Nigerians are brought up to believe that our society consists of higher and lesser beings. Some are born to own and enjoy, while others are born to toil and endure.
In America, all men are believed to be created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.
The earliest indoctrination many of us have to this mind-set happens at home. Throughout my childhood, “househelps” — usually teenagers from poor families — came to live with my family, sometimes up to three or four of them at a time. In exchange for scrubbing, laundering, cooking, baby-sitting and everything else that brawn could accomplish, either they were sent to school, or their parents were sent regular cash.
My father detested it when our househelps sang. Each time a new one arrived, my siblings and I spent the first few evenings as emissaries from the living room, where our family watched TV after dinner, to the kitchen, where the househelps washed dishes or waited to be summoned.
“My daddy said I should tell you to stop singing.”
Immediately, they would shush. Often, they forgot and started again — if not that same evening, on a subsequent one. Finally, my father would lose his imperial cool, stomp over to the kitchen and stand by the door.
“Stop singing!” he would command
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.
This somebody-nobody mind-set is at the root of corruption and underdevelopment: ingenuity that could be invested in moving society forward is instead expended on individuals’ rising just one rung higher, and immediately claiming their license to disparage and abuse those below. Even when one househelp is made supervisor over the rest, he ends up being more callous than the owners of the house.
BIGOTS and racists exist in America, without a doubt, but America today is a more civilized place than Nigeria. Not because of its infrastructure or schools or welfare system. But because the principle of equality was laid out way back in its Declaration of Independence
Some years ago, I made a decision to start treating domestic workers as “somebodys.” I said “please” and “thank you” and “if you don’t mind.” I smiled for no reason. But I was only confusing them; they knew how society worked. They knew that somebody gave orders and kicked them around. Anyone who related to them as an equal was no longer deserving of respect. Thus, the vicious cycle of oppression goes on and on.
Nigeria is one of Africa’s largest economies; it produces around two million barrels of crude oil per day. And yet, in 2010, 61 percent of Nigerians were living in “absolute poverty” — able to afford only the bare essentials of shelter, food and clothing. In one state in northern Nigeria, where extremist groups like Boko Haram originate, poverty levels that year were as high as 86.4 percent.
Economic growth will continue to bypass the majority, the gap between rich and poor will continue to widen, so long as we see ourselves as divided between somebodys and nobodys. Only when that changes will the househelps sing more cheerful tunes.
Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani is the author of the novel “I Do Not Come to You by Chance” and a fellow with the African Leadership Institute. This article was first published by New York Times
Culled from Bella Naija