What’s normal?

No light, no water, no fuel. That’s the current situation in Calabar, a city in the south of oil-rich Nigeria, a country that somehow manages to appear dirt-poor. There’s been no electricity in my part of the city for over one week; there’s a national shortage of natural gas being supplied to power stations and brief industrial action by workers in the oil sector. No water because, several days ago, the Water Board ran out of chemicals to treat the water. And, due to a myriad of factors too numerous to mention, no petrol to fuel the generators that are the main source of electricity in Nigeria. 

I’m not complaining – just stating the facts. While observing the chaos of this dysfunctional country from the inside, I’ve come to a simple conclusion – Nigerians are among the most resilient people in the world. They seem to bear all things visited upon them with grace and humour, as they continue to repeat, “God will help us.”

Last week, I joined a friend on a road trip to the city of Enugu to get bulk supplies for her catering business. My needs were entirely frivolous – raisins, imported fresh fruit, raw cashews and anything else unavailable in Calabar. It took nearly two hours to get out of the city due to fuel queues on the highway, Naija-style, with our side of the road blocked by oncoming traffic and no police to sort out the mess. Eventually, we headed north-west through Ebonyi state and its capital, the wonderfully-named Abakaliki, to Enugu. 

I’m not sure what I was expecting but there was a depressing sameness to the scenery with every passing kilometre – dusty-brown villages, ramshackle roadside markets, bushy landscapes and a smattering of subsistence farms. Perhaps, having heard that the area was known for coal mining and agri-business, I was expecting a more industrialised environment and large commercial farms, due its former reputation as a self-sufficient agricultural powerhouse. Sadly, due to the devastating Biafran civil war, those are no more. The railway that used to carry coal to Port Harcourt in colonial times is defunct and the production of rubber, timber and cotton has declined drastically. 

However, all is not lost. Now, there is a bright and modern shopping mall, complete with a giant Ferris wheel in the car park, and the all-important Shoprite supermarket, our target for the day. They stocked almost everything we wanted and it was refreshing to have alert, eager staff for assistance, instead of those asleep on their stools in Calabar grocery shops. We bought, we ate, we left – back on an extended journey of six hours due to car trouble. The frequent stops gave me plenty of time to think as I came face-to-face with grinding poverty at every location – a striking contrast to the glass and steel temple to consumerism we had just left behind. 

On reflection, it felt strange to have gone on a pilgrimage for imported goods to a city once known as a hub for Nigerian-made products. However, that’s the story of Nigeria today – conspicuous consumption for a few, funded largely by a single industry in which oil is exported and petrol is imported and subsidised. And yet, everywhere we went we were met by cheerful people going about their daily business as if everything was normal. There was always someone helpful to fetch water for our overheating engine and give advice on what to do next. As night fell, laughter rang out from village bars and children ran home giggling. No one seemed to notice the incessant drone of generators; they were simply grateful for the light. The dilapidated surroundings were just a Nigerian fact of life – maintenance is never a priority when there are hungry mouths to feed. 

I guess ‘normal’ is whatever you’re used to – a way of life that you’ve always known. If you’ve always received electricity from a generator and water from a bucket, then that’s your normal. Older people recall fondly a kinder, gentler Nigeria where power cuts were rare, fuel was abundant and life was orderly and civilised. The younger ones listen, either in awe or disbelief, to a fable that may never come true in their lifetime. They have never known hospitals, schools, roads, utilities and public transport that function properly; they have known only chaos and decay. That shouldn’t be normal for anyone. 

That’s why bright and shiny new shopping malls are so welcomed. They offer hope and a glimpse into a modern future where the lights stay on, facilities are clean and well-maintained, and ordinary people are treated with respect. In these privately-funded oases, people are transported from their mundane lives and allowed to enjoy shopping, movies, dining and hanging-out, as if they had gone abroad for a couple of hours. Even those of us who are well-travelled secretly wish that everyday life in Nigeria could be as safe and predictable as the mall. 

The truth is that it could be. The proof is already there – in the telecommunications industry, the single privately-run airport and the shopping malls – that the biggest and most positive change that any Nigerian government could make is to, quite simply, get out of the way. When I tell friends that a Nigerian, Adebayo Ogunlesi, Chairman of Global Infrastructure Partners, is the majority owner of London’s Gatwick Airport, they are first surprised, then proud and ultimately wistful, knowing that he is unlikely to pull off the same feat in his native country. In the UK, nobody knows or cares that Mr Ogunlesi’s firm owns not only Gatwick but Edinburgh airport as well, because since they took over everything has remained normal – the kind of normal where things keep improving, slowly, almost imperceptibly, for investor and traveller alike. 

Are you improving yourself and the lives of people around you, or are you merely functioning, perpetually in survival mode? It doesn’t take much to make a change – read a good book, engage in constructive conversation and spend time with people smarter and wealthier than you are. Help someone with a kind word or deed, a comforting hug or a listening ear. Speak up when you see or experience poor service, injustice and exploitation. If you aren’t growing, you’re dying and if things aren’t improving, they’re getting worse, because nothing remains the same. 

Be careful of what becomes your normal. Nigeria is proof of what happens when patience, fortitude and resignation replace resistance, determination and innovation. In ten years or more, your world will be very different than it is today. Ask yourself, “What am I doing now to ensure that it will be a better place for me or my children?”

“If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.” ― Maya Angelou

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25 thoughts on “What’s normal?

  1. A depressing yet correct assessment of the situation in Nigeria. Our living haven’t improved over long years and certainly is getting worse. Like the Jews in the time of old, we yearn for a political and economic messiah. We deserve more for our existence.

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    1. Cheer up, Charles. Although there is no messiah on the horizon, there is plenty you can do to make Nigeria a better place. I’m just passing through but writing this blog and creating awareness is my small contribution. As a Nigerian, you have a much bigger stake to protect and nurture.

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  2. Hi mi son, how I’d love to sit with you and others including my 4 boys and the grandchildren to talk about this piece. As usual you bring out important considerations which are all tied together creating a cohesive, intelligent whole. In regard to us as a people I am disturbed by the adage, implied or stated, “A nuh nuttin.” which one hears being touted. Surely that speaks of unhealthy acceptance of situations that could be changed and improved by determined effort on our part. Keep writing Michael, I know you are making a difference in the way many of your readers think and act. God bless. Hope you are having a peaceful Easter Day albeit without water or light. Blessings and love.

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    1. Happy Easter to you and the rest of the family! You’ve read well into the unspoken aspects of this piece. A vocal minority, high expectations of the middle class and a vigilant media are the only things that keep Jamaica from the brink of this abyss. Sometimes we get dangerously close to the edge and then we pull back. The last voter turnout shows a creeping apathy in the younger generation and that spells trouble. Let’s see what the next five years will bring. Thanks for following – I always look forward to your feedback. Blessings.

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  3. Pathetic! I must say. Reminds me daily of Fela’s gig,”Suffering and Smiling “; that’s what we’re known for. We sold our birth rights (Natural resources) for a plate of hot porridge (Shop rite mundane malls), becoming slaves in our own lands by our own hands yet the popular adage; ” God will help us”. How can God help? When Nigerians with their own ink signed their death warrant?!

    I went out to meet a client within lagos 2days back, decided to board a marua but to my utter shock the fare was tripled its normal price. What shocked me the most was the utterances of a northerner who had outrightly refused to bored saying, he would rather treck than add a dime, that we’ve not seen any yet in Nigeria and that this is just the beginning. We rebuked him snapping our fingers at him…he hissed saying “na di onle tin una fit do be dat”, mimicking our actions, ” then when fight come una go turn the other side mek dem slap am, anything dem say,una gree,na onle talk una sabi talk, even pray e no fit pray, lazy people! ” he spat and went off.

    Stunned, I couldn’t say a word. Others went bitter,cursing the young man.
    Truth be told, we are so religious about this matter when common sense should effect the change we crave. It’s not Normal!!! Error!!!
    #Angry

    Thanks for this exposure sir. I pray we all arise and do something quick, lest we be choked.

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  4. I remember our chat about scenery on our way to Calabar from Ugep lol! We all do have a role to play in taking this country from where it is to where it ought to be. Nice piece!

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  5. In Federal Housing Estate where I leave in Calabar-Nigeria, I have atleast 20hours of electricity daily for about a month now but I m not excited when the rest of the city is completely or near dark and my present status is not guaranteed as well. Water isn’t a problem for me but I hear that for other residents down the line to have water, the pumping must be sustained for about 36hours, That is not too much for a water agency if we had a responsible government. Government in Nigeria could be liken to one being on holiday in the face of a very docile populace who have made up their minds to settle for less. Governance here is made easy by a ”Sidon look attitude”. In all of these, we Nigerians are the most hopeful in the world.

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    1. Sometimes I have almost constant electricity, while friends of mine haven’t seen any for weeks or months, depending on where they live. That always reminds me that my turn for darkness could be next. It does create some anxiety but all you can do is prepare yourself. I plan to protest by paying 50% of my next bill but who else will join me?

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  6. Michael, your evaluation and analysis of the Nigerian ‘life’ is spot on….we see and experience deprivation BUT we refuse to ‘believe it will last on’…for our hopes and dreams are inspired by FAITH to hope and expect better leadership. I agree entirely with your view that the power to change this state of ‘siddon look’ is in our hands.
    I live in Calabar South. Via lobbying, all flats in my address get electric power at least once every two days (four times a week), even though it’s often not steady while it’s put on. Last night I had power all through the night up until 9am this morning. We also enjoy water supply for 4 out of 7 days per week. However, we are smart enough to channel the water supply to four 80 litre storage tanks while the supply last. That means that for a few days when water is cut off, we have reserves for use for at least one extra day. I even had a good showered this morning even though the water supply stopped last night. A little strategy as that keeps us going.
    I think that as Nigerians we must dare to dream big and take steps to learn different ways of taking advantage of challenging scenarios to create opportunities for ‘the better’. The foundations of our development as a nation has been faulty and the ‘get money fast’ syndrome hasn’t been helpful to young people. So we need to give more attention to learning, and acting with determination to implement new lessons that we learn. Hopefully ‘acting’ will make us ‘doers of the word ‘rather than being ‘hearers only’.

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    1. I love the strategies that each person has to employ just to get the basics of life. It’s only when I’m abroad for a while, taking those basics for granted, that I realise how stressful it is in Nigeria. I thought that living inside the Water Board premises would almost guarantee water but I still need a backup tank and a borehole. That’s in addition to the inverter, UPS and generator I use to keep the lights on. Plus the jerry cans of fuel in case of a shortage! It’s amazing that people accept all of this as ‘normal’.

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  7. Nigerians nowadays depend a lot on prophecies and miracles.
    It is so painfull to se the extend t which they bear suffering. And because of this resilience,in the absence of law and order,so many evils are condoned.
    Thanks a lot for your article.

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    1. You’re very welcome. The church culture seems to be both a blessing and a curse, keeping people both hopeful (good) and willing to settle for less than they deserve (bad). I come from a culture where slavery is in our history and we are well aware of the role Christianity played in keeping us enslaved. Now, we rebel against anything that makes us feel like second class citizens. My worry for Nigeria is that people will remain silent until the situation reaches boiling point and explodes. Much better to address issues now.

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  8. This is a challenging piece that hits the nail on the head… The deplorable state of Nigeria is almost becoming normal to us and we are embracing it without taking effective measures to make the government know that they have put us in an unacceptable condition. We really have to do something really fast if not worse things will happen and we will forced to accept it as normal……

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    1. Hi Joanne, it’s so good to see you here! It’s not too late for Nigeria to pull back from the brink of being completely dysfunctional. The problem is that very few people see these issues as systemic – they believe that the current fuel shortage is the fault of the new administration or the old one. However, the system is designed to be inefficient and sometimes it simply collapses. Even the system that elects your politicians is broken, ensuring that mediocrity, corruption and incompetence is the norm. In fact, judging from the hero-worship of the masses, these qualities are actually celebrated. In life, you get whatever you are prepared to tolerate.

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  9. Another very good and thought provoking piece, Michael. Things are the way they are because Nigerians rather than speak out against abnormalities are ready to bend back double. It is ‘normal’ here that if the injustice or wrong is not directly affecting me or my ward then it is not my business. This kind of attitude has embolden the evil people, who in actual fact, are fewer than the good. However, because the good have refused to stand up together for themselves, injustice and exploitation continue to thrive.

    For me, this piece is another wake up call. We must, more than ever, be ready to stand up individually and collectively for the general good. It would mean that we ourselves are not greedy, as this cancer feeds on greed. It would require courage and sacrifice, yes, we must be ready to give a little of ourselves to bring about the kind of positive change we desire. clubs or pressure groups can be formed towards this goal.

    My concern is more for the younger generation, if we do not act now, this chaos would be the only ‘normal’ they know.

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    1. Hi Godwin

      Very eloquently put sir! If you were to sum up all of the nation’s ills, Nigeria’s number one problem would be selfishness – the tendency to put self before the collective good, even if you will suffer as well.

      Your concern for the young may be wasted, as no one under the age of 25 years will know anything but the current state of affairs and count it as normal. The exceptions are the lucky ones who get to travel regularly or go to school abroad. A colleague of mine once explained to me why he tried to take his children abroad as often as possible – to ensure that they never saw Nigeria as being normal. This was underlined when, on a trip to the UK, his son doubted his father that a friend of his had done really well for himself. The reason for his scepticism? The man did not have a large, silent generator outside his house!

      Thanks for the support. Do whatever you can to create a different kind of ‘normal’.

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  10. Yet again Micheal in “What’s Normal” you strike the nerve of the matter. Acceptance and resignation rather than resistance and demand for something better. May be we should ask, why are we this way? Why can’t we be different. May be if we are different, our leaders will be different.

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    1. Hi Chibuzo, I’m glad you finally got around to reading this. I believe that Nigerians have been battered into submission over decades and got into the habit of not questioning the authorities during the military era because it was dangerous to do so. Most young people under 30 years old have never seen anything else, so this is their normal. Only those who travel know how abnormal and dysfunctional Nigeria really is. Social media is a great tool for waking everyone up and beginning to ask questions. You could start by sending a link to this article to everyone you know. Blessings.

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