By Chris Anyokwu
The other day yours sincerely stumbled upon a short video clip that was “trending” on social media. It captured briefly a public event that ostensibly took place in Johannesburg, South Africa at which former United States President Barack Hussein Obama was addressing a mammoth crowd at a stadium. Of course, one could fill in the blanks regarding the occasion, date and purpose, etc. of the august event if one wanted to. But that would have been rather diversionary and digressive in the context of the discursive contemplation at hand. So, let us cut to the chase. After watching that minuscule video clip, yours sincerely went off to other pressing issues of mortal existence, chief among them being how to put food on the table for the young family and, no less too important, to help alleviate the daily trauma of living through what, unarguably, is the most hellish and horrendous period in our nation’s chequered history. But whilst yours sincerely was busy doing other things to fulfil his multiple roles and obligations as a son, brother, cousin, nephew, friend, husband, father and teacher, the Obama talk in J’burg, South Africa kept flashing through my mind.
Besides his trademark off-the-cuff eloquence, the gist of his talk preoccupied me. If anything, I loved-and still love-the phrase: “poverty of ambition” he used in his ad-libbed, extemporaneous speech. Poverty of ambition! Wow! Can someone possibly suffer from poverty of ambition? Maybe in America, maybe in South Africa. Not in Nigeria, never! Nigerians are very ambitious; in fact, we are the happiest people on earth. If you doubt it, then go and read Wole Soyinka’s latest novel entitled Chronicles of the Happiest People On Earth.
Smugly secure in my knowledge of our claim to high ambition, I wondered why any rational, well-adjusted and sensible person wouldn’t want to be ambitious. What with our celebration and worship of achievement and exceptionalism. I kept wondering: our unenviable status as the world’s poverty capital is universally acknowledged; the abhorrent spin-off of that is the fact that many families are now selling their household items and some, their children, to put food on the table. Now, that’s poverty and most Nigerians are experiencing it as we speak, including you, perhaps! But “poverty of ambition”? Now let’s hear President Barack Obama tell us what he means:
‘I should add by the way, right now I’m actually surprised by how much money I got. And let me tell you something, I don’t have half as much as most of these folks or a tenth, or a hundredth … there’s only so much you can eat. There’s only so big a house you can have. There’s only so many nice trips you can take. I mean, it’s enough. You don’t have to take a vow of poverty just to say, “Well, let me (sic) at that child out there who doesn’t have enough to each or needs some school fees, let me help them out. I’ll pay a little more in taxes. It’s okay, I can afford it”, I mean, it shows a poverty of ambition to just want to take more and more and more. Instead of saying, “Wow, I’ve got so much, who can I help and how can I give more and more and more?” That’s ambition. That’s impact, that’s influence. What an amazing gift to be able to help people, not just yourself.”
Now, let us take what Obama said as a yardstick on the question of ambition. How well have we as a people fared? Let us take our rulers (not leaders!) as an instantiation of ambition. Would you consider any one of the members of the ruling class as ambitious? How do the political elite conceptualise ambition, by the way?
Ambition, for the average Nigerian power-holder or wannabe ruler, consists in raising an army of thugs, armed to their teeth with dangerous weapons and high on drugs and unleashing them on real and perceived political adversaries and opponents. He gives them clear instructions to maim, kill and destroy in order to clinch, firstly, the party ticket, secondly, eliminate all hindrances to his landslide victory at the polls and thirdly, to rule and reign unquestionably. Ambition, for the politician, is to be ensconced in fabulous wealth and luxury amid planetary privation and Biblical immiseration. Ambition is to be able to play “Messiah” over the hapless masses to whom he donates bags of rice, beans, millet, tins of tomato puree and sachets of sugar. He might also sink boreholes for the parched throats of the disinherited in their famished savannahs. Ambition is to have multitudinous throngs of almagirai during festive times mill around his sky-high gates begging alms and being kept in leash on leftovers.
Ambition is to see ten million out-of-school children roam the streets, the girls being given away as child-brides and the boys joining the burgeoning ranks of bandits and terrorists. Ambition for our rulers is to send their offspring overseas to acquire the best education the West can give and for them to return at the auspicious time to take over the reins from their jaded parents. Yes, ambition for our elite is political self-perpetuation through the time-tested mechanism of building socio-economic and political alliances and coalitions. In this regard, marriages and business deals form a significant plank of the power superstructure. For this tiny but powerful cabal, both country and people are, in the last analysis, expendable. What matters ultimately is POWER. According to George Orwell in his novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four: “The sole object of power is power”, QED!
How about the people, the so-called masses? What constitutes ambition for them? Everyday people, truth be told, are people of modest ambitions. They are not interested in power, they are not interested in wealth. Like Ras Kimono sings, they just want “liku sugar for me tea”(Translated: “Little sugar for my tea”).
This is similar to the modest expectation encapsulated in “The Lord’s Prayer”- Give us this day our daily bread. The wo/man next door craves simply his/her daily bread-breakfast, lunch and supper. S/he seeks a shelter to rest and relax after a hard day’s work. S/he needs constant supply of electricity, potable water and a good job as a means of sustenance for himself or herself and his/her dependants. S/he wants to be able to pay his/her house rent, children’s school fees, and dress decently, among others.
Once upon a time, the phrase “brother’s keeper” used to resonate with most Nigerians. Not anymore. Economic survival has put paid to such namby-pamby sentiment. Whoever cares about tradition or culture anymore? In place of care and concern, we now have competition at best and callousness at worst. The mentality of beggar-thy-neighbour is the ruling ideology at present. Everywhere you turn, you see “marks of sorrow, marks of woe” inscribed by selfishness, egoism, sadism, bigotry and venality. All the injunctions on giving, sacrifice, love and tolerance as enunciated in the Bible now appear like antiquated and superannuated relics of a bygone era. When I was much younger, things were definitely different. Helping anybody in distress was duty rendered gratis. There seemed to be a chivalric code that governed our life at the time as you were prepared to lay down your life to save someone else’s familiar to you or a total stranger. Our lives then exemplified the moral contained in the Biblical parable of the Good Samaritan. Do pastors preach these things in our churches nowadays? I doubt it. All we hear these days is the bread-and-butter of the prosperity theology. In today’s world, the so-called Social Media Generation (SMG) would rather die than lend a helping hand to anyone in distress. Whether your house is on fire, you have a flat tyre, your car runs into a ditch, or your child takes ill suddenly or you yourself have a health emergency, nobody would come to your aid. Before you say “June 12”, a motley crowd of curious bystanders would form a circle round you and begin to take photographs of you-in the throes of death! Who cares! In seconds, you are “trending” on social media, even as you are being carried away dead-as-dodo to the morgue! The present age is more enamoured of finger-pointing, of playing the blame game, of scapegoatism than anything else.
Evidently, from the foregoing discourse, both the rulers and the ruled are guilty of poverty of ambition. As a result, our society is bleeding, is hurting so deeply and, therefore, we, you and I, need to change our ways urgently. Let us hear what Mary McKee and The Genesis recommend:
If you see your brother standing by the road
With a heavy load from the seeds he sowed
And if you see your sister falling by the way
Just stop and say you’re going the wrong way.
You’ve got to try a little kindness, show a little kindness
Shine the light for everyone to see
And if you try a little kindness you’ll overlook the blindness
Of the narrow minded people on the narrow minded streets.
We must all learn to love, and to forgive, not just during this Christmas season but at all times. The greatest fraud of all time is humanity’s deliberate misunderstanding of what love really is, namely self-sacrifice for the other without any hope of reward or recompense. Yet we must slough off this silliness of self-deception and practise love qua love. True African culture teaches altruism, community, sacrifice. The Yoruba call it omoluabi, just as every other ethnic group has its own version of true messianism.
Again: the Bible has something to say about how we can overcome the poverty of ambition understood in the Obamaesque terms. “After all, Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you” (Matthew 26: 11). As someone tries to elucidate online, sometimes, this verse is interpreted as if to say, “You can’t overcome poverty. It’s useless. Don’t waste your money on it.” However, Jesus is quoted as saying in Mark 14: 7: “The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want…” (New International Version). It is important to explain further that Jesus Christ was merely referencing a verse in the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy Chapter 15 verse 11: “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be open-handed toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.” Although classical Marxism execrates class division in society since it is an inevitable consequence of social inequality and inequity, nature and experience,however, teach us that the best-case scenario for humankind is social egalitarianism and not equality or classlessness. Thus, whilst society strives perpetually towards the establishment of a more humane, equitable, inclusive and-again-egalitarian world, we should keep in mind the immortal words of Chinua Achebe in Anthills of the Savannah, to wit: “Charity is good, but a world in which charity is unnecessary is better.”
Chris Anyokwu writes from University of Lagos