ASO-EBI – GROUP THERAPY OR GROOVE THEORY?

Aso-ebis (or uniform as they are known) – I do not do them very well. I also think most chaps share this sentiment. Girls do not.

I don’t mean to come across an asshole, but I have never liked rocking the same outfit or designs as the next man. And definitely not the same one as the next chick. I think somewhere, somehow, this stems from my fears and nightmares of what I had seen over-enthusiastic mothers do to their kids, especially twins when I was growing up a young’in in the 80s. I mean this was an era where parents dressed their children from the okpara/ada (first son or daughter) to the last born child in the same outfit. Male and female child alike were dressed in the same color and pattern of clothes except for shoes. Family unit was preserved by making sure everyone was cut from the same cloth. Sibling rivalry was eliminated, and laundry costs were cut. The Von Trapp family would have screamed if they had met the Adio family.

Twins were worse off in that inglorious era for fashion. What was good for Taiwo was good for Kehinde. What was good for the goose was good for the pepeye. If Claurus was being dressed up in a red colored aso-oke, Gringory had to rock that too. Or Chinedu and Chidinma. Or Peter and Paul. Or Tia and Tamera. Or Lawan and Ibori.  No wonder I could never tell them apart.

Now, I hope I am not coming across as the type of fella who over self-obsesses about what he wants to wear. Nah, I am more metro-textual than metro-sexual. You can find Esco sporting a 3 day stubble of beard on his chin, slightly faded Levis and a distressed Tee. Pretty boy, I am not.

On the flip side, I am the sort of bloke who goes to a clothes store, sees something I like, is about to pay for it, but changes his mind once he sees another person on the queue with the same item. It is worse if it is one of the same item on the clothes rack. I may only then pick the outfit if it is plain colored and so hard to distinguish or if it is a staple like say a navy blue Blazer. Or a Converse Chuck Taylor sneaker.

Though I like to keep my wardrobe trendy enough, I tend to stay away from wearing what everyone is getting at a particular time. It is the brand-wagon culture that I tend to shy away from. For example, when it was the thing for chaps to wear Timbs, I broke out a pair of Doctor Marten boots instead. And when every Femi, Mohammed and Ikenna in Nigeria were sporting Polo Ralph Lauren shirts with the huge eshin (horse/pony/donkey/ass), I rocked the ngwere (lizard) {Lacoste} instead. If dudes are wearing boat shoes, I opt for drivers instead.

And it was the same in primary school. I took my pair of Cortinas to the neighborhood aboki shoe-maker to apply a bit of chocolate brown polish to them, to make them more distinguishable from the drab light brown every pupil was sporting in my class. He must have been either color-blind or maybe just misunderstood the color I was trying to go with, so I ended up with toney-red shoes instead. Wow, I looked like Sonic the Hedgehog especially after I wore my white socks with the shoes. It was worse when I got to school and had to come out for general assembly. I should have clicked my heels 3 times and wished myself home. That eliminated my chances with Toju the class beauty. I need not have bothered: even a shoe-less person can become a president.

In secondary school, I developed a unique way of knotting my school tie, as there was no other way to distinguish our uniform of white on white. I know some people who sported cream white on egg-shell white but that was not by choice – they were dirty.

Back to the topic at hand, there is nothing wrong with aso-ebi – it used to be the preserve of Yoruba folk who rightly used it to show solidarity towards kin celebrating an event. Uniform had its purposes and advantages:

  1. It encouraged kinship and camaraderie amongst the family and well-wishers of the celebrants. We dress alike, so we must be alike.
  2. It later became an effective tool for fundraising. Attendees were expected to chip in to purchase the material at a price even higher than the cost price of the material. People did this to show their support to the inviters even though they did not plan to attend. The celebrant/organizers pocketed a tidy profit. The buyer did not attend and was saved from wearing uniform. It was a win-win for everyone.
  3. Aso-ebi also ensured that all the guests had a similar dressing theme which makes for better photographs of the event as a coordinated color theme is camera-friendly. It also ensured that some less well-off guests stuck to the chosen color and pattern of the event, and did not embarrass themselves by turning up in their own inferior akwarakwa  or okirika clothes. Sad but true, no dulling.

With Nigeria being a multi-ethnic society, it did not take long before the culture of wearing aso-ebi spread to other cultures. Then womenfolk from all races in Nigeria “high-jacked” it until even Igbos were doing it. And when women start doing something, they usually make men do it and menfolk have to comply. Or it is the couch. NEPA and mosquitoes are bad enough.

Now it has encroached into Esco territory. Let me tell you a brief story:

Some few years back, I used to work for a law firm on the Island. One of the firm partner’s mother passed away. The firm olofofo (ass kisser) got together with some other senior figures in the firm, and they decided that everyone in the office (except the partners of course) should wear “uniform” to the burial ceremony as an act of solidarity. Excuse me, but solidarity to me is holding up a placard and shouting “Make public the results of the Fuel Subsidy Report” in front of the National Assembly.

The olofofo was commissioned to choose and buy the material design and buy a bulk quantity, and everyone in the firm was “encouraged” pay for a couple of yards from her, make into a traditional outfit and wear to the ceremony. Choosing whether to buy or not was as voluntary as NYSC.

Not being the biggest fan of “uniform”, I was debating whether or not to stick or twist when I saw the material itself. My mind was made up. This material was a hot mess of rainbow colors, some of which looked like a toddler had been playing with stack of Crayola on a bouncy rubber trampoline. The material was Ankara but with loads of color riot. It had the same colors as the bip of a traditional female Fulani outfit, combined with the colors of a LASTMA officer’s uniform and then some. The girl who chose this must have been suffering from river blindness.

The colors on the material were more female friendly as red and orange were predominant colors along with some other “fruity” shades. The material looked good for an Ankara clutch purse for females, but for Esco to rock as a danshiki? The colors slapped the eyes like Olisa Adibua.

I mean, I felt sorry for my boss’s loss even though I did not know his mum from Adam when she was alive. Surely, the money used to purchase the material could have been utilized as a monetary gift for the bereaved. Not that they needed it, as they were mad minted. But that was not the point.

I dropped coins for the material and put it in my car boot. My plan was to give it to my mother to use as “wrapper” for sleeping or for hanging in the house. I was going to wear a nice lace traditional outfit instead. However when I handed my mum the material and explained everything to her, she laughed off my concern and then told me that if I planned to go for event and if my co-workers were all wearing it, I would have to do the same. She even took the material and my measurements and said she was going to take it to her tailor to sew it into an outfit for me, so I had no more excuses.

She also explained how aso-ebis worked, saying that in some owambe parties, the ushers may not seat or serve you if you did not come in uniform. It is a bit like hyena clans. If you come smelling different from the rest of the pack, you were ostracized and eaten alive. Clifford Orji.

A few days later, my mum handed me my outfit. The tailor had done a ‘marvelous’ job of making the outfit as “janded” as possible. It had some correct gold plated buttons, sleek jeans-like pockets and the pants even came in a boot-leg cut. Sura the tailor would have turned in his grave. Whatever next? Slim cut and fitted agbada robes? Or isi-agu tunics with Versace Medusa buttons and the lion “Express” logo?

I got to the venue, which was somewhere in old Ikoyi. The place was packed to the rafters. Mercs, Rolls Royces and smart SUVs were competing for parking space on the car park. All the tabloid huggers, big politicians and society people in Lagos were all present. Lots of old money and money-miss-road met Nollywood and Bella Naija’s finest. I parked my car and stepped into the place with swagger like I had a pebble in my shoe.

To say I stuck out like a sore thumb was an understatement. Most guests were dressed in white or shades of cream jacquards or laces traditionals. There were some people in suits too as it was on a Friday night. I looked across and there was a table with my co-workers. Their orange/red Ankara collective really stood out from the rest of the venue. From outer-space I am sure they looked like a huge palm oil stain on a pure white Egyptian silk jumper. But uniform is still uniform, right? Wrong o! I got closer. Everyone in my work group, to their credit, had done something unique with their ‘uniform”. The girls were the champions in this. One has made a pencil skirt and a smart top with hers. One had made hers into a jump suit with a plunging neckline which showed her 36DDs. Maybe it was the flutes of champagne playing tricks on my brain, but later I could have sworn that her bra was also made from the Ankara material too. Shhhh….Victoria’s secret.

Moments later, one of my co-workers showed up on African time. He.was.not.wearing.the.uniform. He had worn white lace instead and looked pleased with himself. And sod the Ankara material, he had gotten it sewn into a Banky W style Kangol hat which he rocked by placing it on the side of his head in true hip-hop style.

Some of my co-workers looked at him like a leper. A senior associate scowled angrily.

And I don’t wear jerseys I’m thirty plus/
Give me a crisp pair of jeans nigga button ups/
S dots on my feet/
Makes my cycle complete/

Jay Z, What More Can I Say (2003)

 

Eulogi

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June 3 2012, now known as Black Sunday is a day that will forever live in infamy.  An airplane fell out of the sky and crashed into homesteads in a busy Lagos suburb killing all the travelers as well as people on ground; on the other side of the border, another aircraft crashed in Ghana; and the Boko Haram blew another church into the sky in Yelwa, Bauchi, murdering 12 members of the congregation.

Murder and mayhem at every turn, Nigeria is fast turning into a country of blood, sweat and tears. The Dana air crash in particular was very painful, and for days I felt a deep sense of loss.  With anguish I tried to imagine the hysteria and panic on the aircraft just before it hit ground zero. No one deserves to go in that manner. I was once on a plane to Houston, Texas and just as we approached George Bush Inter-continental, the plane landing gear refused to activate. I noticed that the pilot kept circling the huge BOEING 747 around and around, and I could sense that something was wrong. I swallowed, and I started sweating. Even the passengers next to me started looking anxious. There was an oyibo lady with her 4 year old son sitting in the middle aisle. She looked at me like “What is going on?”

I nor answer her o. Dey there, dey blow grammar. I was thinking, please God, let this plane just land jeje. I don’t want to die in Texas. Besides who would fry puff puff at my wake?  The plane circled 3 more times, and then we heard a loud cranking noise “FOOOKPA!!!”

Then the pilot’s weary voice came through as an announcement was made on the prompter. “Captain Relieved” joyfully announced “We had been unable to deploy the aircraft’s landing apparatus, and had radioed the airport authorities to get emergency landing procedures in place. However, it has now been successfully deployed, and we are getting ready to land. We are presently at an altitude of 10,000 feet. Thank you for flying with……the weather in Houston is slightly humid with an average temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit….”

Men, I didn’t not listen to rest of the announcement as I breathed a huge sigh of relief. The next 15 minutes were the longest ones in my life. I would not rest until the plane’s Dunlop Elite tires touched terra firma successfully. Immediately the plane hit the ground, and started taxiing on the runway, I turned around to answer the oyibo who had asked me that question like less than 30 minutes ago: “The plane’s tires had refused to come out, but the pilot repaired it.”  Like say no be God o, like say no be God o; my life done kpeme…

The lady smiled, and started talking to me about how her trip had gone, about how she had been to Africa before…..I looked out of the airplane window, and saw that there had been about 6 fire-trucks on standby on the tarmac, just in case. There were also police squad cars and emergency services too. We had to wait in the plane for an extra 15 minutes before we could disembark, as the airline needed clearance. And I sat there smiling, like here is a country that is organized to a tee. Emergency services are deployed to the scene to avert as well as deal with mishaps. They want to give accident victims every chance to survive. Your aircraft may crash, but you will not burn. Not like Naija, where it is always medicine after death. No sir, why form expensive government investigative committees after bomb attacks and mishaps. What about trying to nip the problem in the bud?

 

When the manifest and pictures of the passengers were released in the days following the Dana crash, it really hit close to home. These were decent ordinary beautiful people like you and me. It is clear that Nigeria has lost a generation of talented people, some of whom have had their lives cut short because anything goes in this country. Heck, maybe I should start my own airline. I would get a Molue bus, fit it with wings and a rudder, and call it Air-Esco. If people protest too much, I would claim that it is an Air Bus model, as I prefer them to Boeing.

Among the names on the manifest, was a friend of mine who I had briefly gone to A-level school with ages ago. Here was a stand-up dude in the prime of his life. His parents had invested a fortune in his upbringing and education, only for him to get wiped out like that. It is so hard to take. This dude was a financial analyst with a UK degree, who had returned to Nigeria to practice his profession. I remember us exchanging rap tapes and CDs at A-level school. I also ran into him at a society wedding at TBS, Lagos some years ago. He had just returned to the country and was full of zest for the future.

Sometimes, one gets the impression that in Nigeria, we are paying the price for being too many. Yes, 200 million of us. Every day on the news, it is one mishap or bombing or incident or accident or the other. We are getting dis-sensitized to violence. Think of the worst incident that happened last year, and see if you can remember it. What did the government do after it occurred? Did roads get fixed after the accident. Were our cops better paid or equipped. Did that senator go to jail?

And the people on the ground do not fare better. You could be lounging at home on a Sunday watching the Nollywood movies “Died wretched and buried in 10 million naira casket” or “Last flight to Abuja”, only to have a Jumbo jet belly flop on your living room.

Oh 400 people died in that Bokom Haram banzai attack 3 months ago?  Sad, but we have 199,999,999,600 people left, so it is all good.

Our government seems lax and merely reactive. Corruption and greed have crept into every facet of our national life. Nigeria is now officially one of the most dangerous and treacherous places in the world to live. It is like there are 6 million ways to die, choose one. An average Nigerian is prone to many life-ending dangers on a given day. And by “I”, I mean the average Nigerian.

I could die because a trigger happy olopa wants a 20 naira bribe for ground-nut

Die because the airline company put a rickety aircraft in the sky

Die because I mistook a NEPA cable on the floor for a skipping rope

Die because a bad bele person in my village shook my hand with jazz.

Die because my BRT bus scuba-dived into the lagoon under 3rd Mainland bridge while trying to overtake a sport’s car like at the GET Arena

Die because I bought and ate expired Gala in Lekki traffic.

Die because my houseboy bought Boko Haram beans in the market

Die because my car was blocking a Senator’s convoy

Die because LASTMA used a chuku-chuku rod to intercept my car at full speed

Die for daring to contest political office so that I can effect change and reform

Die for being at the wrong place at the wrong time (being Igbo in the North usually works)

Die because the carbon and smoke fumes from my generator asphyxiated me in my sleep.

Die because my mai-guard security guard was instructed to blow me up by Boko Haram

Die because I was robbed and attacked just after I had used a bank Bureau De Change

Die because my house got submerged in a flood after a heavy storm. Sea shells, sea shells..

Die because I fell into a broken soak away pit

Die because I was ill and no hospital would admit me until I made a N50,000 security deposit.

Die because my neighbor’s kerosene stove exploded and caused a fire

Die because the bus I was travelling in was carrying jerry-cans of petrol which exploded

Die because Egbesu Boys, OPC and MASSOB clashed in my area.

Finally I want to commensurate with families and friends of those we lost on Black Sunday. May those who passed away rest in peace. I also want to dedicate this poem to my friend who was on the plane which crashed. It is an excerpt from Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet”, and it was the same poem Robert Kennedy had dedicated to JFK at his wake:

 When he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he shall make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night,
And pay no worship to the garish sun.’”