By Chris Anyokwu
History has always been silent on the achievements of common people. As always history or historiography is the record of the superlative and remarkable deeds and actions of great men, as we call them in these parts, “men of timbre and calibre”. There are, indeed, textual silences, a prolonged and pained hush of sepulchral feel when it comes to the acts and laudable feats of ordinary people, common people such that you would be forgiven if you concluded that they never did or do anything worthy of heroic laudation, deserving of the skies blazing with meteors and comets when mortals and gods fete the spectacular heroics of “God’s Bits of Wood” – ordinary people. So perish the thought if you are expecting to read about the bricklayer or the akara seller; the farmer or the cart-pusher. Historiographic song-and-dance, and folkloric mimesis is the exclusive preserve of those animals who are “more equal than others”, the lords and ladies of the Manor. Thus, conventional wisdom has normalised the belief that only “great” people did in the past, and continue to do things, the stuff of legend. It does not matter what field of human endeavour we are talking about – sport, music, warfare, politics, academia, business, diplomacy, agriculture, manufacturing, construction or engineering. The folk song-writers eulogise, the “gods” among us, the historians write about and story tellers regale their audiences with, are “great” people. What makes these people great?
Are they great by ascription or by achievement? To be sure, how many of the so-called “great” people in popular lore and our society today can beat their chest and say, like Okonkwo, that their fame is “built on solid personal achievements”? If the truth has to be told, our “great” men and women became great (whatever that means) through ascription. That is to say, greatness has been thrust upon them by either inheritance, genealogy, connection or luck. The son or daughter of a business mogul, Army General, a top politician or a distinguished professional already is an inductee into the Hall of Fame. He or she doesn’t have to lift a finger to do a thing. His or her surname is a privilege, protocols are suspended; rules and regulations broken for them to enjoy the juicy fruit of perverted favour. In our country, such people don’t have to work half as hard as the rest of us to make the cut, to qualify; to be admitted into the hallowed sanctum of political power. The question is often asked: “Whose son/daughter are you?” If he or she descended from money, old or new (who cares?) he or she is qualified for high office, be it Local Government Chair, Commissioner, Minster, Governor, Ambassador, Vice President or President. You ask: Are those occupying these offices at present the most educated among us? Are they the most competent and experienced and, as a consequence, the most qualified by any parameter of evaluation? The answer is NO! But they are all great people – great only by ascription.
Are they great by ascription or by achievement? To be sure, how many of the so-called “great” people in popular lore and our society today can beat their chest and say, like Okonkwo, that their fame is “built on solid personal achievements”? If the truth has to be told, our “great” men and women became great (whatever that means) through ascription. That is to say, greatness has been thrust upon them by either inheritance, genealogy, connection or luck.
For instance, it doesn’t matter if a prince or princess is a social deviant, say, a prostitute or pimp, a scammer, a certificate forger, a ritual killer, a drug addict, an armed robber or a rapist. The powers-that-be are certain to move heaven and earth to hide the facts, to mislead the public, to fade their faults and deodorise the stench of scandal that oozes around that “urgust “ figure like a human sewer. There is a great deal of padding, or “packaging” (as the Nigerian parlance goes) when it comes to the high-and-mighty. It is called social hypocrisy. Lesser mortals do the crimes and the time, but not so for the “great” people. Even when you hear that a “great” person has been prosecuted, convicted and jailed, rejoice not. Do not be deceived ewon yato si ewon (There are prisons and there are prisons). They are given the VIP treatment. Their consorts and side-chicks visit them and they live in luxury and sate and savour life’s little extras to the full, even in jail! Examples abound in Nigeria. A topic for another day.
But don’t get it twisted, some people actually achieve greatness through self-application, through hard work. Working day and night to the hilt. Even so, their achievements are spoken of in muffled tones, in grudging accents. The red-carpet is not rolled out for them and, certainly, the drums do not play to serenade and fete them. These ones descended from obscurity. Thus people usually query: How far back is his/her genealogy, their family tree? How purple is his/her pedigree? Or what shade of blue is his/her blood? Are streets, stadiums, public monuments, schools, institutes, etc., named after their forebears and paterfamilias? Oh, these are nobodies, pretenders to the throne! As usual, there is classal hair-splitting, the pig-headed waste work over the alchemical test of genuine article versus imitation gold. This is part of the stiff upper-lip snobbery of old money and feudal power, keeping clear of the barbarians!
But if you look a bit closely at things, if you take a teeny-weeny bit of time to observe your location, yes, I mean the place you live, you would suddenly realise the truth staring at you all this time, without you registering it. The so-called common people built all those breath-taking road infrastructure. When these arteries are under construction, our common people drive the graders, the caterpillars. They are the stone-cutters, masons, the labourers. The supervisor who probably boasts a PhD from MIT – the great man – is ensconced in an air-conditioned office or, if he shows up for supervision, he simply looks on from an enclosure far removed from the cloud of dust. You would see him sipping orange juice or smoking a ciga while the common people work their hands to bones, under the unforgiving sun. How about the railway lines? The ordinary people lay the tracks, do the heavy liftings, risk life and limbs and as happens occasionally, get killed in the line of duty. Common people do much more. They build and construct our bridges, they grow the food we eat, they rear the animals which provide us meat. I am reminded of J.P. Clark’s oft-anthologised poem entitled “Fulani Cattle”.
This very popular poem dramatizes the long trek, the associated risks in the bush, on the road and among hostile people the cowherds endure just to put beef on our dining-tables. How about our teachers, those poorly-paid heroes and heroines who teach and instruct our children in crèches, pre-school, primary and secondary schools? How about our law-enforcement agents, those ubiquitous traffic wardens, prison warders, the rank-and-file police officers, the soldiers battling insurgency and terrorism, the civil defence officers, among others? These groups of people are more often than not at the receiving end of public anger because they happen to be the visible face of government. We shall also number in the song, to quote W.B. Yeats, the petty trader, the mechanic, the electrician, the plumber, the shoe cobbler, the driver and conductor, the barber, the maiguard, the generator repairer, the petrol attendant and the street sweep. Let me share this anecdote with you. There’s this plot of land on my estate, previously a shelter to waifs-and-strays and sundry criminal types. Recently, I discovered the owner of the land has begun building a four-storey structure on it. It took a while for the foundation to be laid and for the building proper to spring majestically up to the sky, commanding the skyline in the neighbourhood. The point is, you would find an army of men and women, boys and girls, all labourers carrying blocks, bags of cement, saucepans of mortar from the mixer to the building. With the masons working feverishly and assiduously, course after course, the building, initially ungainly, gradually grew, taking definite shape. From the building plan, designed by a team of architects, quantity surveyors, civil engineers, etc. to the concrete realisation of the structure. All thanks to the combined ingenuity, hard work and expertise of the builders, that is, the common people who, in some cases, can hardly write or spell their names or even sign a cheque or speak correct English. When at work, they are almost half naked, dressed simply in cement-encrusted baggy shorts and discoloured shirt, perspiration pouring down their faces and their clothes clinging tight to their bodies with sweat and dust, giving them, finally, the look of off-world denizens. But you see in all of them, joy, the joy of labour, of nurturing a collective dream; of seeing a skyscraper tower proud and sturdy into the sky with them doing the grunt work. All of this, sadly, they do for a pittance! Visit our major cities, Lagos, Abuja, Kano, Kaduna, Owerri, Port Harcourt and Calabar. You will be “wowed” by the roads, the rails, the airports, the hotels, the houses and government buildings. Bear in mind, these physical architectural wonders are the handiwork of common people, builders of history, nurturers of our world.
These are the human detritus, the flotsam and jetsam storytellers and historians always refuse to celebrate. They are NEVER remembered within the oak-panelled walls and the marble-floored hallowed halls of power, especially when the rolls are called up yonder. They never make it into the list of would-be awardees and honourees for National Awards. Not for them those impressive-sounding titles such as CON, OON, CFR, CGON, CFRN and the like. Common people do the work, build and sustain and replenish the society but “great” people take the credit and make the headlines and adorn our TV screens. So, let us together sing “Common People” with soft-rock singer Pulp:
Sing along with the common people
Sing along and it might just get you through
Laugh along with the common people
Laugh along even though they’re really laughing at you
And the stupid things that you do
Because you think that poor is cool
Wanna live with common people like you (7 times)
Oh, la, la, la, la (4 times)
Chris Anyokwu, PhD
Associate Professor of English,
University of Lagos