much power and authority that ordinary people only HEAR them but cannot SEE them.
To wrestling fans, it would be the equivalent of John Cena’s “you can’t see me”. So, a gong on your Toghu is a “must have” if you think you have arrived “you-can’t-see-me” level in your hustle. Otherwise, you can still have the gong as a sign to motivate yourself to get to that level.
However, just to make things clear, this piece was not written to indict the new wave of designers who are experimenting in different ways with the Toghu. I have always thought that one of the flaws of the classical Toghu attire is that there is an overly formal and flamboyant flair about it. The classical Toghu is not a streetwear and certainly not casual. Besides, who wants to step out of their house looking like a peacock for every occasion?
All the merit goes to contemporary designers for infusing new life into the concept of Toghu by simplifying the standard attire and transposing its basic themes on to modern clothing. From casual streetwear to extremely stunning red-carpet and banquet outfits, these designers have ingenuously integrated Toghu concepts into new products in very innovative and imaginative ways.
In doing so, they prove the point I am trying to make in this write up. Toghu is the art of representing a belief system on a fashion product, whatever the product may be. The art of using fashion to tell a story that comes from a specific context.
For the Toghu, the storytelling is of equal or even greater importance than the apparel’s aesthetics and stitchery. That cultural reference point, or the Grassfield soul of the attire, is what differentiates the Toghu from a beautifully decorated black garment. Beautifully decorated black garments like the ones I found at the “Toghu” shop in Obili.
– By Ngochi Moun’Afese Mor’Mbeuwing
1. This writeup elucidated on only three culturally significant themes represented in the Toghu and in Grassfield art in general. If you wish to further explore Grassfield iconography, here is an excellent article by Fai Donatus Tangem related to the subject
2. This piece is about the “Toghu”, which is different from the blue and white “Ndop” fabric whose geometric patterns have essentially spiritual and esoteric interpretations. The Toghu is an everyday wear whereas the Ndop is for special people and special occasions. Its motifs carry a message that is passed on from one generation to the other or transmitted by custodians of traditions to a person who acquires nobility.