Sunday was a pretty busy day for me but I did manage to read Adaobi Nwaubani's NYT piece, "In Nigeria, You’re Either Somebody or Nobody". I agreed with her on the unfortunate class situation in Nigeria, and that the petty struggles to pull rank on each other affects the long-term progress of individuals and the development of the country as a whole, but I was turned off by the tone and most of the content of the piece. It sounded unrepentantly callous and there seemed no teachable moment contained in it.
We also had domestic servants growing up but my parents never made it seem that the people who lived with us were forever doomed to poverty, while we were guaranteed continuous and everlasting comfort. Our househelps, most older than me, are all married now and still in contact with my parents. Some of them lived with us for over 10years before moving on to other things. A couple of them who joined my parents as 12/13 years olds, went on to become graduates, another is a certified secretary.
While they lived with us, they went to school, watched TV if they wanted to, they sang, they disciplined us, ate with us, went out with us as a family, went on holiday together, taught us to keep house, wash, cook and clean. So, I don't know about "feral scents" and "melancholic singing". Maybe Adaobi should ask her parents questions, or try to come out of the "Somebody" bubble she lives in, rather than trying to impress us with how heartless and disparaging she can be with words.
Seriously, have I heard about domestic servants or poor people in general behaving badly? Of course I have. I also have heard stories of poor people who were seemingly angels, or as close as we humans can get. I have worked with, lived with, played with, and learnt from poor people, some of whom saved my life or opened doors of blessings or opportunities for me.
And who says children of middle and upper class families do not also turn out bad? Cultists back in my university days were from such homes, as are most of today's leaders, and the level and extent of their corruption and the calamity they bring to Nigeria continues to boggle the mind.
I will try not to go on because in preparing to write this blog post, I wanted to see what other bloggers had to say, and I saw this wonderful piece by Imoteda, which says more than I could since she is currently living in Nigeria and has also lived in Canada so can compare both places accurately. Read an excerpt below;
... there are Somebodies, there are Nobodies and then there are Bodies.
See when I lived in Canada I was a "body", I had my little job that paid most of my bills, took care of my daughter and made sure I didn't starve to death. I voted when elections came around, paid my taxes and lived a nice peaceful existence. I was harassed occasionally by bill collectors due to my irritating habit of forgetting to pay bills but as I wasn't Somebody no one rushed to put my name is the papers with the big red words "CHEAPO" underneath. If I died suddenly, I would make the papers, somewhere on page 12, below the fold.
In Canada Stephen Harper is Somebody. He is well known, as is fitting of the Prime Minister, he is a person of consequence. If he dies today he would make the papers, Front page news, above the fold. The homeless man I occasionally give a dollar too on my way to my car, he's a nobody. He dies today and no one but other nobodies care or notice even. Maybe a small independent paper might carry the story. Someone might take up the cry about the lack of proper care for the homeless and his dead image (a tasteful one though) might become the banner for that. Regardless he is still dead and a nobody.
In Nigeria, by association with my parents I am a Somebody. This is not to say that I have the power to do what they do or that I have earned the recognition I get but the fact remains I am a Somebody and so is Afam and so is Adaobi and so are the thousands of other children lucky enough to have been born into money or into families where the parents worked their way into money. As Adaobi stated:
"The average Nigerian’s best hope for dignified treatment is to acquire the right props. Flashy cars. Praise singers. Elite group membership. British or American accent. Armed escort. These ensure that you will get efficient service at banks and hospitals. If the props prove insufficient, a properly bellowed “Do you know who I am?” could very well do the trick."
I have never needed to walk into a room and yell "Do you know who I am?!" but if I did and got the chance to tell who I was someone in there would accord me respect. Mostly it shows on me that I am the child of somebody, ergo I am somebody. I speak with a Canadian accent (often mistaken for american). I carry my head up high and walk into restaurants expecting service. The fact that I walk into restaurants alone in Nigeria cements this fact. If I die tomorrow, for any reason murder, diabetes, choking on a fly while attempting to board a boat in an airplane hangar, I will make the front page, above the fold and Linda Ikeji and all other popular blogs. There will be tributes and there will be people I never spoke to in life who will help my parents lament my loss. I have seen this play out too often when someone in my age group dies and because they are Somebodies the bodies and nobodies of the world come out to share the grief their parents feel.
The Somebodies in Nigeria are the loudest and most known as Somebodies usually are but they are few, so few that it is not surprising that at every event I go to from art exhibition to book launch to business dinner, it is the same crowd I see over and over and over again. People say Lagos is small. With 18 million people how can Lagos be small??? It is small because our circles of Somebodies and Somebodies' children make up less than 1% of Lagos.
There are Bodies in Nigeria this is true but they are few and far between, perhaps the teller at the bank, the No-level* worker at a Brewery company. Perhaps these Bodies make up 25% of the population of Lagos. I truly believe 25% is high. It's probably more like 17%.
Then there are Nobodies. From your random shop girls, despite having a job they are still nobodies, to the beggar on the street who sleeps under the bridge at night, Lagos is filled with Nobodies. Every where you look, you glance past Nobodies until your eyes hit the Somebody you were looking for. Your waiter in a restaurant is a Nobody. I never thought about waiters till one night I was leaving Lagoon restaurant pretty late. My date and I practically helped them sweep the floor. On our way out I noticed men putting out mats on the stairs and outside the gate. One of them was the man who served us. I immediately stopped and asked him why he was preparing to sleep outside the restaurant he works at.
His first response was that a lot of the waiters sleep there overnight as it is late and they didn't want to travel home late. See most of them live in the less desirable parts of Lagos, deep in the crevices of Ajah, areas with names like Ajangbadi and Okokomaiko. If you live in Ikorodu that's a two hour public transport journey that no sane person will attempt to undertake at 2am. The buses themselves, not the drivers, would mock you. Laughing loudly through their exhaust pipes held on with wires and the gaping hole in their windshields. Because I clearly have a death wish, I generously offered to give our waiter a ride home as I did not want him to sleep on the floor only to hear "Me I don't sleep here because my house is far o. I no even get house sef. I stay here and baff in the bathroom then I go work."
You may wonder why he is homeless when he has a job? Turns out his salary is 15K a month. We had just spent about 25K on food and drinks for one night and the guy serving us our 2500 cocktails makes 15K a month. That guy in Nigeria is a nobody. He is part of the Nobodies that make up 75% of the population of Lagos that I constantly overlook while my eyes search for the Somebody in the room.
See in North America and Europe and other "westernized" countries, you can simply be a Body and exist from day 1 till day 0 of your life. You will die and make the paper, page 12 below the fold. These are choices that you have because there are systems set up to help you be a body, the welfare estate, workplace equity laws and the like. Most people In North are simply Bodies. When Afam walks into a restaurant in London he is not a Nobody, he is a Body.
In Nigerian you truly are either a Somebody or a Nobody, because Bodies are few and far between. And this is what needs to change. We need more Bodies and less Nobodies.