• Saturday, July 13, 2024
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Degrees of backwardness (1): Flowing Robes


You want to know the truth,” said Taiwo, “our people are not very clever.”

“Why do you say that?” asked Ogbuagu. “Not that I disagree necessarily.”

We were at our usual mid-week lunch at our favorite restaurant by the lagoon. Taiwo turned and made a long chin at two men in babanriga who had just entered.

“What about them?” I asked.

“You see, this is the middle of the working week. Their flowing robes are a dead giveaway. Anyone can see they are not engaged in any serious or productive work.”

“Well, the two gentlemen may be politicians or public officials,” said Ogbuagu.

“Quite likely,” retorted Taiwo. “Two categories of citizens who do little or no serious work.”

“Depends on what you mean by serious or productive work.”

“I mean factory work or farm work. What other sort of work is more serious or productive at this point in our history?”

Taiwo looked the men over once more, making nasty faces at their elegant get-up in blue and gold.

“Flowing robes,” he went on, “are a stigma in the modern world of work. They are the surest sign of backwardness and ceremonial foolishness.”

“And Nigeria has nothing if not ceremony and celebration,” said Ogbuagu.

“Tell me about it!” I said.

“What are we celebrating? Our gaudy get-ups and cliché-ridden, interminable speeches are a clear indication of our under-development and non-industrialization.”

“I guess you have a point,” said Ogbuagu. “Flowing robes do restrict movement. They slow you down considerably.”

“That’s right,” I said. “If you dare do factory work or mechanized farm work your robes are liable to get caught in the machinery and you’ll be dead in a minute.”

“Agbada, babanriga, Kanuri suit, isi agu, buba and iro and aso oke with all their colorful headgear are strictly for weekends, parties, weddings, funerals and other social occasions. They have no business in the workplace.”

“Are you saying the president is setting a bad example with his Delta suit and five-gallon hat?”

“The Delta suit is workable, but the hat is unnecessary.”

We swallowed this with the pounded yam for a while. Then Taiwo went at it again.

“Look at the Chinese. They threw off their traditional outfits when they got serious about modern manufacture. The Japanese don’t touch their kimonos until after work . . .”

“But the Indians are schizophrenic in this regard,” said Ogbuagu. “The women are still in their extravagant silk saris, even while sweeping the streets, while the men long ago adopted Euro-trousers and sport shirts.”

“This is the 21st century, for God’s sake. The industrialized world, the modern world of work requires you to dress the part, down to practical work uniforms. Can you imagine policemen or soldiers  anywhere today dressing in flowing robes?”

“Picturesque—but totally impractical.”

“Look at photos of world leaders at summits anywhere and you see the difference. Africans, especially Nigerians, are the exception—along with Arabs. They are the un-serious, un-industrialized folks.  Arabs may be able to afford their backwardness because at least they’ve put their oil money to some use, creating orderly welfare societies for their people.”

“But that’s mainly in the United Arab Emirates. Most Arab states have failed miserably in the things that count in the modern world, which is why they are presently reaping such a whirlwind of protests.”

“By their dress you can tell their mind-set.”

“Are you saying our financial services industry got wise early and changed their minds?”

“No. Our bankers and capital racketeers are a queer class. Their bodies are draped in triumphant Euro-suits, but their souls are the souls of slaves.”


“Our banks are not our banks. They are the same old colonial banks in modern dress, BBWA, IBWA, Barclays, all metamorphosed with fancy new names.”

“But some are indigenous new banks, founded in the last twenty years.”

“Yes, but all of them practice the colonial banking doctrine which treats Nigeria as a resource for generating wealth only for investors and shareholders, taking all and giving nothing, leaving the country impoverished, worse than they met it. Wake any of our bank managers or CEOs at 3 AM on any night, and they will recite for you the Ten Good Reasons they memorized justifying their failure to contribute anything to Nigeria’s development.”

“Oh but they have corporate social responsibility (CSR), their name for community charity. . .”

“Their mother may need charity. What Nigeria needs is what other nations’ banks give to their citizens and entrepreneurs: low-interest, long term loans for the establishment and running of small, medium and large industries and agriculture. This is what Nigeria has never had; this is what Nigeria desperately needs.”

“But those who run our governments are too stupid to insist on it . . .”

“Because they accept that private interests should supercede the public interest . . .”

“In which case you don’t have a nation!”

A sudden whiff of stink swept over us from the polluted lagoon waters, and for a dreadful moment I thought I was back in Staten Island, New York, whose piles of toxic waste choked the breath and irritated the skin. . . .

          (To be continued)

Onwuchekwa Jemie