Friday, 04 December 2015 00:37

Climbing Trees and Women in Igbo Society

Written by 
Climbing to tap palm tree by a woman - true or symbolic? Climbing to tap palm tree by a woman - true or symbolic?

Exactly one year ago, December 3, 2014, I reacted to a post on Facebook showing an Igbo woman with a climbing rope on a palm tree to tap palm wine. I took time to read largely the comments that followed the thread. I felt I should explore and particularly clarify the complex culture context around trees, tapping wine and women. It was important then as it is also now and in the future to understand why societies set rules of life engagements in relationship to occupational safety, protection, sex gender and roles.

A reposting of that submission is made here with a view to respond to some requests to do so in a publishable and citable website such as I hope it can make sense understanding why societies choose what is tenable for themselves towards managing their relationships through occupational roles that matter for their identity and gender clauses. We must underline the fact that trees are important in the life of indigenous and industrialized communities and the symbolism of trees and the sacred nature of some trees must be emphasized and brought to the fore of knowledge systems and representations. Below is therefore the very piece as shared in December 3, 2014.        

The subject of climbing trees as a source of livelihood consists in both old and new pattern of occupation. All cultures climb. In some societies, gender is played around valued needs and restrictions to climb or not to climb but in all considered views, climbing brings excitement for occupation, leisure, sports and entertainment.

The Igbo people of Nigeria do neither accommodate nor support their women to climb trees. It is a culturally given impression that women are not for and need not engage in climbing jobs to harvest tree resources for subsistence.

A woman climbing a tree is assumed to be unacceptable in Igbo society. This restriction makes sense on the basis of assigned gender roles, occupational fields and carrying chores in the household and community.

It should also be interesting to figure out why women are expected not to bother about climbing trees as work and to further harvest economic resources associated with trees. It pertains also to have the pleasure to play on tree tops and branches like the men do.

Acquiring the skill to allay the fear of heights is seemingly a masculine insight. By heights it extends to all forms of climbing such as trees, roofs, caves, graves, tunnels, grand hills, mountains, fences. Even the use of bicycles introduced by Europeans was gender patterned.

Generally, the Igbo love to protect their women from risks of falling down, injury and disabilities that might arise from climbing and falling. The fact that marriage is an obligation for everyone, women are considered more delicate and vulnerable to face discrimination should injury and disability arise through climbing.

A disfigured male can easily marry than a disabled female. Females are groomed to shun climbing heights to lessen the risks of injury and damage to their bodies aimed at procreative physical fitness and values.

Let me put it simply, the role to climb trees is specifically considered a masculine enterprise. Women can assist men to climb and gather resources from trees. Women are not assigned to climb trees of all kinds. As such occupational activities around trees are exclusively for men.

Palm trees can be harvested for their fruits, leaves, wine and so on. It takes a masculine training and courage for heights to do so successfully.

Yet some women can teach or instruct young boys close to women the climbing skills. I was first taught by my niece on how to put climbing rope, ete nkwu, how to cross and tighten the knots of the rope, and how to place my body, rope-lift myself up and climb. It was an art. Palm wine tapping and how to source and tap prudently and successfully is a tricky and professional assignment.

To climb or not to climb trees by women in Igbo is a culturally prescribed gender differences emanating from social perceptions of men and women. First it is cautiously felt that women need to keep their legs closed and maintain their virginity, as well as avoid exposure of their buttocks. Tree climbing automatically places women at the circumstances of being sexually and inappropriately exposed to the view of onlookers. We recall that until recently, women in the culture did not wear trousers and shorts in the public.

Currently, dressing at home, institutions and public places with shorts and trousers by young females is a common place social and competitive behaviour admired by the males.

At the time when protective under-wears or tights were rare, leg spreading is typically a sensitive cultural issue and one way to address it was to place a restriction or make climbing trees a serious taboo or restrictive code of honour and respect for women. In addition, women bleed or menstruate once a month which makes it unease to climb and compete with men.

In modern day gender believes and practices, little girls yet to reach puberty can climb trees like oha, nmimi, udara, mango, and ube trees for fun and to help their moms as the urgent need might arise when boys are not available to play that role.

By and large, climbing trees by some females may occur in a secured environment such as a mom needing vegetables like uha and using a ladder to climb up to reach the tree top to pluck the leaves for soup.

But the cultural vexation will not be the same when a woman is discovered climbing a palm tree.
This is certain due to the notion of sacred codes of life force and ambivalent relationship around palm trees as source of life and identity.

The image of a lady shown here in the link-post is a demonstration of a complex gender and body of the female folk with regard to palm trees. Women can cut palm leaves that they can reach from the ground. It is rare to see a woman decorated with climbing ropes and palm wine gallons to tap palm wine of any sort and heights.

Symbolically, women can contest roles through jealousy to be like men. In their imagination, women can do what men are classified to do as a role. Yet when it comes to contested palm wine tapping roles by both men and women, nothing is observed of women coming up to challenge men in the exclusive domain of tapping palm wine.

Palm wine tapping is a sacred masculine occupation and duty of the men. Palm wine industry is widespread in the society and the notion that women can't tap wine from palm is deeply culturally embedded in the everyday gender issues and role conversations.

The metaphor of "tapping wine" is well explained in the nuances of tapping life, fortune, women, love, pregnancy and birth, power and authority, spiritual forces and sacred influences, oratory skills, including illness and healing power domains.

In the cosmology of a life-being and becoming, identity insertion and symbols of representation, palm trees are unique trees of reenactments. When a child is born, the fallen umbilical cord is treated with respect as an alter ego to connect the child to the realms of the soil and root of life.

No other tree base is used in Igbo for this burying of the umbilical cord than the palm tree as a source of life and endless benefits. That is why it is said that everything from palm trees is relevant to life. Palm wine is used after birth to celebrate and it is equally used in living life events and moreover at death palm wine is poured for rites of passage.

In consideration of the complex and valued nature of palm tree and wine, the palm being sacred to the living and the dead, the founding fathers of the society value makers assigned a special regard to palm trees and instituted a code of caution for palm life. Here women are seen to be climbed by men. And for that assumption, men are climbers be it women and trees. Men climb to tap palm wine and women as sources of life to keep the society in resonance with existence and continuity.

The fear to encourage women to avoid tapping palm trees like the men do tallies with the cultural gridlock of zoning roles and authority between males and females in the embodied cultural contexts.

The Igbo devote every amount of cultural time, penalty and fun to guard against activities and behaviours coming from women contestants that challenge the male power and authority over women. Palm wine tapping is one of such an exclusive occupation for men that any attempt by a female to go into that occupation will be looked at seriously and contemptuously if not to be referred as a sign of insanity and breakdown of social order of respectful life.

When the Igbo would say this "Kwanyere onwe gi ugwu" (literally translated to be "respect and give honour to yourself"), they mean, each person - male or female - should by way of ethical gender frames and moral-social caution respect what is appropriately considered a fitting role to be a valued and honoured man or a woman in the society.

Let us take the symbolic idea or concept of climbing in Igbo thought pattern to elucidate the notion of survival and achievement a little further. To climb is to move up in height or career - from low to up, low to top, below to high and to higher and highest. Comparative degrees will be involved to show how well a climber is doing or progressing. In occupational activities, the Igbo think that we climb to things in our lives, and that things do not just climb to us. We climb to and hold fast those things that we labour for. That through climbing to achieve and getting better, we realize a beautiful connection in life. The Igbo also know that to climb up and climb down is an art. It must be learned and earned.

In other words, the universal knowledge of the environment of the Igbo is not fixed. It is unveiled as we grow up, climb out and climb up, un-ropped and rolled back. A climber takes steps to tailor the art of lifting one leg, placing it and affirming it is secure to move the next leg and keep moving up until a destination point or height to be attained is mastered and conquered.

The centrality of climbing therefore is to apply the notion that people climb to explore and achieve things of life. We climb to restore the unity of life. From below to above and from side to whole. As a learning process, climbing depicts a cultural manner in which knowledge is unveiled and occupation is acquired as a skill to live a productive life in society. What we obviously see is a combo of measures of growing to connect stages and steps of being and becoming.

The Igbo systematically climb to learn, earn a living, tap resources, and move to exist and become. We climb up, travel out and connect. Yet we climb down to reconnect to our roots. Through climbing trees, especially palm trees, the Igbo are sending a message of the universal concept of being in a mission to explore and achieve things.

One can seriously say that the Igbo climb for a purpose - to see the world as a place to climb up and down to earn life and seek God. We climb to explore heights and to meet God out there as the giver of life and knowledge. As God is in heaven, the Igbo primarily climb to reach out to him and all that it takes to ecologically and cosmologically serve as the umpire of the universe to respond to the complex needs of life.

Stev Chudy's photo.
Stev Chudy to Igboville -
December 3, 2014 · 
This woman, Chioma, from our village chose to tape wine and make money this season as job no dey instead of running after men. Did she make a right decision? How lack of modern employment can force the needy to resort to traditional gendered chores for a living. 
Read 2269 times
Patrick Iroegbu Ph.D

Patrick Iroegbu is a Social and Cultural (Medical) Anthropologist and lectures Anthropology in Canada. He is the author of Marrying Wealth, Marrying Poverty: Gender and Bridewealth Power in a Changing African Society: The Igbo of Nigeria (2007). He equally co-ordinates the Kpim Book Series Project of Father-Prof. Pantaleon Foundation based at Owerri, Nigeria. Research interests include gender and development, migration, race and ethnic relation issues, as well as Igbo Medicine, Social Mental Health and Cultural Studies.