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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