Memoirs Of An Immigrant: Shuffering and Shmiling
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In the early 70’s popular Nigerian artist Fela Kuti released “shuffering and shmiling” a song that served to juxtapose the chaotic environment of Africa with the blinding optimism of its indigenes. Optimism that many times was the product of a mass flooding of religious hope into the minds of Africa’s people. According to Fela “suffer suffer for world, enjoy for heaven” was the motto that seemed to place the minds of Africans into a false sense of enjoyment, one that caused them to ignore their current and often chaotic predicament and remain enthusiastically optimistic for a future that was bleak. Not surprisingly Fela’s song received national criticism from the upper echelons of the Nigerian government, who condemned his obvious claim of suffering. And by the lower class Nigerian citizenship seemingly offended with the notion that somehow they were satisfied with their current state of poverty. In 2003 Fela would be vindicated posthumously by a World Value Survey carried out by the University of Michigan. A survey that listed Nigerians as the happiest people in the world. A happiness that occurred amidst nefarious statistics courtesy www.ruralpoverty.com showing that 35% of Nigerians lived in abject poverty with more than double that number considered as poor. All this while still being ranked as the 20th poorest nation in the world. But somehow we had found a way to the top of a happiness poll?
As an immigrant into the United States I was confused, surely something must have been wrong with the survey sample. Surely the Nigerians that were surveyed were not the ones I spoke to on a weekly basis that complained about the bad roads or the consistently inconsistent power and water supply? Surely they did not include the hundreds of Nigerians that crowded foreign embassies clamoring for a chance of another life in any other country but Nigeria? Surely it did not include my Dad, who had his business run to the ground by greedy government officials insistent on getting paid undocumented business taxes? Surely it did consist of the Nigerians Fela had in mind when he sang…
Everyday my people dey inside bus, Shuffering and Shmiling
49 sitting 99 standing, Shuffering and Shmiling
Dem go pack dem self in like Sardine, Shuffering and Shmiling
Dem dey faint dem dey wake like cock, Shuffering and Shmiling
Dem go reach e house, water no dey, Shuffering and Shmiling
Dem go reach e bed, power no dey, Shuffering and Shmiling
Dem go reach e road, go-slow go halt, Shuffering and Shmiling
Dem go reach e road, police go slap, Shuffering and Shmiling
Dem go reach e road, Army go whip, Shuffering and Shmiling
Dem go look pocket, money no dey, Shuffering and Shmiling
Dem go reach e work, query ready, Shuffering and Shmiling
Everyday nah de same
But unfortunately it did. The survey consisted of the same suffering Nigerians who had somehow found a reason to smile for the World Value Survey; with a happiness ranking higher than both America and the United Kingdom combined. A ranking so economically illogical that it warranted a personal investigation by myself into the mechanisms that produced the survey results. The original article as published by the British New Scientist Magazine showed the survey results were determined from two key questions. The first question asked how “happy” an individual was at a particular moment. Under this context Nigerians came out on top. The second question asked how “satisfied” an individual was with life as a whole, finances and health. In this category Nigeria ranked near the middle for satisfaction. Both results were arithmetical averaged and Nigeria was determined to be the happiest nation in the world.
However, behind the survey science lay a trend that was hidden from much of news media outlets, out of all the countries surveyed, Nigeria was the only country in which its people were happy despite being less satisfied with life. Only Fela could have said it best, “Nigerians were suffering and smiling,” a situation that he blamed on the religiously influenced dogmatic optimism that possessed Nigeria. An optimism that not only isolated Nigerians from the apparent poverty they faced but also isolated the Government from its social responsibility to its people. Somehow according to Fela religion had made Nigeria dangerously optimistic.
This notion of religiously fueled dangerous optimism pushed my memories all the way back to my early childhood. A child hood in Nigeria that had religion as a mandatory part of life, almost everything involved religion. Unlike America there was no separation of religion from state, they were both combined, and this was evident from the mass number of churches that were scattered across the landscape. Missionaries visiting Nigeria always marveled at the religious enthusiasm of Nigerians it was intense. As a child I experienced my fair share of religious enthusiasm as a student at a catholic elementary school. Our morning assemblies consisted of both impromptu and memorized prayers that lasted up to an hour. And prayer did not simply stop at the assembly it continued in the classrooms at 12 noon when the bell rang for our prayer to Mary Magdalene. This was the norm for me, I just showed up and prayed whenever I was required to.
My religious innocence however became challenged as I got older and more socially conscious. A consciousness that sparked an internal battle between my religious and social spirits. I wanted to go out and do the things those teenagers my age did, unfortunately there was a slight problem. The problem was my mum; she was as religious as you could get. A missionary in Church, she prayed in the morning, listened to scriptures in the afternoons and preached to us at night. We went to Church almost every other day, Tuesday was bible study, Wednesday was prayer meeting, Saturday was Youth service and Sunday was the dreaded general service that lasted up to five hours long, it was terrifying. As a family we spent 50% of our lives in church, not even including the other 10% we spent at home praying. Suffice it to say, our family was a holy as you could possibly get.
Church sermons at that time revolved around a common theme, call on God for all your problems and he would answer you. This theme was spread through the sound systems of a myriad of churches across the nation. The theme focused on God as the solution of all of our nation’s problems, family problems, personal problems and even electric problem. Ironically I had a problem with this, one that was suppressed for years in Nigeria but only allowed to mature in America. In sharp contrast to Nigeria, church services in America were exceedingly short and straight to the point. But the key contrast did not reside in the length of the service, but rather in the theme of the service. A theme that similar to churches in Nigeria spoke about God as the solution to all problems, but only if intertwined with an effort from the congregation. From their view point it was not alright to accept ones position of poverty with a hope that God in his time would make it better, you had to be willing to do something about your poverty. But ironically this part of religion is mostly overlooked in Nigeria, where God is pushed to the masses as the ultimate solution without demanding anything from the citizens. And the citizens in return don’t demand anything from their Government, instead they bypass the government and look up to God for hope. In doing so they expect little from the Government and little for themselves, this concept of little gives birth to the distorted conception by the world value survey analysis that somehow Nigerians are happy.
In the words of Desmond Tutu “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said “Let us pray.” We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.” A statement that lays emphasis on what happens when religion is drunk without the consumption of social issues. Nigeria and Africa as a whole have to take a page from the American religious system. We have to charge people that to demand more from themselves and government, while simultaneously praying to God as a catalyst for the solution. Only then can we experience true happiness.
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