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Lack of personal agency: How Nigeria is rearing unconfident and subservient citizens

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Lack of personal agency: How Nigeria is rearing unconfident and subservient citizens

One Monday afternoon in September 2003, I found myself very confused. I had recently left a school with a joint Nigerian-British syllabus and moved to a school running a fully British system, and it was my first day in the new environment. I realised among other things that the school tuck shop was run by Big Treat, and my N200 daily pocket money really was not going to do anything for me here. At lunchtime though, it wasn’t just the change of scenery or the noticeably more expensive environment that had me blinking my eyes.

They had waiters.

There were dudes in the lunch hall dressed in white – with menu cards and everything – walking from table to table talking to the kids. One of them came up to me with the menu and told me: “Here’s your choice of starters, main course, dessert…”

My eyes nearly fell out of my head.

It wasn’t necessarily the spectacle of being waited on during a school lunch that shocked me. The huge frown on dad’s face when we went to the bank that morning and the number of zeros on the school fees cheque he presented said very clearly that this was different to anything I was used to. For that amount, they might as well have hired a 4-star Michelin chef and a violinist for each table. Really, it wasn’t how ‘spendy’ the new place was that stunned me.

It was that they were asking me what I wanted.

Since when did anyone ask me what I wanted? Was that even a thing? Was this an elaborate prank someone was playing on a new student? All my life up to that point, I had only ever been told what to do in school and at home. Whatever rebellious thoughts existed were firmly under wraps because a child talking back was seen the same way as a witch riding a flying broomstick in broad daylight.

At my former school, it was simply “Monday – Jollof Rice, Tuesday – Yam and Stew, Wednesday – Eba and Egusi” – there was no debate about the matter. You either had what was offered or you didn’t. There was none of this asking business and certainly no adult would use their two feet to walk all the way over to a table to ask for a seated 13 year-old’s opinion on anything.

The concept of my opinion suddenly becoming a thing was like someone traveling back in time to the 17th century with a squadron of F-16 jet fighters. Suddenly the world was a different place for me and it would never be the same again. If you find me annoyingly outspoken and fearless today 16 years later, you have to blame Grange School. That was the place where I was first taught that my opinion about anything matters.

Disregarding children leads to “Shuffering and Shmiling”

A regular complaint among the “Having Important Social Media Conversations to Save Nigeria” types like myself, is that Nigerians have an unrivaled and unhelpful ability to adjust to any kind of bad situation and trauma, without ever making any effort to revolt or change the status quo. “Shuffering and Shmiling” in the words of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti is the recurrent motif that defines how Nigerians relate with their country. It is an abusive relationship, but one which they seemingly have no objection to.

What we often miss is that there is a direct link between the self-confidence and expectations that people are raised with, and how they interact with their society as adults. Those of us who grew up in environments where our personalities, opinions and abilities were recognised and respected are more likely to be the ones who feel and express dissatisfaction with what Nigeria is. Those who were raised to shut up and make themselves smaller grow up to do exactly that – keep quiet and adapt to adversity.

Even long after it has stopped making any sense to do so.

To understand the nexus between Grange-style education and reduced probability of accepting the unacceptable as adults, I will draw a series of parallels between my development in that environment and that of a Nigerian age mate of mine in a more typical Nigerian setting. Let us call our hero Stanley. While 13 year-old David is being asked what he would like to have for starters by a waiter at lunch, Stanley is also 13 and going to a school where the main day-to-day dynamic revolves around avoiding the principal’s cane.

The school lunch at Stanley’s school is slightly above prison standard and on some days he does not even bother with it. In class, his teachers’ most repeated phrase is “Keep quiet!” and they all carry a thin wooden weapon designed to lacerate and inflict maximum pain on a child’s body. This is apparently “discipline.” Stanley sometimes does not understand what the teacher has said, but he knows that if he asks a question, he will either be ridiculed by both the teacher and class, or told to “Get out of the class!” with some blows from the wooden weapon into the bargain.

Maybe both.

There is zero evidence that this physical and borderline sexual assault has any good results, but it remains a ubiquitous experience for most Nigerian students

Over at Ikeja GRA meanwhile, David’s classes are more like seminars where everyone is free to contribute. The teacher’s main focus is on ensuring that everyone understands what is being taught – as against merely keeping their mouths shut. David does not hear the term “Keep quiet!” with anything close to the regularity that Stanley hears it. If he talks out of turn in class, the teacher is more likely to ask him to share what he said with the class.

Overtime, he learns to be silent because he wants to, not because he has to. There is no corporal punishment at David’s school, and bullying is practically nonexistent. When any decision is made in that school, the students are consulted as stakeholders. The constant message is that everyone is important and everyone’s voice counts.

Unlike at Stanley’s school, you can always speak, and even the Vice President will listen to you

At Stanley’s school on the other hand, the message is that students are basically irritants, some more so than others. “Science students” enjoy a de-facto segregation over Arts and Humanities students who are told that they are “less intelligent” for not studying Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Further Math.

Stanley’s teachers and parents tell him that he has to choose between chasing an ‘A’ in Biology and studying Drama which he loves. He also has to stop playing football and athletics because only dull meatheads do those things. “Smart” students wear glasses, study “Science” and aspire to become Doctors and Engineers.

David meanwhile, is on the school track team in addition to getting A’s in Physics, Economics and English Literature. His school makes no false distinction between “Science” and “Arts.” He is constantly told that he has the capacity to be whatever he chooses to be, and he sees evidence around him that people are capable of being many things at once.

In the year below him, there is a straight A student called Teniola, who is also on the track and football teams. In addition to his near-perfect GPA, this guy also makes music in his spare time and he is the ultimate ladies’ man. All the things that Stanley is constantly told he cannot do are what Teniola pulls off with ease – because his personal agency is acknowledged, respected and encouraged.

Teniola is a real person, in case you are wondering. These days, you might know him as TeeZee from the Alté music ensemble DRB LasGidi.

After leaving secondary school, David attends a university where lecturers are regularly graded by their students. The entire tuition process centres on helping students toward a learning outcome, and the experience is a completely adult and respectful one. Stanley has to make do with a state university after failing to get into his first choice, and his four years there are an extension of his secondary school experience. He is regularly failed for no reason by incompetent and sadistic lecturers. His girlfriend is sexually harassed by cultists and he can do nothing about it. Eventually he is warned to stay away from her or else…

She belongs to a cultist now.

As usual, all he can do is be quiet and make himself small. That may be the difference between graduating and maybe having a shot at life, or dying an ignominous death over a trivial reason. If he dies, it is his family’s loss. Everyone else will move on and Nigeria will not stop to acknowledge him for even a second. So he closes his mouth and shuts his eyes.

When David and Stanley eventually meet as adult contemporaries in the same country, they have become irretrievably different from each other. David’s environment and experiences have shaped him to always want more, to always hold authority accountable, to speak truth to power and to never shrink his aspirations for anybody. Stanley has merely been taught to shrink at the first sight of power and always make himself smaller to avoid being spotlighted.

Neither I nor my composite contemporary are at fault for how we are. Stanley will always see me as a pampered, arrogant buffoon who has not earned the right to speak with the confidence I do. I will always see Stanley as an unfortunate character from Plato’s Allegory of the Cave; possessing the ability to free himself, but forever subservient and miserable by choice.

While we engage in our passive-aggressive class warfare, those in power continue to get way with doing as they see fit to Nigeria, knowing that the seeds of our societal self-immolation as adults have been planted right from childhood. As long as the schools, churches and mosques continue as they are, there will always be far more Stanley’s in existence than the headstrong, rebellious types who can challenge the status quo.

The Nigerian ‘machine’ loves Stanley.

Being intentional about childbirth stops self-immolation – Just ask the Chinese

Until fairly recently, China had the world’s strictest population control policy which restricted couples from having more than one child on the pain of, well pain. Errant couples could find themselves on the end of everything from huge fines to forced sterilisations and abortions. In some cases, any children born after the one allowed by regulation were effectively left unrecognised by the Chinese state, forcing their parents to pay out of pocket for everything concerning them including education and health.

The policy is often presented as either a chilling story of Communist-style state oppression or a dramatically successful socioeconomic policy that prevented unplanned population expansion by an estimated 200 million people. Both perspectives are true, but they do not tell the full story of the policy. Other than just freeing up Chinese state resources to develop the country as against subsidising a poor and low-skilled population (sound familiar?) the policy had another equally important effect on the fabric and structure of modern Chinese society.

Prior to the policy, many Chinese couples, particularly in the country’s rural areas had reproductive habits that were strikingly similar to their modern Nigerian counterparts. It was common for couples to have more children than they could take care of for cockamamie reasons like “We wanted a boy” (stop me if you’ve heard that before).

This had the twin effect of causing an unplanned and dangerous population boom and creating a low quality, under-skilled population with no reason for existing other than faulty procreative habits. With no defined direction or purpose for existing, such a population could potentially become restive, and eventually pose a national security risk.

If that all sounds very familiar, then you’re getting the point.

When the Chinese central government imposed the one-child restriction, all of this changed. Overnight, couples had to start putting a lot more care and thought into having a child because they would only get one shot at it. Instead of birthing multiple children as some sort of old-age insurance policy-cum-roulette game, they now had to make sure that the one they had got the best chance to succeed in life.

Over the past 40 years, Chinese parents have become some of the world’s most prolific spenders on all things child-related. Music and drama lessons, elocution classes, private tutors, expensive educational trips, Ivy League degrees, you name it – Chinese parents spend heavily on things that could give their kids a heightened sense of agency and a bigger voice in the world.

The net result of this profound social change was that in a single generation, China moved from having a sub-par, 3rd-world workforce to having probably the deepest talent pool in the world for everything related to engineering, design and management. The tradeoff was that these one-child family kids, born into a world where their parents often went to extremes to develop their individual agency and potential, are said to have something called Little Emperor Syndrome. Apparently, that is the price of transitioning from an industrial childbirth society model to a more intentional and sustainable model.

Little Emperors or not, the Chinese government’s policy has been so successful that it now sees its population primarily as an economic asset, hence the removal of the one-child restriction. Rather than just more mouths to feed, Chinese babies are now among the world’s most resourced kids with access to limitless opportunities as this previously 3rd world country now leads the world into the 4th industrial revolution.

He might be a ‘Little Emperor,’ but he will be far better off than ‘Stanley’ in both today and tomorrow’s world

The takeaway is clear – while you do not have to spend eleventy jillion Naira to send your kids to Grange, you do need to make sure that they become fully-developed, self-confident and productive humans. A good start is to make sure that you only have the number of children that permits you to give them your very best. Birthing one ‘Little Emperor’ may be better than having four ‘Stanley’s’. In the world of tomorrow, ‘Little Emperors’ will hold all the aces. That world has no need for fearful, hierarchy-dependent, unthinking workers built for an obsolete 20th-century industrial society.

It’s time for us to stop “rearing” Stanley’s and start raising Little Emperors.

Our entire future may depend on it.

READ: How we damage Nigerian children for the culture

David Hundeyin is a writer, travel addict and journalist majoring in politics, tech and finance. His work has been featured in the New Yorker Magazine and the Washington Post. Hundeyin is a US Department of State nominee for the International Visitors Leadership Program (IVLP).

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