Indigenous Yoruba Aso Oke:
The Vintage – Types And Their Significance
BY Aderonke Adesola Adesanya
Photos and article courtesy of OGUNSHEYE FOUNDATION
Cloths and clothing come in different forms and shades and are indices of individual and/or corporate cultural identity. Cloth, one aspect of the material culture of a people, expresses sundry things about them. For example, the Indian Sari, a warp-around silk cloth typifies the Indian culture; the Hanbok, a bolero-style blouse and a long skirt made from plant fibres indentifies the Korean while Kente, the colourful woven cloth of the Asante, distinguishes the Ghanaian. Similarly, in Nigeria, Akwete is favoured by the Igbo, while Anger, an indigo and white striped cloth is for the Tiv. For the Yoruba of Nigeria, the Aso-Oke is a timeless woven cloth form with which they negotiate and explicate their socio-economic space. It epitomizes their pomp and pageantry in dress and serves as an identity marker.
Although the indigenous Yoruba Aso-Oke has a long history and has undergone transformations in texture and colour, it has hardly diminished in value and/or significance. It is the focus of the present study. It must also be emphasized that although modernity has engendered the production of vibrant varieties of aso-oke, the preoccupation and scope of this study is strictly the vintage-types. Vintage aso-oke is characterized by enduring features and it constitutes, till date, the wardrobe of the sophisticated Yoruba culture-nationalist. In this study, therefore, paradigms of the old aso-oke which were produced in different parts of the Yoruba nation in the past, are identified and compared with their modified and compared with their modified modern varieties. This is with a view to contributing to ongoing efforts at documenting the old and the new varieties, for the purpose of not only highlighting the transformations in the production and use of aso-oke but also for promoting cultural awareness through education. It is also aimed at showcasing a significant aspect of Nigeria’s cultural heritage. Yoruba aso oke is an art extraordinaire and, like vintage paintings and wines, a collector’s delight. A significant number of people, fascinated by the beauty and artistry of this unique textile, have collected, over the years, different types of aso-oke, which deserve scholarly historicisation by art and culture experts. Some of these examples of aso-oke articulate vestiges of the past and index the intercourse of Yoruba culture with other cultures. The Adetowun Ogunsheye Aso-Oke Collection, which consists of over a hundred pieces collected over a period of fifty years, belongs to this category. It is this collection under reference, coupled with studies on aso-oke, that inform the current study which, in part, examines the history of Yoruba aso-oke. The Yoruba say:
- Bi omode o batan
Yoo ba aroba
Aroba baba itan
- If a child does not witness an event
He could, at least, listen to its account
For the tale is the father of history.
The woven cloths that are examine in this study are the visual text which, like the written word, tell its own tale as a dynamic Yoruba woven textiles, It represents. One of the cultural vehicle through which the younger generation could continue to experience the tangible aspect of Yoruba clothing tradition.
Part of the lore passed down to the younger generation is that the Yoruba are renowned cloth weaves, a craft that they practice to meet their fashion taste and a variety of needs. Ojo (1966:87) inform that weaving as a domestics industry flourished throughout Yorubaland. It was an industry dependent on the availability of raw materials, thus weaving “became localized in areas where cotton throve best and where alternative occupation were rera”(ibid).It is said that cloth weaving was introduced into Yorubaland through Igbomina in the 15th century. The Igbomona area is renowned for cotton growing, a material essential for Yoruba aso-oke . Johnson (1921)affirms that cloths of about a yard in breadth were first imported from Oro or Ila in Igbomina province. Beside, Owu, the historic Yoruba town in the Igbomina area3, founded by Olowu, one of the seven grandsons of Oduduwa, was a famous cloth –producing center. Cotton farming was popular among other Oyo-Yoruba groups, hence the preponderance of weaving in the Oyo towns that emerged after the fall of Old Oyo. It is the speciality of the Opomulero lineage in particular whose panegyric poem shows their significance to the indigenous Yoruba weaving industry, and indeed the dress culture of the Yoruba.
Opomulero Moja Alekan
Opomulero Moja Alekan
Abimbesu, Ale Oyun, m’ara ire ti i lon aso
Keeke4 ta didun, aso l’edidi eniyan…
Were eniyan nii fewe owu nudi
Bi ko ba si owu
Oniruuru idi laba ma a ri
Baba elomiran i ba bo’ra sile, a jo obo
Baba elomiran i ba bo’ra sile, a jo owe
Baba elomiran i ba bo’ra sile, a jo epo igi
Opomulero Moja Alekan
Opomulero Moja Alekan
Abimbesu, Ale Oyun who knows a boby that befits cloth
The wheel that spins resplendent garmets,
garment that cover human shame
It is a madman who uses cotton to clean soiled buttocks
If not for cotton
Many ugly buttocks would be exposed
Some like the Colobus monkey’s
Some like the chimpanzee’s
Other like the bark of a tree.
The cloth weaving centres were concentrated in central and northern Yorubaland in places such as Akoko, Owo, Ekiti, Ondo, Osogbo, Ibadan, Iseyin, Oyo and Ilorin divisions. Of these centres Ilorin, Iseyin (the two most prolific centres of narrow strip weaving among the Yoruba) and Owo appear to remain active9. It is from the first two centres, namely Ilorin and Iseyin, that woven cloth trader and users of aso-oke from all part of Yorubaland and beyond now obtain their consignments. Both men and women are engaged in the craft but in Iseyin men are the prolific weavers who shun farming to produce cloth and according to Dodwell (1955), manufacture around ane million yards of cloth a year10. This figure, judging from the proficiency of the male weavers in Iseyin, their devotion to the craft and the apparent boom in the trade in woven cloth, must have increased over the years. Generally, Yoruba men use the narrow loom while the women were, until recently, users of the broad loom only. The transformations in the industry and the popularity of narrow loom woven cloth have attracted more loom women to use the horizontal loom. Vertical loom weaving is more important than the horizontal (Ojo 1966:88) in Akoko, Owo and Ekiti divisions, whereas horizontal weaving preponderates in Ondo, Osogbo,Ibadan, Oyo and Ilorin divisions, where extensive weaving yards enliven the townscape (ibid)
It has been said of the Yoruba that they are fully clothed mortals and one of the ways in which they satisfy their clothing needs is to use plant (cotton) and insects (silk) fibres to weave cloth. Woven cloth is produced on both the vertical (static) loom mostly used by women and the horizontal (mobile) loom which was in the past peculiar, but at present not exclusive, to men. The gene of woven cloth produced on these looms and peculiar to the Yoruba is called aso-oke (meaning cloth from the hinterland) or aso-ofi, a name borrowed from ofi, the loom on which the cloth is produced. Although it is said that aso-oke/aso-ofi derives its name from ofi the Yoruba name for loom, the etymology of the word ofi derives from the action of throwing the shuttle from one hand to the other, viz; o-fii (meaning s/he throws it), a subject and verb, which describes the technique of making of aso-oke. Both aso-oke and aso-ofi are used interchangeably in this study. Yoruba aso-oke could be plain or patterned, as Adepegba (1995:70) says, “with ingenuity and skill, the variety achievable appear infinite”. The yarn used for weaving aso oke is more often than not dyed with indigo13, “the most extensively used non-industrial dye in Africa” (Picton and Mack 1989:35). Woven cloths are sometimes made of single colours or a combination of two or more colours.
Sanyan, etu and alaari rank high among the variety of aso-oke of the Yoruba. They are in fact the classic woven cloths of the Yoruba. Sanyan is beige in colour and is usually used for funeral ceremonies; etu, a bluish black14 (the colour of indigo) cloth which derived its name from eye etu (guinea fowl), is the preferred Yoruba cloth for chieftaincy functions, while alaari, a crimson15 cloth, is ideal for weddings Opa aro, a dark blue woven cloth in solid colour broken with a stripe of green, is another vintage cloth of the Yoruba. Apart from these, there is ifun or fu, a combination of light brown and navy blue woven cloth common to the Owo16 and Ondo peoples. The Ijebu-Yoruba use the classic aso-oke types but they (especially their women) are also found of using waka17, a woven cloth of solid black background with one or two warp stripes of red. The Bunu of the hilly savannah, a Yoruba speaking group of the Kabba region of Nigeria, are renowned for their aso-ipo, red funeral cloths, including ifale, abata, and aponuponyin (literally, red inside out or on both sides) among others, which are sought by the Ebira, the Akoko-Edo and other Northern Edo peoples. Peculiar to them too is the characteristic black adofi laced with red and white warp stripes, and the awere, ojuedewo and orun pada cloths, which are specially made for brides. Renne (1995) has documented some excellent examples of these and other Bunu Yoruba cloths.
The Yoruba fashion includes most of these traditional varieties of aso-oke, with the exception of the Bunu-Yoruba cloths, which are used in the aforementioned contexts, into “flowing robes like the people of the East” (Ssmuel John 1921:110). Johnson’s description is especially true of men’s garments, which include dandogo, gbariye, sapara and dansiki18. Of these woven cloths, Yoruba men make “a very free and ample kind of trousers called sokoto” (ibid), which is of two types namely efa and kembe, otherwise known as Abadan. They sometimes also produce and wear a sheet of cloth three yards by two as a wrapper for a covering, which is characteristically “passed under the armpit, and overlapping over the left shoulder” (ibid). sometimes the three yards by two are worn as loincloths19, as seen on some ancient art pieces namely, the Bwari figurine and the figure on an altar stand from Igbo Ukwu (Shaw 1970: II, 206 and 366) and the seated Tada figure of the Tsoede bronzes (Adepegba 1995: 72, plate 19). The women make iro (wrap-around skirts) and buba20 and gele (head-scarves), as well as ipele. Hunters’ garments (imopa ode), farmers’ wear and even school uniforms21 were also made from aso-oke. From these examples it is clear that the aso-oke cloth weaving industry satisfied the domestic and ceremonial clothing needs of the Yoruba.
However, the use of Yoruba aso oke is not used merely to cover the human body: rather it is also used to express wealth, power and prestige as well as the philosophy of the people. As an index of wealth and status, aso-oke is seen as aso eye and aso iyi – prestigious cloth forms. But, the Yoruba have other forms of woven cloth that articulate the notion of prestige too namely, Olodemeta, a taupe coloured woven funeral cloth of the Ondo, which is usually presented to the family of the deceased or bought by the deceased’s eldest son or daughter.
The Yoruba appreciate industry and abhor laziness, and aso-oke provides them the opportunity to express their perception of these values. In the past, the borokini (commoners) wore kijipa while the rich wore the costly and stately sanyan, alaari or etu, which articulate their status. Kijipa was the quintessential workman’s garment in Yorubaland and was ideal for the have-nots because of its durability and hard wearing quality, hence the Yoruba tagged it akogi-ma-ya (meaning ‘that which is not easily torn’). It is for this reason and the fact that it could be used for as long as three years (Daramola and Jeje 1975: 94) that the Yoruba farmer made his ibante/bante and craftsmen made their work cloths from kijipa.
The rich and the poor are further distinguished by the size of their of cloth: agbada nla is for chieftains while dasiki22, which the Ibadan refer to as esiki23, a brief short garment with slits on the sides, is for commoners. However, young people who have flourishing careers or trade are also able to buy prestigious agbada. That aso-oke is prestigious and indicative of industry or laziness is exemplified in the Yoruba adage:
Kijipa as oke
Ofi aso agba
Agba ti ko rowo rofi
Ko ra kijipa
Sanyan ni baba aso
Etu ni oba ewu
Kijipa, a lazy man’s cloth
Ofi, the cloth of elders
An elder who cannot afford Ofi
Should buy kijipa
Sanyan is the father of cloth
Etu is the king of cloth
Alaari is next to it.
Aso-oke of the classic genres is also aso-agba (elders’ cloth), in the sense that the older generation of the Yoruba hold renaciously to the vintage variety in spite of the vibrant colourful varieties now available in the comtemporary period. This observation is particularly true of the Ondo who doggedly use their old etu garments, which they value more than new ones. Etu for royalty, high chiefs and the members of the Ondo elite is a status symbol. It distinguishes the company of elders. In fact. It is said that the Ondo will never think of commissioning to admitting their lack old cloths. It is believed that old etu cloths are not like the new ones, which are usually of inferior quality. Even sanyan, the pale grayish-brown, wild variety of silk previously available to the Yoruba weaver to weav the cloth of the same name, is now very rare. Most of the sanyan sold in the woven cloth markets such as Oje Alaso in Ibadan or at weaving centres such as Iseyin are made from beige-coloured cotton instead of silk. Thus, the older the better. Even if the cloth is worn, it remains valuable. The Yoruba pithy saying bomode ba laso bi agba, ko le lakiisa bi agba (literally meaning a young person may have many garments but he cannot have as many old clothes as an elder) rings true of the Ondo who take pride in the edge they have over the young by the accumulation of smaples of old etu cloth. Renne (1995: 6) observes, “Old cloths kept and handed down from ancestors are associated with past beliefs and practices. Their value is derived from this connection with the past and with the number of individuals previously associated with these cloths, Such accrued value is referred to as “inalienable wealth” by Weiner (1985) who discusses how “ancestral” objects legitimate present-day claims to authority in ways which newly made objects, no matter how costly or prestigious, are unable to do. Worn out or faded aso-oke however can be renewed by dyeing with indigo.
Aso oke is also used for the purpose of identity, a need that gave rise to the phenomenon of aso-ebi or aso-egbe, which the Yoruba use to distinguish themselves at various ceremonies. Aso-ebi is said to have originated in Lagos from where it diffused to other parts of Yorubaland. The idea of identity could be stretched further in the sense that some woven cloth forms are peculiar to and identified with some cloth producing locales. For instance, indigo blue woven cloths are the favourites of the Ijebu and the Owo. In fact the Owo are noted for the production of woven cloth of blue hues, a tradition which remains to date. It is also only among the Owo that one finds a predominantly red woven cloth named Orufanran, the cloth of the royalty and chieftains. The Bunu-Yoruba aso-ipo cloth, which is also red, is for funeral purposes.
Aso oke also forms part of the ensemble of the Yoruba egungun, which has a lengthy train that sweeps the earth as the masquerade performs. The resplendent24 flowing cloth of the Yoruba egungun which gets very dirty at the end of a day’s performance informed the saying Oku o moye won n rago (The egungun does not know the cost of the robes). The ensemble is very costly to make, yet it is used with an insouciance akin to the attitude of a prodigal son. According to Fitzgerald et al (1995: 56) the composition of an egungun masquerade has several distinctive features including multiple layers of cloth lappets made from expensive and prestigious textiles, and the undersack, which strip cloth. The later is used because it closely resembles the shroud in which the dead are wrapped.
INDIGENOUS OWO-YORUBA ASO-OKE
Owo, an ancient Yoruba town, is noted for its cloth weaving tradition. The vegetation of the area favours the growth of raw materials25 used in the production of woven and dyed cloths. Woven cloths are of great significance in the town because of their richness and their relevance as markers of identity, status and power. Typical of the Owo is a kind of cloth in strips, which is produced on the broad loom. The width of this cloth is about four six inches and the cloths need to be sewn together to make the required length indigenous suits of men (agbada, buba and sokoto) and women (iro and buba). They also produce aso egboro, meaning ‘wide cloth’. Women make the latter. Peculiar to Owo too are woven cloths such as ebolo, abataijesa, orufanran, ifuu (otherwise known as angberen) and olifon, which articulate the mores and lore of the Owo-Yoruba. As we have explained in the introduction concerning the peculiarity of the woven cloths of the Owo, most of these are made of cool colours, mostly of the blue hues complemented with white lines.
Ashigbo is a short narrow woven cloth, measuring about 40cm by 190cm, made in honour of the dead. It is composed of white and blue strips arranged alternately. Its popularity at funerals in Owo is hinged on the belief that it fosters continuity of life. The Owo believe that the cloth links the departed with the living, hence they commission the Elerewe and Sasere families of Owo, special and culturally approved weavers of ashigbo cloth to produce the cloth in order to perpetuate this tradition. There are taboos associated with ashigbo cloth. Anyone who has not bathed must never wear it and someone wearing it must never kneel down to greet anyone. Adejimola (2003) informs that in the past, gifts of kolanut, bitter kola and food were given to people who come around to watch the weavers make the cloth. This practice has since stopped.
Gender, class and affiliation are expressed in the typologies of woven cloth of the Owo-Yoruba perhaps more than in any other cloth-weaving centres in Yorubaland. Women are the main weavers in Owo as is the case Bunu-Yoruba, society whereas men dominate the craft in centres such as Iseyin and Ilorin. Men used to weave in Owo society but disengaged and went into farming, especially when cocoa growing became lucrative. In the past, Owo women saw it as their prerogative to clothe their household hence they engaged in the production of woven cloth in order to meet their domestic needs26. But quite apart from this reason is the fact that cloth weaving, being a domestic craft, afforded them the opportunity to do other domestic work. This invariably gives them another advantage – the chance to teach their female children how to weave cloth.
The issue of gender is not limited to woven cloth production; it is also expressed in the types produced. For instance, ipan meta or iketa and iya moje are types of woven cloth made especially for the male and female children of cloth weavers. Iya moje is especially woven and presented to female children at an early age, between six and fifteen, in order to encourage them to wear woven cloth. It is conjectured that the cloth is also given to young women to get them interested in cloth weaving and to foster continuity of the tradition. On the notion of class, the weavers in Owo make a distinction between woven cloth made for royalty, members of the elite and the commoners. Orufanran is exclusively woven for the Olowo of Owo who wears it during the Igogo festival or during any other chieftancy celebration. No other person could wear it. The Olowo wears it during important functions. Sengbosen is the most popular and most expensive of the woven cloth produced by the Owo.
ASO-OKE IN THE OGUNSHEYE COLLECTION
The aso oke in the Ogunsheye Collection, spanning over fifty years (1950-2000), affords the art-historian a glimpse of some of the changes, innovations and explorations that have taken place over time in the production of Yoruba aso-oke. However, we get a better understanding and appreciation of the aso-oke in this collection from direct field investigation and by examining a number of studies, including Picton and Mack (1989), and Picton (1995), which have identified and documented some excellent examples of the fifties, sixties and seventies. We also note the origin of these woven cloths, the variety of weaving materials available to the weavers as well as the sources of the patterns they incorporated into the cloths. From observation of the cloth, one can see that most of the aso-oke in the Ogunsheye Collection originated from central Yorubaland where the cloth weaving tradition is still very much at its apogee. The collection can be classified into religion-inspired weaves, plain weaves, patterned weaves, monochrome perforated weaves, and polychrome weaves.
The 1950s collection comprises plain and patterned weaves of alaari, etu and sanyan but these examples are different from the classic Yoruba aso-oke that we discussed in the introduction. What distinguishes them from the old types is the use of multiple colours and the introduction of wide warp stripes of yellow and green at intervals as seen in OGF 50.5. this example is thus transformed from the typical solid colour of the old classic alaari. OGF 50.6 is an ikat design, which is a speciality of some Sakalava groups in Western Madagascar who use it to create simplified anthropomorphic motifs on cloth. When the pattern was adopted by cloth weavers in Yorubaland is not clear but ikat has found its way into the warp stripe patterns of the Yoruba and has gained popularity especially in Owo where women create fascinating designs in the characteristic blue hues of the Owo-Yoruba. The indigo-dyed etu (OGF 50.2) with weft-floated motifs of Islamic boards and triangles is an example of religion-inspired weave in the 1950s collection. To create these motifs a series of supplementary single-heddles and a short flat, shed stick are used to raise those warp elements under which the extra weft passes and keep down those over which it floats. Picton and Mack (1989: 112) inform that the use of supplementary weft-float Koran board patterns, said to be of Hausa origin, is the speciality of weavers in Ilorin. This example may have originated from there. A similar type but having two triangles appears in Picton and Mack 1989: 77-79. Triangular motifs combined with the drum pattern and perforations appear in OGF 60.10.
The classic sanyan and alaari were woven separately in the past. The examples, OGF 50.3, a combination of sanyan and alaari; OGF 50.8, magenta (alaari) combined with white and black stripes; and OGF 60.18, a mix of khaki brown (sanyan) and maroon (alaari) strips with black pin stripes and perforated holes in Ogunsheye Collection, are exceptions to the norm. with holes called “Spanish lace,” the Yoruba eleya seen for instance in OGF 60.8, OGF 60.10 and OGF 60.18 are often incorporated into weaves by simply forcing the warp and the weft open with a piece of metal. The introduction of “holes” into aso-oke was informed by the need to capitalize on the ban on imported lace into Nigeria in the years after the Civil War (Picton) 1995. 15)
Coloured silk and rayon have been available to the Yoruba weaver for nearly fifty years but they are especially popular in Ilorin where weaver began to use them as early as 1933 for supplementary weft patterns. This development engendered the production of aso oke in an array of colours, a tradition that became pronounced with the introduction of lurex as an alternative to cottons warp in the late 1970s (see OGF 60.1, 2 and 17) .
ASO-OKE AND MODERNITY
European machine-spun cotton and industrial threads have changed the indigenous textile visual art of Yoruba aso oke so that it is now lighter in weight and less thick, and has more colours and embellishment, compared with the conservative hues of the past in the much heavier aso oke vintage-types. Such a transformation, as earlier pointed out, is largely informed by cross-cultural, as well as intra-cultural influences on Yoruba textile culture. Another significant development, which is partly attitudinal and partly sociological, is also evident in the way aso oke is fashioned and worn. Men still use aso oke to make agbada (outer robe), sokoto (trousers) and fila(cap) as formal dress for different occasions some men who may want to appear less formal or a bit casual may use a biy of aso oke as a scarf round the neck when they do not which to wear the fila in this way they identify with their family or group by weaving the type of aso oke selected for use as aso ebi or aso-egbe for a particular ceremony. Similarly, What women make of aso oke is largely determined by individual taste. It is often fashionable in modern times to use a combination of iro (wrap-around skirt) and gele (headgear) made of aso oke and a buba made of lace or other material in one single outfit. However,it is typical to find in contemporary Nigeria, some Yoruba women and in some cases,other non Yoruba women who loves to wear aso oke as ipele and iborun for different ceremonies. Although aso oke has been used to make blouse and skirt, these are still worn within the context of, “Important ceremonies”.
Aso oke has lost neither its value nor its prestige and is still the textile of choice for “special occasion”. Yoruba royalty, chieftains and cultivated personages, as well as the generality of the Yoruba continue to make cultural and fashion statements with aso oke purchased from weaving centers and cloth markets some . aso oke cloth such as sanyan which is made of indigenous wild silk, and etu which is made of indigo-dyed wild silk are still the exclusive preserve of the rich and eldery. Unlike the flamboyantly patterned and colourful kente of the Ashanti in Ghana, which has rich cultural meanings and, to a great extent, indicates Ghanaian identity, and which has become ahot-selling commodity in the global market (ross1998), as a result of the popularity, Yoruba conventional genres of aso oke remains distinctively Yoruba Conventional genres of aso oke vintage-types may reflect new idioms but the indigenous patterns or the modern variants of aso oke from all indication seem to remain “closed” to culture synthesizers who often appropriate, print and commercialize imitation of woven cloth from other culture to make back packs, table linen, choir robes book marks and furnishing, among other things that the indigenous Yoruba aso oke weaving tradition is still flourishing is further exemplified by the feature on the tradition by AM Express an early morning news magazines programme broadcast by the Nigeria Television Authority (NTA) on october 13 2004 The focus of this edition of the programme under reference was Owo the town that we prefer to call the home of “blue weaves and dyes “ a number of elderly women were seen teaching younger women the art of dyeing and aso oke cloth weaving . This feature show that aso oke is still an enduring tradition of the Yoruba. Just as the warp and weft of aso oke typify the back and forth motion of the weaving process, aso oke continues its dialogue between past and present but remain essentially a veritable marker of the Yoruba cultural identity, as well as the benchmark of the Yoruba dress.
So far, this study has been able to examine the vintage types of Yoruba aso oke it has located their place, significance and uniqueness among the geners of the Yoruba textile tradition we, therefore, consider this work very timely since many of the vintage woven cloth of the Owo-yoruba in view of its absence in the ogunsheye collection and the need to show the richness of the cloth produced in that part of Yorubaland. Other example of woven cloth mentioned in this study can serve as subject for further research.
We therefore conclude this study by emphasizing the fact that today, a great deal of transformation has taken place in the productin and use of these handwoven cloth of the Yoruba. The apparent competition between the vibrant pan-yoruba cloth popularizrd by the younger generation and the vintage highly valued aso iyi and aso eye of the elders shows an inherent creative dynamim on the part of contemporary weavers of Yoruba aso oke. It is observed that cotton farming has long been deemphasized by Nigeria farmers due to other more profitable cash crops cotton production has thus diminished considerably and, in a way, poses a serious threat to the survival of the indigenous textile industry. However, the rich tradition of cloth weaving of the Yoruba continues to find a lifeline in a new material that daily challenge the artistic ingenuity of the Yoruba weavers of aso oke
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