The Indigenous Fabrics’ School Uniform Project

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By Lizi Ben-Iheanacho

Uniforms are not only part of the accessories for leveling the playing field in the education sector, they are strong symbols for creating safe and structured school environments. While in support of these aspirations, this discourse looks beyond to expand the production ideology to benefit not only the bespoke tailors but the unstructured indigenous fabric manufacturers typified by the Adire producers of Itokun, Ogun State, the anger weavers of Benue State, the batik designers of Osogbo, Osun State, the products of the dye pits of Kano, among several others. The idea of this discourse is to mainstream these traditional fabrics associated with Nigeria into the school environment while creating traditional cultural entrepreneurship owned and bought into by their primary communities at the same time.

School uniforms eliminate wealth gaps between students. The idea of fashion show by families of means when dressing up their children for the public thus reinforcing economic differences in an environment that ideally should draw the different classes closer is effectively checkmated by the concept behind uniformed fabrics and styles. Consequently, most schools traditionally subscribe to khaki and inexpensive collared shirts, the ultimate idea being to encourage students to focus on their studies and not brand names and distracting styles.

Having students dress the same creates a sense of unity, order and structure. This is key if the idea of schooling is to fashion common ethics and culture among students from disparate backgrounds. The tangential expectation is of higher level collaboration and shared identity post-graduation. Seeing that students are not propelled by political considerations and are malleable to adult directives, we must begin to marry the idea of home grown textile technology, taking ownership of the products and the process by mainstreaming our indigenous fabrics into functional utility items as school uniforms.

School uniforms in Nigeria are largely not state- regulated and therefore carry no overt ideology. The exception to this would probably be the green and white of the Federal Government Colleges colour- coded to reflect the national colours. It is significant to note that day dresses in these schools are unilaterally decided by “constituted authority”; probably the schools’ Parents Teachers Associations under the guidance of the school principal. It is this flexibility in determining uniforms that must be welded to the economic imperatives to engender consumption and patronage of made in Nigeria for Nigeria products.

To marry the facts to the figures, the website of the Federal Ministry of Education says that Nigeria had 11,874 Junior Secondary Schools, 7,104 Senior Secondary Schools and 62,406 Primary Schools spread across the States of the Federation and the FCT in 2014. These figures exclude private schools. To break it down to specifics, let us use the index for Abia State to illustrate. In Abia’s 854 public primary schools are the traditional six classes covering Primary 1 to 6. Further, each of these would have the A to E arms.

In Primary 1A – 1E, there would be a minimum of 25 pupils per arm, each wearing the prescribed uniform, usually in China cotton and poplin. All things being equal, each pupil should have two sets of this uniform. Herein lies the untapped gold for artists and fabrics manufacturers. 125 pupils in Primary 1 x 6 classes of one school = 750 pupils x 854 public schools of Abia (2014 statistics) = 640,500 pupils proudly advertising the versatility of Nigeria’s local fabric industry. The affirmative spin off is not only economically empowering, its intangible social benefits to an otherwise marginalized sector is the stuff patriotism and communal wellbeing is made of.

That Nigerian indigenous fabrics excite international admiration is already part of the folklore associated with the widespread African influence of the dye pits of Kano and the adire manufacturing cluster of Itokun. What must necessarily be done is to mainstream these fabrics from exotic items in the wardrobes of many, to a functional, utility item for most. Governments exist to engineer demand and structured consumption of home grown products as their responsive strategy for job creation and internal revenue generation. The indigenous fabrics school uniform project prospects provides infinite possibilities that must not be ignored in the total package of economic permutations.

It may well be argued that these traditional fabrics run colours and may not withstand the constant washing associated with school uniforms. This, indeed, is the very reason for quality control and standardization mechanisms towards improved delivery that benefits both the textile industry, the creative processes and the end users. It is the established user-producer feedback and production interface characteristic of most small and medium scale enterprises that activate user expectation guidelines into determiners of product viability and continued demand.

Further, given that the production of traditional fabrics is largely manual, doubts may be raised about the mass production capability of the textile designers especially in view of the number of students to be serviced. This challenge can only be answered by tweaking the wisdom of the ancients who said that the journey of a thousand miles begins with one faltering step, firming up and gaining confidence along the way.

The quantifiable economic benefits of an indigenous fabrics school uniform project can be easily verified through an Artists Welfare Index that analyzes the pre and post project status of up-takers who are essentially local fabric manufacturers and vendors, as well as the contributions to the Internally Generated Revenue of each State that embraces this inflow through its creative citizens. Further, the artistic creativity, functionality and psychological feel good of citizens actively contributing to governance processes democratizes the frontiers of relevance, participation, ownership of State projects and proposals. Also significant would be the reinvigoration of the aging practitioners cluster as an expected influx of young entrepreneurs would embrace this marginalized field in view of its resurgent economic buoyancy as a result.

Finally, it needs be reiterated that the indigenous fabrics school uniform project can only succeed with high level local community buy-in. Community backlash as witnessed by the Aregbesola administration in Osun State in the recent past is best avoided by subjecting the project to constructive Town-hall dialogue of initiators, up-takers, traditional fabric manufacturers associations and allied spinoffs. Such a meeting cannot ignore the influential voices in the education sector as well as teachers and parents of the student end users. In essence, such decentralized meetings would serve to ensure that everyone is in the loop and part of the evaluation and monitoring chain towards the creative management of the artistic potentials that define their communities. In the realm of symbolism, each of them constitutes a component in molding the key that unlocks the contemporary contributions to the economic renaissance of their communities using the inherited artistic expressions and creative ingenuity as vehicles.