Fast forward to Her Majesty's dominions aka England. I was in the land of Oxford Street's human traffic shopping, a hop, skip, and jump, away from NYC, and Paris was on the other end of the Chunnel, haute couture, or something, should have been screaming my name. It was screaming my name, but I wasn't listening. If I listened, I would have looked like every other Thomas, Richard, Harold, Kumar, and Wazobia child out there. My dad doesn't call me the "non-conforming conformist" for nothing. Fashionable status could be attained on the cheap, with shirts ferried in from Mama in Lagos, funky jeans still remain, and footwear would be mix of Timbolo, and And1s. Non-conforming conformist.
My wardrobe has reached a stage where it's about half African print. The intention is not to totally replace Western style clothes with shirts from the motherland, but having enough for it to be a wardrobe on its own merit would be a worthy achievement. This whole exercise is pointless if I only wear this kind of attire to Nigerian/African events, so I wear them everywhere. I mean everywhere. I've worn them to interviews, meetings with executive types, to work. If they don't like it, they can sue me (I've slandered/libelled too many people, so I have my lawyers on speed dial). Now, I work in the creative industries, so I could probably get away with it more than most. Eccentric dressing can almost be a badge of honour in the media, but African shirts? That's just taking the mickey.
If you wear African shirts in south east London, where I live, nobody bats an eyelid. Peckham, Lewisham, Woolwich - African shirts central. But as soon as you wear them in more, shall we say, genteel circles, the sirens start to wail.
So I'm at work, right. And I'm in the toilet, doing a number one in the urinal. And this dude who, like, sits near me at work, and he looks like he's also doing a number one, he says to me, "that's a cool summer shirt". So I says to him, "summer shirt"? and I looks at the shirt I'm wearing (pictured, top). I agree, it's a colourful number. Some (mainly British people) might even say the combination of patterns and colours is a bit hypnotic and blinding. I can appreciate that, but summer shirt? Wait just one minute, you'd never find this shirt on Miami Vice or Hawaii Five-O. So I says back to the dude, "this is no summer shirt, it's an African shirt, and I wear it in winter as well." All this while, I'm washing my hands and trying not to call him an ignorant pompous English twit, because really he isn't. But that's how I'm feeling.
This is just a slight illustration of what I have to deal with regularly. I can remember going into the BBC offices once, and my one of my colleagues said to me, "you look very Nigerian today". And of course I said, "well, erm, I am Nigerian, you know".
But of all the African shirts stories which have dismayed me, was in Nigeria a couple of years ago. I went to a party in this dodgy place called Victoria Island. It's supposed to be a posh part of Lagos, but the safari grand prix roads had too many gullies and pot holes to convince me. I wore one of my favourite African tops, not thinking twice about it. One thing I had told people in Britain was that African shirts aren't odd things, they are everyday fare for people on the streets of Lagos or Bujumbura. Market men wear them, marker women wear them, it's what we wear. However, in Lagos, on this very night, my African shirt was not everyday fare, but the exception. The sole exception. Over a thousand black people at a party in West Africa, not one person wearing African style clothes of any type. Tragic.
I think it is also interesting to note that OBJ never wears Western style clothes. Look at last year's G8 summit picture, OBJ and former Malian president Alpha Oumar Konare (in his capacity as AU chairman) are in traditional gear. From left to right, the Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade wears a suit, so do Ethiopia's Meles Zenawi, Tanzania's Benjamin Mkapa (is that a dog collar?), Algeria's Ahmed Bouteflika, Ghana's John Kufuor, and South Africa's Thabo Mbeki. OBJ obviously exudes a pride in his Yoruba heritage, setting an example his countrymen should be following.
The wonderful thing about Nigeria's National Assembly (yes, wonderful and the NA in the same sentence) is that the senators and congressmen tend to wear traditional attire. While many other parliaments in African have men wearing drab colonial hand-me-downs, Nigeria gets bold and colourful dressing, a true expression of the constituents they represent. There is a practical element to all of this, which is that suits are notoriously unsuited to the Nigerian heat. Yet bankers, accountants, and all the other pen pushers insist on their ridiculous T.M. Lewin status symbols. Heaven forfend!
*Little ditty I made earlier;
Shirts, shirts of Africa, once proudly on our back
Shirts, shirts of Africa, it seems we lost the knack
Shirts, shirts of Africa, we have you on the brain
Shirts, shirts of Africa, you'll find your place again!
*Disclaimer: I am neither a fashionable, nor a poet. Just unfashionably unpoetic.