It was a drive from Abuja to Asaba. I was fortunate to be given a free ride in an air-conditioned vehicle by a kind middle aged couple who were friends of friends. The couple (or maybe it was just the man) had requested a service from a taxi driver whose usual airport pick up and drop off services he used quite regularly. I never learnt what this service was. His instructions were not quite followed properly.
“Such a fool, that man. Simple message, he could not deliver.” He fumed at the wheels.
“Oh forgive him, if he was as smart as you, he won’t be a taxi kabu-kabu driver.” His wife rubbed his shoulder as she spoke the words.
“I know! Anyway, he is lucky I did not meet him when he arrived to deliver the news. I would have slapped him a few times.” He said.
I remember being very still when I heard this. I was outraged and shocked that the people I was travelling with held this point of view. This was over 10 years ago; they were older than me by over 20 years. Therefore, as is the norm with Nigerian traditional values, I did not challenge this outlook. But it came back to me today because I heard this view expressed again, this time about a waiter.
Isn’t it incredibly pompous that that some regard themselves as somewhat superior based on occupation, social standing, wealth, qualifications, or worst still circumstances in life? Nigeria is an incredibly class conscious society. Should the “human-ness” of others be categorised based on these social constructs or just as bad, based on financial standing?
I have found some other countries to be incredibly class conscious societies as well, but at least, there is some semblance of a social system which provides equal and regulated services to all and sundry; whether rich or poor.
These services include great quality healthcare, transport, and security services, although of course having a family name or upper class connections and some wealth, may mean being bumped up school lists, or cutting the waiting lists and paying for private healthcare or flying a private jet to France instead of being stuck at Calais as a result of strikes in France or the “swarm” of migrants attempting to cross the channel tunnel.
However, the police will respond to an accusation of an employer hitting his employee, and justice will follow its due course in the United Kingdom for example. In Nigeria, try reporting your employer to the police. The police, for the most part, will dispense justice to the highest bidder. Good luck to you as the series of events unravel.
There will always be people who seem to be in less of a social standing than us, or seem less intellectual, or are more qualified, have a higher IQ, are better leaders, better looking or have their lives seemingly together more so or less so, than you. That this man is a taxi driver, so what? Someone has to do that job; he could be more liquid than you are, (not that this matters anyway), with a better quality of life even. How do you know that this is not a two or three year plan to the next phase of his life? This man was a branch manager of some micro-finance bank at the time. But he did not start out as a branch manager. Most people do not come fully formed. What was wrong with being a taxi driver? Everyone has a different goal; I would never work as a branch manager of a Micro-finance bank.
I wanted to say all these as I sat in the back of that car, particularly to the wife for her patronising line. I find that those who seemingly preach “peace” but are only actually being very patronising and institutionalising these attitudes, are just as bad as those who treat those whom they perceive to be in a lower social standing, with contempt or abuse.
I remember feeling annoyed and ashamed that I did not speak up for that taxi man. He failed to deliver on the errand to which he was sent; big deal. The solution is simple; don’t use his services any more. This is the sort of belief system or social system that brings on abuse even in domestic relationships.
I have been meaning to do a piece on the modern day slavery that is the so-called “housegirl” arrangement where women keep children in their homes as housekeepers. These minors are then expected to look after the children and run the home. We are talking about a 10 year old who is barely able to look after themselves. This child will make mistakes because he/she has been given the mandate to supervise a household that they neither have the capacity nor the maturity to manage.
The result is a lot of physical and emotional abuse and violence meted out on these housegirls by madam. What did you expect? Can you trust your child at that same age with such responsibility? Will you send your child to clean and wash and scrub other peoples’ home and look after babies unsupervised? The fact that women have allowed this to go on is beyond me and quite irresponsible. I hear the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIB), the Nigerian agency working to do exactly to end all trafficking and child labour related crimes, has developed a massive campaign around this. The agency reported a total of 130 cases relating to human trafficking and other related cases in the first quarter of 2015. Over 20% of that related to child labour. Read the report here.
Our societies are almost obsessed with the idea of respect bordering on fear. This respect is not necessarily earned or extended to all human beings, but is leveraged on the basis of age, social standing, material possessions and religious affiliations, or its hierarchy. It seems to me that everyone deserves to be respected to begin with; young, old, rich, poor, white, black, Christians, Muslims, atheists, humanists, and all the different kinds of people in existence. But this is not true in practice.
The concept of “nkali” is one that is so embedded in our culture that nothing seems to supersede it; not moral obligation, not our overly-religiousness, and certainly not the state with its weak regulations and even weaker enforcement. It is an Igbo word which when loosely translated means “to be greater than another”. In our society, people are treated quite badly depending on where they have found themselves in life and there is no recourse to justice. Anyone who tries to stand up for him/herself is regarded as disrespectful.
Geert Hofstede’s power distance index goes into a little more depth in his work on cultural dimensions. Nigeria (and other countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh) which is struggling with development in spite of incredible resources, features very highly as a country where the power distance index is very high. This “nkali” is quite commonplace in countries steeped in inequality and poverty; the wealthy, elite, political class and the powerful do not want a distribution of power. No surprise there. But also those most affected by inequality, seem satisfied with servicing this inequality instead of standing up and demanding for change and what is rightfully theirs. Nobody wants to be dubbed ‘disrespectful’. We see this manifest in governance in Nigeria.
When I thought about this incident, the one thing that captured the essence or the ripple effect of this “nkali” besides Hofstede was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Ted Talk “The Danger of a Single Story”. In her talk, she discusses the reality of treating people in a certain way, because we know only one version of who they are, and depending on what that version is, treat them with condescension, amusement, or in the case of this woman who was making peace with her husband, patronising pity.
It is often quite startling to see others treated in a certain way when because we have preconceived notions about them or are more fortunate than them. So we do them “favours”. I hear some of this ‘favour’ when women talk about giving housegirls access to the same pots from which their children are fed, and paying their school fees (in a community school with the worst ranking and the lowest fees nonetheless). As though treating people right was a luxury instead of a necessity.
Another example of “nkali” is the book ‘My Mercedes Is Bigger Than Yours’, written by Nkem Nwankwo and published in the Heinemann African writers series. This book tells the story of Onuma and portrays the wastefulness and opulence seen in the city slicker. However, the moral superiority held by the rural dweller quickly diminishes when the chiefs in the villages are shown to take advantage of the desperate and poorer migrant labourers.
There is a chance for exploitation in every human being. This is why one hopes that factors such as teachings of faith, leadership, consequence, or a reform and necessary evolution in cultural norms which have outlived their usefulness, will begin to tip the balance of inequality in our society.
However, the real solution is yet to be seen but may include a steering that boosts economic growth, a social services system and infrastructure development that can close the gap in inequality, and act as a leveller.
The principle of “nkali” breeds human rights abuses, resentment, terrorism, poverty, disease and general instability. Realistically, “nkali” will always co-exist with human nature, but there needs to be fundamental change in us as individuals, our common humanity must be more important than our differences. Most importantly, the government must empower an incorruptible, well equipped and knowledgeable police force and judiciary system to deliver redress and consequence for injustice and abuse.