Let’s lift everyone

Last weekend, I was sitting on a bus in San Diego, California, on my way to an attraction called Balboa Park, famous for its museums, art galleries, gardens, zoo and funfair. I find that public transport is the best way to discover a city because it gives you a real sense of the quality of life that’s available for the average citizen. Thus far, the indications were good – the bus had arrived at the advertised time; my $5.00 all-day transit card swiped effortlessly when I boarded; the interior was clean, bright and comfortable; and an automated voice announced the name of each stop, well before arrival. 

About halfway into my journey, something unremarkable happened and yet it struck me deeply as it unfolded. A disabled man in an electric wheelchair wanted to board the bus, triggering a series of actions by the driver. First, he lowered an automatic ramp to the sidewalk, allowing the man to glide through the doors. Next, he pulled a lever to flip three seats out of the way and create space for the chair. Lastly, he pulled a couple of cables from the floor and hooked them to the wheelchair, making it totally secure. All of this happened in less than a minute, indicating that this was a regular occurrence, for which the bus was equipped and the driver trained. While I watched keenly, no one else was the slightest bit interested. 

So, why did I find this routine event so absorbing? Maybe it’s because I have spent so much time away from the UK, US and other developed countries that I’ve forgotten how much is done to improve the lives of ordinary people in those societies. It got me thinking about what it means to be ‘developed’, as a country or a society, and I decided I would spend the rest of my time in San Diego ‘living ordinary’ and seeing what happened. Here’s what I found. 

I wandered around Balboa Park, taking photos as soon as I arrived and enjoying the beauty of the surroundings – expansive lawns, water fountains, period buildings, street performers, live music and a huge choice of museums and galleries. Realising that it would take more than half a day, I selected my targets carefully – the Museum of Art, Natural History Museum, Contemporary Art Gallery, outdoor café, children’s theatre and various courtyards and gardens. Thousands of local and visiting families were doing exactly the same thing – seeking their regular dose of art, culture and recreation. The park was spotlessly clean, meticulously maintained and efficiently run by friendly, considerate staff. The buildings were stunning examples of Spanish Colonial architecture, made popular when San Diego was a part of Mexico, and built 100 years ago.

As the sun was setting, I went in search of refreshment and decided on a charming open-air café with a brilliant band playing jazz classics. The menu catered for adults, children, vegans, Muslims and the lactose-intolerant, with the type of food you might get in a pricier city-centre restaurant. Afterwards, I headed back across the park, now twinkling with thousands of festive lights, and caught the bus back to my hotel. I had an amazing experience, including lunch, for less than $25 and it would have been far less if I had taken advantage of discounts available for students, seniors and military personnel. 

With my flight only four hours away, I was tempted to get a taxi straight to the airport; however, I was determined to see the day through with my $5 transit card. Armed with clear directions and a pocket map from the concierge, I pulled my suitcase across the street to the trolley (tram, if you’re British) station. I just missed one but, sure enough, another trolley arrived exactly 15 minutes later. We slipped quietly through the night air, eventually arriving at a transit centre where various buses and an inter-city train awaited. According to the airport bus timetable, the next one was in 20 minutes. After more than 15 minutes standing in the chilly breeze, I began to wonder if I had made a mistake by foregoing a taxi. However, before long the bus appeared and headed down the coast towards the airport. Not sure what to expect, I was pleasantly surprised that we were to stop at all five terminals, dropping off at Departures and picking up at Arrivals at each one. My final act in San Diego was to use the free WiFi provided throughout the airport for all passengers. 

All in all, I had a very pleasant but perfectly ordinary day by European or North American standards. However, if I were to put my experiment into a Nigerian context, for example, my day was nothing short of miraculous. Normally, I am loathe to compare standards in developing countries with those in the West; however, on this occasion, I want to explore aspects of development that should be common to all societies, especially as they affect the average person. When I discuss these issues with friends in the Caribbean or Africa, the tendency is to focus on the cost of development, rather than how we prioritise. The conclusion is often predictable: “We can’t afford it.” Yet, our economies sustain any number of vanity projects, white elephants and ill-conceived flights-of-fancy that never improve anyone’s existence. 

For those of us who are spiritually inclined, we might remember what Jesus said about the treatment of the common man: “…whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” If you need further evidence of the importance of this approach, examine the world’s great civilisations, where art, science and recreation flourished alongside wealth and conquest; or the world’s great cities, like New York, Paris and London, with thousands of acres of parkland, amazing transport systems and excellent public facilities for all. 

From my observations and research, the following must be a part of our development if we are to attain the standards of living we aspire to:

  • The existence of green spaces, museums, galleries and facilities for the performing arts that are accessible to ordinary citizens is vital for civilisation
  • Reasonably-priced, clean and convenient public transport is a right, not an option, of every citizen in a modern society
  • Development must always consider the needs of the disabled, senior citizens, children and others who may be disadvantaged
  • A well-educated population creates opportunity, spawns innovation and attracts investment

One of the biggest enemies of progress in developing economies is the disconnect between leaders and the electorate. The elite slice through traffic with their motorcades, oblivious to the suffering all around them. Conversely, it’s not unusual for elected officials, senior executives and millionaires to take public transport in developed countries or even ride bicycles, like David Cameron or London mayor, Boris Johnson. Not surprisingly, London is one of the best cities for cyclists and has a fantastic network of buses, underground and overground trains, trams, cable car, riverboats, ferries and bicycles for hire. Simply put, if public facilities in your country are not good enough for the elite, they are not good enough for anyone. 

In Nigeria, we are desperate for any sign of progress and celebrate the launch of gleaming international-brand hotels, fancy restaurants and shopping malls – the result of private investment. But, try getting a bus to the mall or contemplate the fate of a carefree visitor stepping outside the hotel with no driver waiting. The immediate past governor of Lagos was berated when he began replacing dusty, chaotic roadside hangouts for traders and touts with green spaces. Now, many of the same people who literally asked, “Can we eat this grass?” are appreciating the civilising effect that these parks have on the city. Former Cross River governor, Donald Duke, was similarly vilified and later celebrated, and Calabar is now the greenest city in Nigeria and the calmest – is that a coincidence?

Let us remove the barriers that prevent our people from unleashing their innovation and creativity, and becoming their best selves. Let us dedicate ourselves to more equitable societies where every person has access to education, recreation and appreciation of the arts – a total development of the mind. Every leader and every citizen in every developing country should make it their mission to pursue development that uplifts the mind and spirit of ‘the least of these brothers and sisters’, in order to accelerate our progress. 

My firm belief is that if we lift those at the bottom of the society, we lift everyone. If we leave them behind, our legacy will be poverty, disease and crime. The choice is ours. 

21 thoughts on “Let’s lift everyone

  1. Its unfortunate that we decided in this part of the world to settle for less. So much ostentation by a few at the expense of the masses

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    1. Very true, Charles, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Things can change but it has to be demanded by the people. The problem is that they don’t believe that they deserve better. Enjoy the rest of the season with your family!

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  2. My two words…if only…. Thanks Michael, you bring hope with your sound attainable suggestions.. If only we would take these words to heart, what a difference it would make acrossour wonderful, beleaguered world. Blessings

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  3. I find this article interesting, but it takes a visionary to do this without the people demanding for it. Unfortunately we don’t have alot of visionaries but what we have are people. So we must inform them that the way they live presently should not be the norm. And get them discontented enough to demand for something better

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      1. Well said I agree.When I started to travel it was one of the first things that struck me ,the absence of green spaces here and their plethora elsewhere.

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      2. Very true. Strangely, when we try to emulate ‘first world’ cities, we aspire to build skyscrapers and the like but fail to copy their careful inclusion of green spaces. In the UK they have found that when they demolish 1970s concrete, low-income housing estates and replace them with a mix of lower density residences and parks, crime and other social issues are reduced.

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  4. Sometimes we have to start a movement to wake us all up to a better world. This article is a spark that can ignite the consciousness that creates momentum of the belief that ‘we all deserve better’. If we intentionally spread the word, really make it our mission, it could spread like wildfire.

    I will begin now within my own sphere of influence. As I spread the word I will demand more of myself going into 2016

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  5. I have to agree with your points. Take New York for example, one will find the homeless to the millionaire taking the subway riding together in the same car. For any society to grow economically and socially, an efficient and effective public transportation system is a must. If not, workers and employers alike will spend hours in traffic going to and from their place of employment. The arts and green space speak for itself.
    Well said Michael.

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    1. Mr Taylor, I know we share similar views in this area. The only way you know that your public facilities are ‘good enough’ is when they are readily accessed by people from all walks of life. I remember Nigerians being amazed when it was reported that Rihanna took the Underground to her London concerts. Enjoy the holidays!

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  6. Hi Mike,
    True it is but sadly its going to be a hard sell getting the people to change their mindset to expect and deserve better. Case in point: I just opened a new quick service restaurant in Calabar south. It has all the glitter of a regular quick service restaurant in the municipal area but without the high price. The idea was to provide the first clean restaurant in the area selling at their affordable price point. Portions are in units of N100, bukka style. Surveys done reveal that residents see the place as only for birthdays, valentines day etc and for when you need to take a girl out and not for every day meals. They agree the food quality is excellent, agree also that they would spend less or same amount at this restaurant against going to the lady at the dinghy corner. But I guess they just don’t feel they deserve that much finery. We now see the middle income working professionals embracing our food as the much awaited affordable alternative to the high street quick service restaurants. Unfortunately in the 3 rd world, the elite took over from the colonial masters and just continued in the same master-servant mode resulting in a population that is so psychologically bartered to see themselves as being lower beings. In a sane place, the president should be forced out of office immediately he comes back from a medical trip abroad. If our local hospitals aren’t good enough for him then what/who where they built for, animals? The funny bit is that if you were to walk past a conversion among ordinary citizens, you would hear them speak with godly admiration about Mr president’s foreign medical trip. How can senators agree to N18,000 as minimum wage for the gate man but they get N40,000,000 at the end for the same 1 months work. Don’t both their wives go to the same local market? What my country Nigeria needs is a visionary president who would first of all put power into the hands of the people to expect accountability from their leaders. I could be that messiah but the political structure thrives on mediocrity. Still working on it though.

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    1. My brother, you’ve captured the situation in Nigeria perfectly. It’s their version of ‘mental slavery’, where you are proud of the lofty lifestyle of your oga even if he achieves it by stealing from you. The schools and hospitals he builds are not for him and his family but for ‘the others’. Something has to change. If not you, who? If not now, when?

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  7. Michael never ceases to impress with his write ups but this one is highly impressive. It gives clues on what we ought to do to move our developing societies forward. Good one Namesake. Its always a delight reading your work.

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    1. Thanks Michael. I thought I had replied already but I can’t see it. We can move forward but only if we believe we deserve more than we are getting currently. The bizarre irony is that our elite travel abroad to enjoy the facilities available to ordinary citizens in those countries.

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