I was privileged to be at a dinner party of a conglomerate of businesses in southwestern Nigeria at the end of 2021. I have been to dinner parties, but this was different. The event was a nearly perfect one for me. Its purpose was a worthy cause. The hall was cosy. The setup was captivating. The music was melodious. The meals were sumptuous. The drinks were satiating. The games were indeed fun-filled. Even the speeches given were soul-lifting.
I dislike drawing attention to myself at social gatherings. So, I arrived at the venue early and took a cursory look at the guests as they came in—I needed to be sure that I did not overdress by wearing my wedding suit and my long-forgotten peach bow tie. Thankfully, many men suited up like me; those on native attires dressed gorgeously with befitting shoes and caps. However, I could not help but notice the unspoken competition for the least dressing among many female attendees.
Just before that evening, I had noticed a Yoruba mantra that was going viral in the Nigerian social media space—f’aṣọ bo’ra (which loosely translates as “cover your skin with clothes”). Each time I saw a scantily clad lady at that dinner, the mantra sounded very loud in my inner ears. Maybe the men dressed for the cold harmattan weather or the party—or both—I cannot say for sure. However, I am confident that most women did not dress for the climate or dress decently.
To be clear, I am aware that to give public commentary on issues of societal concern, especially on a subject that seems to implicate one gender more than the other, is to risk being misunderstood. Indeed, defining ‘decent dressing’ will neither go unchallenged nor lead to a consensus, even in religious circles. Ask ten people to explain what they understand as ‘decent dressing’ with examples, and you will most likely receive ten different answers, even if they have similar religious views. Therefore, while the f’aṣọ bo’ra idea may seem to define decency, the idea is not meant to be taken at face value. It means much more than just covering one’s skin. Indeed, it involves protecting the sensitive parts of one’s body when dressing up, but it says more than this.
On the one hand, the “f’aṣọ bo’ra” concept is a clarion call to address a divergence from the values held dear among a people group—in this case, the Yorubas. The Yoruba concept of a perfect model of these treasured values that define true humanness is what is called ọmọlúàbí (which literally translates as ‘a child born by the lord of character,’ that is, ‘a virtuous child’). An ọmọlúàbí possesses the virtues of ọ̀rọ̀ sísọ (intelligent use of language), ìtẹríba (respect), inú rere (having a good mind towards others), òtítọ́ (always telling the truth), ìwà (character), ìgboyà (bravery), iṣẹ́ (hard work) and ọpọlọ pípé (intelligence). To say the least, the ọmọlúàbí concept is a cultural portrayal of the biblical ‘fruit of the Spirit’ which Paul mentions in Galatians 5:22-23 NIV (“the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control”). “F’aṣọ bo’ra,” therefore, calls for a reflection on where the younger generation of Nigerians—and I dare say Africans at large—are getting it wrong. As I reflected on this, many answers flooded my heart. Exposure to foreign culture was top-ranking. The world’s connectedness via social media and the internet has hastened and widened such an exposure that is proving to be both beneficial and counter-productive at the same time.
To be clear, decent dressing (a sign of respect) is not the only value disappearing among the younger generation. Diligence is another—and the patience it births, too. As a teacher of teenagers in the Nigerian educational sector, I lament the direction the upcoming generation of soon-to-be adults is heading. In my days as a teenager, our popular adventures included sitting for O’Level examinations (high-school-leaving exam) and PS2 (console game). We used Palito radio (handheld radio device) as our iPod. Our jeans were not crazy (ripped all over) yet. We also were not obsessed with making money, riding posh cars, dressing flamboyantly, or lavishly flaunting wealth. Only the kids of wealthy parents showed off the riches of their parents—for which they got criticised and labelled as ‘proud’ or ‘spoiled.’ We competed for good grades, not for the latest iPhones. Despite our shallow knowledge, we discussed our career paths, not how to do money rituals. (To us, the closest we got to money rituals was watching the fictional portrayal of the idea and its consequences in Nollywood movies.) We desired luxury, but not at the expense of human life.
Today’s definition of diligence is a perverted one. Misplacement of priorities is almost everywhere. I agree that we cannot overlook our realities. Yes, unemployment is on a daily rise, but crime has never been an excellent response to unemployment. We have indeed suffered political apathy over the years of our democracy, but what is more concerning is that we now have academic disregard living in the hearts of our young ones. Many of our young folks do not want to study. To them, what matters most is making money, however possible. If only they will receive the wisdom of Solomon — “Lazy hands make for poverty, but diligent hands bring wealth. . . Do not wear yourself out to get rich; do not trust your own cleverness. Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone, for they will surely sprout wings and fly off to the sky like an eagle” (Proverbs 10:4; 23:4-5 NIV).
The present situation we have at hand in Nigeria, the giant of Africa, is a mild hybrid of brain drain and academic apathy. The intelligent brains are leaving the country for greener pastures while the remnants have a weak interest in education. This academic apathy is boldly evident in our secondary schools and higher institutions, but it seems that everyone is pretending not to see it. I teach Mathematics in a Secondary School, and each time I enter the classroom, I labour to teach my students because they might be the ones to teach my kids. However, with the level of academic disdain I constantly witness among today’s teenagers and youth, I am afraid for our collective future. A wide gap is opening up right now, and the future will tell its implications.
Surely, there are no easy answers to solve this. Perhaps a starting point can be to think of the “f’aṣọ bo’ra” concept in light of another Yoruba saying — “enìyàn laṣọ ọ̀ mi” (which means, “people are my clothing”). Seen from this perspective, “f’aṣọ bo’ra” becomes a clarion call to seek good-virtue people—ọmọlúàbís—and make them our role models. Observance of their character will teach us how to make up for the areas of our weaknesses.
Oh God of creation,
Direct our noble cause
Guide our leaders right
Help our youth the truth to know