How did we, within a space of about thirty or so years, degenerate from a people of high moral values to that of unimaginable moral decadence? Who would have imagined that a woman in the exit lounge of life be so ‘dexterous’ at cheating innocent travelers who patronise her with open minds, with many even likely to give her more than she asked for at the end of each transaction?

Both of my primary (elementary) and high schools were situated in different two communities in a clear spirit of good neighbourliness. The primary school is located between my town and a neighbouring village, comprising original settlers in the area. To confirm the import of the schools, we literally had our farmlands encircle them. But the schools were and are still good neighbours. They were built through the combined efforts of the Anglican Church on our side and the Methodist Church on the other side. In October, during the children’s harvest, we took a turn to celebrate the schools, one week after each other, but together. I still have fond memories of this.

In a similar vein, my High School or what we normally called Secondary School, was built by two ‘pretentious’ historical brothers (actually twins), who had done all things possible to ‘twist’ the facts of history between them. But in the early 1970s, they pushed that aside and jointly built a secondary school, of which the inhabitants of both communities are still proud till this moment. Still, as times progressed, each town was able to build its other schools as well, or at least it ‘converted’ an old lower one, by upgrading it. Before the coming on stream of the High School, my community hosted a middle school, to which attendance was mainly from three towns, i.e. the settlers, and the communities of the twin brothers’.

As a result of these close affinities on both sides of the divides, the communities could be regarded as each other’s keepers. They still carry out a lot of activities together. Although there are some complications, which is a story for some other time, we in these communities looked out for each other, without any doubt.

During my High School years, we normally trekked some three-kilometre stretch every day, except for those staying in the boarding house. Meanwhile, it was compulsory, at least during the last year of school, that every final year student stayed in the boarding house.

Daily, and mostly walking in groups, we trekked to school, usually with the normal noisy exhibition not uncommon among teenagers. On our way to school, there existed many spots where farm produce were on display for prospective buyers; from oranges to sugarcanes to mangoes, yams, pawpaw, and all sorts. The pricing was generally communicated in a manner that was well understood by everyone. For sugarcane costing one kobo was differentiated from that costing two kobo, by certain commonly understood symbols. Even in our usual ‘unruly’ behaviours, you hardly found anyone picking a stick of sugarcane, for instance, without dropping the appropriate amount of money. It was the same with all other produce.

Like any society, where there are always some deviants, there were a few occasions in which some students refused to pay the accustomed price for the products they picked. But without CCTVs or any such sophisticated monitoring devices, none of them escaped without being caught. The interesting aspect of it was that no one who stole these produce escaped punishment. I may no longer remember examples vividly of how they were found, but I knew no one escaped with stolen goods.

Much of the punishment was administered in what may be regarded as crude or, in the popular term, ‘jungle justice’; nonetheless this served as a proper and effective deterrent.

In most cases, we waited till after the close of school, when such report filtered out that a person took sugarcane or any of these produce without paying. Away from the school compound by about half a kilometre, the said ‘thief’ is then surrounded and interrogated. Afterwards, the shaming would begin, mainly by singing and forcing the offender to dance to derogatory music. Quite often, this is accompanied with some flogging, and the offender is led to his compound, where his parents could inflict another round of punishment on him for bringing shame to the family.

For this reason, we had cases of students stealing farm produce on the way to the school far in-between.

In a similar vein, when an adult was caught in another man’s farm making away with the harvest, naming and shaming was also applied to such persons. For some reason, such cases were accumulated, and the punishment usually administered during the August weeklong celebration of the deity, “Ogun” (god of iron), when a particular day is set aside for naming and shaming thieves in the community. In a very choreographic display by young adults, the compound of the offenders is surrounded at about 4 to 5 in the morning, when they are whisked out and made to dance to derogatory music around the town, to the collective shame of members of their families.

To cautioning people from taking stealing as a mere game, a popular saying is thrown around anyone who cared to listen: “Oni jale lerekan, ko daran bora, aso ole ni da bora” (whoever has stolen once, if he later decks in expensive apparel, he is considered forever cloaked in stolen attire). There was no room for a second chance.

The bottomline was that stealing was seen as a disgraceful action that any reasonable person should run away from. And the people never forgot.

But today, stealing is glorified and highly rewarded.

Sometimes about 2003, we were traveling back to Lagos from the hinterland, and we stopped by some rural communities on our way back to buy produce, as they were displayed along the many roads we passed through.

We got to a particular village, and we saw what looked like fresh and perhaps juicy oranges. Out of many sellers, we opted to purchase from an elderly woman who was well above seventy years of age. Well, we did that because of traditional respect for the elderly, as we also had elderly folks like her back at home. After the pricing, we asked for about six sets of five oranges each to be shared by two families traveling together. For some reason or perhaps from an auditor’s instinct, I focused keenly as the elderly woman was dropping the oranges into a container. I was not comfortable with what I was observing, yet I was constrained not to forget my home training of reverence to older people.

After her counting of the six sets, I politely asked that I wanted to recount these in everyone’s presence. My people were grumbling about why I wanted to start auditing oranges in the ‘bush’. The woman protested mildly, asking if I did not trust her. I responded with wisdom that I wanted to be sure she did not overcount the oranges she was selling to us, so that she did not end up cheating herself. She replied that such would not matter much to her. Still, I insisted on a recount, to the displeasure of my co-voyagers.

On recounting, what was supposed to be thirty pieces turned out to be twenty-five. As I had observed, she was picking five oranges and dropping only four, with the complete set only dropped at the last count. She was fast and skillful at doing this, but my ‘eagle’ and well-trained eyes caught her in the process. We did not make much noise, but made sure she added the missing oranges, after which we paid and left her with the change.

If I had not observed her very well, it would have become an issue later on arrival in Lagos, when we would have needed to divide what we had bought. That would have been when we realised that we had been shortchanged in a remote village by an elderly woman, who ought to have been a custodian of honest conduct.

How did we, within a space of about thirty or so years, degenerate from a people of high moral values to that of unimaginable moral decadence? Who would have imagined that a woman in the exit lounge of life be so ‘dexterous’ at cheating innocent travelers who patronise her with open minds, with many even likely to give her more than she asked for at the end of each transaction? What legacy are we leaving for the next generations? When are we going to start looking out for each other again? How do we bring back effective deterrents to negative conduct into our social situations?

We were not always this immoral, arrogant, accumulative, wealth-without-work seekers, who flaunt what has been illegally gathered, while being celebrated as heroes, rather than being stoned.

Will Nigeria ever regain its lost values? The very essence of us as a people has been allowed to filter away because we are no longer good neighbours to each other.

Oluwadele L. Bolutife, a chartered accountant and a public policy and administration scholar, writes from Canada. He can be reached through: