Dear David, You’re Not Special: Elitism According to my Dad
Dec 21, 2019 12:03 PM
Back in 2005, I was in Year 10 at Grange School, I had a close friend called TJ. I was a typically weird 15 year-old trying to figure out who I was and my place in the world, so I was a bit up-and-down. I was a great athlete, a rambunctious character and a precocious, albeit totally uninterested student. TJ was the only person who seemed to really connect with me at the time, and we used to spend literally hours on the phone everyday back when instant messaging was not a thing.
One day, TJ turned up at my house unannounced while my parents were out. Now my parents were strict Jehovah’s Witnesses and I was not normally allowed to have visitors, but this was TJ so I smuggled him in.
He was supposed to be there for a pre-exam study session, but we ended up spending an hour touring my house. TJ could not believe it – you live here David?
Your family owns this house? This whole house? I never processed why he was so surprised until a couple of years later when I had a chance conversation with an ex-classmate and it came out – apparently, the word on the street was that my family was poor.
Poverty is in the Eye of the Beholder
Not poor poor, but apparently well short of some unstated ‘Grange standard.’ I asked why, and the answers that came back were as hilarious as they are relevant to what I will explore in this article.
First of all, my school uniform was obtained from the school’s recommended supplier ‘The School Kit Shop’ in Ikeja GRA, which cost the best part of N60,000 for 3 shirts, 2 pairs of trousers and a blazer.
Apparently though, that was a sign of poverty.
Everyone knew that you were only supposed to get your uniform from Marks & Spencer on Oxford Street.
Anything less was poverty.
Then my Bic, Schneider and Eleganza stationery also marked me out as ‘poor’ because you were only supposed to get your stationery from W.H. Smith – come on, everybody knows that. My shoes were another telltale sign of poverty because they were also from The School Kit Shop, while only Somalian refugees did not know that you were only supposed to buy your shoes at Clarks or Debenhams.
What especially marked me out as poor was that my dad used to drop me off and pick me up everyday in a 1989 Peugeot 505, while the others had drivers coming with Toyota Prados, Honda CRVs and the occasional Rolls Royce Phantom. The others had dedicated drivers because their parents were much too busy, while my apparently jobless dad showed up everyday in his beat-up 505, sometimes listening to the “MTN Nigeria Top 10 Countdown” on Cool FM.
Apparently, it was not until TJ visited me at home and saw that I lived in a shamelessly deluxe 8-bedroom mansion with five other (significantly pricier) cars spread across two indoor and outdoor garages that the news started to go round at school that David was not in fact, poor.
According to my source, some even had conspiracy theories that my parents were probably into something illegal and were intentionally hiding their wealth by presenting an unspectacular appearance to the world.
Brutal Honesty: The D.F. Hundeyin Way
There were two reasons why throughout my time at Grange, I never realised that I was the apparently poor kid who was actually better off than 95 percent of my schoolmates. The first was that I grew up in a tightly constricted environment where I basically went nowhere except school and church. As a result, I had very little reference for how other people lived. I assumed all my mates also lived in 8-bedroom houses built across two and a half plots.
I assumed they also had dads who worked from home and had time to do whatever they wanted like mine. I assumed they all had six cars at home too. It wasn’t until I spent a year at Igbinedion University between 2007 and 2008 that I began to fully comprehend just how far removed my experience was from 99 percent of Nigeria’s reality, and I became very self conscious about revealing any personal information. This blissful ignorance helped me breeze through high school without realising that I was supposed to be the poor kid.
The second and more important reason why I had no idea about my apparent poverty was that my dad was always completely transparent with me about how he made money, the sacrifices he had to make for his kids, and his journey to where he was. He made it very clear to me that while he was technically from an aristocratic family in Badagry, “I get am before no be property.” From the age of 16 after leaving secondary school, he had to take his life into his own hands and struggle to make a future for himself.
His mother and sisters sponsored him through his A level program at the Federal School of Science in Yaba, Lagos by weaving and selling rafia mats at the market in Badagry. When he completed his A level program with two A’s and a B, he was offered a generous American scholarship which he used to send himself to university and sponsor his two sisters to nursing school, after which they would become Matrons and highly successful women in their own right. After university, he found a job in the civil service and rose through the ranks through sheer doggedness and hard work, triggering his hereditary high blood pressure and diabetes in the process.
After retiring early at just 39 in 1990, he used his accumulated benefits to set up an extremely successful business flipping real estate in the exploding Lekki area of Lagos. At every step of the way he would tell me, there was pressure to signal to the world that he had “arrived” in the typical Nigerian sense, but he fought it and instead spent most of his money giving his five children the very best education money could buy. He was always very clear about what his responsibility to me was – to provide for me and to give me the best tools to make something of myself in future.
He was never the ostentatious type and he always remarked that even the monstrosity we lived in was my mom’s idea – left to him, the family would still be in a 3-bedroom bungalow in Amuwo-Odofin while he sent his kids to Atlantic Hall and Oxbridge. I lost count of the number of times I heard this sentence while growing up: “Your education is my legacy.”
While we knew that he had a significant real estate portfolio and other assets, he made it brutally clear to us that we should never expect that our future livelihood would come from anything other than the work of our own hands.
“Your education is your inheritance.”
Newsflash: Merely Being Somebody’s Spawn is not an Achievement
This upbringing did two important things for me. First, it made me develop a strong sense of independence and adventure. The closest thing I can liken it to was the ancient Igbo culture where a young man was expected to leave his village and make his fortune by establishing a new one. I cannot remember ever thinking for one minute that after school, my plan would be for daddy to do something for me. In fact after university, we had a religious disagreement and didn’t speak to each other for more than a year, but I was able to find my way and take care of myself because I was raised to be independent and self-reliant.
The second and more important thing this upbringing did for me was that it completely shielded me from the idea that I was special and that the mere fact of having been born to certain people meant the world owed me something. Like dad who left the comfort of his hometown where he could live like a prince, and worked his way up to succeeding in Lagos, I have always had the idea that I have something to prove and that I will need to fight to get it – nothing will be handed to me.
These two life pillars are central to how I think people from similar socio-economic backgrounds in Nigeria have got their worldview terribly wrong. In my assessment, while this group of people have world class education, skills and talents to drive various positive agenda, they lack the audacity, tenacity or mental fortitude to actually be ‘elite’ in the proper sense of the word. Bear in mind that ‘elite’ does not refer to the state of having superior financial circumstances to other people. ‘Elite’ in a general societal context refers to cultural, social and economic leaders.
The purpose of an elite in any country is to embody the purpose and self-image of the country, and to give everyone in the country an example to emulate. Jeff Bezos is an American economic elite because he embodies the American dream of free enterprise creating personal fulfillment and economic growth.
Sir David Attenborough is a British cultural elite because he represents the UK’s self-image of having a central role in human knowledge and advancement.
Nelson Mandela was a South African political elite because he embodied the spirit of the post-apartheid Rainbow nation.
In Nigeria, we already know that we have no real surviving heroes. The old folks have thoroughly compromised themselves and bequeathed a broken country – this is not news. The question is who are the new elite?
Who are the budding cultural, political and economic leaders under 40 who honestly represent a positive national self-image? Atlantic Hall for example, has over its 30-year history graduated no fewer than 2,500 alumni – people from privileged backgrounds who have received a world class education and international exposure. Even allowing for emigration and brain drain, where are these people? And it’s not just Atlantic Hall.
Where are the Loyola students? Grange? British International School? Lekki British International School? American International School? Vivian Fowler Memorial College? Lagoon Secondary School? Greensprings? Corona? Dowen? Chrisland? Olasore? Avi-Cenna? Oxbridge? Igbinedion? Adesoye?
Where are all these privileged, well educated young people? What are they doing with their privilege and education? What cultural impact are we having on Nigeria? What new industries are we building? What political change are we spearheading or catalysing?
What organisations are we building to create and advance a vision for what we want our lives to look like? How many of us are coming together to form political action groups, think tanks, NGOs and disruptive businesses to demonstrate the very purpose of our existence as supposed ‘elites?’
‘Elite’ is a Way of Life, Not an Identity Tag
I am currently active in five different alumni associations and I hold positions in two of them – head of interim publicity committee of the Atlantic Hall Alumni Association and President of the Oxbridge Tutorial College Alumni Association.
These two educational institutions have produced some of Nigeria’s best known cultural and economic elites from the younger generation – Kemi Adetiba, Ada Osakwe, Mark Okoye, Jemima Osunde, Okechukwu Ofili, the list goes on. Yet the simple act of turning up to an Alumni meeting is apparently too much of a bother for most members.
When it is advertised as a ‘Hangout,’ the attendance figures shoot up, but when general meetings are called, potentially bringing dozens of Nigeria’s most enlightened, powerful, educated and well-heeled young people into a room where they can actually create something positive, only a tiny minority actually show up. In fact the last Atlantic Hall alumni general meeting recorded just four people in attendance – something that led the Exco to call an emergency meeting to chart a new way forward.
What manner of ‘elites’ do not understand the importance and power of an alumni association? How exactly are we ‘elite’ if we have all of the network, knowledge, money and capacity we claim to have as individuals, but we cannot pool these things together like the older folks do all the time – even for our own benefit?
Why did our parents spend all those millions of naira on our education, if only for us to end up in little individual silos and cliques, keeping up appearances in public while struggling to get by and relying on them well into our 30s?
If you are from this group of people and you were to die today, how would give an account for all that you have been given in your life up to the present? How would you justify the ‘elite’ status you claim to have by the uncontrollable accident of your birth? What did you do with the tools your birth bestowed on you? Did you use this status to boast about $2,000 shoes on Twitter and post flight itineraries for the admiration of poor Nigerians who will never see the inside of a plane until they die?
Was the point of having all this to merely enable you extend that pathetic high school ‘Oxford Street’ culture into your 20s, 30s and 40s while the country literally crumbles around all of us? Is it your existential purpose to police who wears what and hangs out where, like back in high school 14 years ago?
Are you using your status only to buff your ego by creating exclusive spaces for you and your high school buddies to revel in low quality elitism under the guise of transparently pretentious subcultures? What useful change are you driving in Nigeria?
In the interest of not being a hypocrite, I must answer these questions for myself, so here goes.
In June this year, I wrote, produced and directed an investigative documentary and article about the horrible state of Badagry General Hospital. The story produced results, with increased oversight from the Lagos State Health Service Commission and a change in personnel at the hospital. Maternal mortality for Caesarian section deliveries dropped from 40 percent to under 20 percent – which is still too high, but lives were saved.
In November, I wrote an investigative story about illegal raids by a rogue agency under the FCT Ministry targeting young women in Abuja. Three days ago, Justice Binta Nyarko of the Federal High Court Abuja found in favour of the complainants including one of the women in my story, declaring all such raids purportedly targeting sex workers illegal and granting compensation to the victims. My story was repeatedly cited in the course of the historic trial which has effectively made Nigeria a slightly safer place for women.
By my reckoning, my parents spent nothing less than N25 million on my education from nursery school through university across two continents. Such society-shifting results are what justify the expense – not the new car we bought, or the flight we booked to our January Dubai getaway or the pair of shoes worth Nigeria’s per capita GDP that we wore to a concert. If I want to justify the assumed ‘elite’ status I had in my lifetime before the hypothetical posthumous judgment panel, these are among the proofs I will cite – because what makes one an ‘elite’ as against merely a privileged jackass is that they express their privilege in service to something bigger than themselves.
The vagina you happened to fall out of does not make you ‘elite.’
What you do with the unearned opportunities bestowed by the birth lottery is the test.
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