LAGOS, Jan 26 – They are the traditional markers in Nigeria of both ethnic and social identity — and even royalty — but for Raphael Akindele and young men like him, hats are sometimes quite literally a pain.
“I just don’t feel smart and comfortable wearing a hat on a ‘buba and sokoto’,” said the 21-year-old, referring to the traditional long robe and trousers worn by many Nigerian men.
“Such dressing belongs to the old school,” the computer technician told AFP at a recent Lagos wedding, where his t-shirt and jeans set him apart from other guests in colourful traditional attire.
From Trilbies, Homburgs and Panamas to Bowlers and Fedoras, hats were once an essential part of any appropriately dressed Western gentleman’s wardrobe until fashions changed.
But in Nigeria, hats of all colours, shapes, sizes and designs are still a regular sight.
Fedoras, Bowlers and dog ears
Internationally, the country’s current most famous hat wearer is President Goodluck Jonathan, who is rarely seen without his black Fedora, which is widely worn by men in Nigeria’s oil-rich southeast.
Elsewhere, the Trilby or Bowler, sometimes adorned with a white feather, is in vogue with men in the Niger Delta, while men from the Hausa ethnic group favour the “habar kada”, which is likened to a crocodile’s mouth.
Many Yoruba men plump for the “gobi”, an embroidered soft cap that can be worn either fully raised or tilted to one side, or the “abeti aja”, whose triangular flaps are folded either side like dog ears.
For Igbo males, only traditional chiefs and monarchs wear the red fez-like hats popular in northern Africa, while others sport headgear similar to the “gobi”.
With such a wide variety, it might be thought that any image-conscious young man would be able to find one to suit his own style.
But Ismail Aminu, a 24-year-old student in the northeastern city of Maiduguri, said simply: “I get headaches whenever I put on caps for long.
“I use them occasionally or during religious or traditional ceremonies because I see them as a burden on my head.
“Caps in this part of Nigeria are heavy because they are mostly knitted and starched. Using caps among the youths is gradually becoming a thing of the past.”
Creeping Western influences
Many older men, for whom hat-wearing is second nature, admit they are baffled and even outraged at the vogue for a bare head.
Maiduguri trader Abdulahhi Abubakar, 43, said the phenomenon was “an aberration of the culture of the Hausa” while lecturer Lere Adeyemi said it “violates the ethos of Nigerian culture”.
Former teacher Benjamin Ofomadu, 76, said for his generation, not to wear a hat with traditional dress was considered “a cultural sacrilege of sort and… irresponsible”.
In some cultures, hats are seen as a “mark of respect for your head… your destiny or inner god”, said Adeyemi, who teaches African and Asian cultural studies at the University of Lagos.
“If you do not wear a cap on a traditional dress, your dressing is incomplete,” he added.
“It simply shows that there is a disconnect between such a person and culture, which is part of our life. And this is sad.”
Critics blamed television and the creeping influence of foreign or Western culture for the trend, while Adeyemi claimed the dress codes in some jobs were a lingering form of colonialism.
Nigeria’s banking sector, for example, requires men to wear a Western-style suit and tie. Horsehair wigs and gowns introduced by the British former rulers are still seen in the legal profession.
Young men in jeans, t-shirts — and even baseball caps — are meanwhile increasingly seen in places such as Lagos, indicating that outside trends were taking hold.
“They see people in suits and they admire them. They no longer appreciate caps,” said Ibrahim Musa Babagana, a 52-year-old sociology teacher.
Milliners lament decline
Hat-makers in particular say the changing fashion is having an impact on their business.
“I used to make at least 12 hats weekly some years ago but I hardly make three a week now due to the fall in the patronage of hats,” said Idris Mapaderun, 55, a former milliner in Lagos.
“This has affected badly my financial fortunes and has forced me into farming.”
Cost is seen as a factor in decline of hat-wearing, said Abdalla Uba Adamu, a university professor in media and cultural communication.
More elaborate hats can cost thousands of naira — a prohibitive sum for many young men.
Instead, t-shirts and jeans are preferred as they are viewed as cheaper and easier to maintain in Nigeria’s sticky, tropical climate, he added.
The decline, however, is less marked in the Muslim-majority north, where caps are required for prayers at mosques.
But even Aminu said he would reconsider his dislike of hats if he visited the Shehu of Borno, the most prominent Muslim monarch in his state — and for a simple reason.
“I don’t want to be seen as the descendant of a slave by the palace courtiers by not wearing a hat,” he said.