If a society is not compassionate, it is futile to expect the government to be.
Profound wisdom can be found in the most unusual places and it is not a function of person or time. It may be a statement by a distracted bystander, a confused friend, or even a madman. The main point is for you to find that kernel of insight that takes you to new perspectives perhaps on things you thought you knew well and had always taken for granted. That is the moral of the following narrative about a bum, which was sent to me about ten years ago. As we begin a new year, I find it instructive to illustrate some points about our nation and some unconsidered variables:
“…I had just come from the car wash and was waiting for my wife to get out of work. Coming my way across the parking lot was what society would consider a bum, a middle aged man. From the looks of this man, he had no car, no home, no clean clothes, and no money. There are times you feel generous but there are other times that you just do not want to be bothered. This was one of those days I did not want to be bothered so I hoped the bum would not ask me for any money. The bum came and sat on the curb in front of the bus stop but he did not look like he could have enough money to even ride the bus. After a few minutes the bum said, ‘that is a very pretty car’ to which I replied, ‘thanks’ but the expected plea from the bum for money never came.
As the silence between us widened, I asked, ‘do you need any help?’ I expected nothing but an outstretched grimy hand from a bum. But smiling, the bum spoke the three words that shook me: ‘Don’t we all?’ We often look for wisdom in great men and women, not from a bum wandering in the street. I was feeling high and mighty, successful and important, above a bum in the street, until those three striking words hit me like a bullet from a firing shotgun. Those three simple words remained ringing true in my ears forever:
We all need help in so many ways and for so many things. May be not for a bus fare or a place to sleep, or a piece of cloth or a pair of shoes to wear, but we all need help in some form or another. No matter how much wealth we have accumulated as property or cash money in the bank, no matter how much we have accomplished in our professional career, we still need help from each other. No matter how little we have to share, no matter how loaded we are with problems, even without money or a place to sleep, we can still give some kind of help to somebody else.
Even if it is just a simple and mere compliment for a little child or other person, we can give help to that child or the other person to build confidence and make a difference in life. We need to understand that we may never know when we may see some people that appear to have it all, but still they are waiting on us to give them what they do not have. Maybe the middle aged man was a real bum, or just a homeless stranger wandering the streets.
Maybe he was more than a bum; maybe he was sent by a power from above that is great and wise, to save the lost souls too comfortable in themselves in their own little world and do not even care about their fellow person next door. Maybe God looked down with sympathy, called an Angel from heaven, dressed him like a bum, then sent him to go and minister to me and others like me who desperately need help…”
I could not but reflect on that story last Sunday as Father George Ehusani, the Parish Priest at the Catholic Church of Assumption, Asokoro, Abuja gave my family a special treat. The long and short of it is that by way of Christmas present, Father George, a multi-talented priest who also leads a musical band, plays for selected families during the Christmas holiday season. Last Sunday, we were privileged to have him and his band entertain us for more than two hours right inside our living room. I assumed it was on account of the auxiliary teaching job taken up by my wife at the Catholic school for the underprivileged of Asokoro, which was the subject of a piece I did sometime last year.
With a band comprising nine young men and three ladies, Father George displayed his dexterity with the guitar, as he and his group rendered Christmas songs before he asked my children to join in what turned out a most exciting time out. But shortly after the command performance, Father George shared with us the incredible story of Marbel Ugwuoke, one of the three underprivileged Kpaduma school pupils for whom he succeeded in getting a scholarship into the high-brow Divine Mercy Secondary School. Like other elite secondary schools in Abuja, the school fees for this school are in the million Naira range.
Recognizing that many of the 500 pupils may never have the opportunity of going beyond their current make-shift primary school where school fees is N2,500 per term, Father George decided to initiate a scholarship project to ensure that at least a handful of them receive secondary school education. He got a few of his friends to pledge financial support. But the challenge was whether, on account of the very poor circumstances of the school, any of the pupils could actually pass a secondary school entrance examination.
So with the active support of my wife (who assisted in preparing the schemes of work), the teachers were motivated to work extra hard for about six months after which they shortlisted the best ten pupils who subsequently sat for the entrance exam to Divine Mercy Secondary School, Asokoro. It is instructive to note that some of the parents of these ten children could not even afford the N3000 exam fee and had to be assisted. At the end of it all, three of the pupils passed the entrance exams, and were subsequently admitted. That was last September.
Now to the incredible story: By the end of first term, one of these three students, Marbel Ugwuoke, took the first position in her class of 30 students in this highbrow school attended by children of the elite! A breakdown of her result reveals that of the 15 subjects she sat for, she came first in seven, including computer education!
That a child from such a humble socio-economic circumstance would come out tops in such a school after spending just three months seems unbelievable. But what it shows is the incredible array of human resource talents that are out there on the streets. Besides the waste of what ordinarily are vital assets for any nation, this sort of criminal neglect that is so evident from Kano to Lagos, Enugu and Port Harcourt today will not go without serious consequences for a developing nation like Nigeria.
Incidentally, when the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), a sister company of the London-based magazine, “The Economist,” published its recent report that Nigeria is the worst place to be born in the year 2013, I couldn’t agree with such verdict. But on reflection, I am also aware it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Measuring “what will provide the best environment for the healthiest, safest, and most prosperous life in the coming years”, the survey is based on projections for the year 2030, when the children born this year are expected to come of age. I think we should take the report seriously. Even if we do not as yet have a responsive government, there is so much that we can do as individuals to enrich one another and our community.
The moral in the bum story is that a functional society is founded on the notion that we all have to share one another’s burden in one form or other. That also informs why there is government as we can see from the acrimonious debate in the United States over “Fiscal Cliff”, which essentially is about what each individual American is expected to contribute to the national till to take care of the collective.
While we complain so much about why our government, (at practically all levels) is not working, we may also need to look at ourselves in the mirror. No matter how much noise we make, the change that we seek in our nation must begin with individuals. If a society is not compassionate, it is futile to expect the government to be. If a society takes corruption lightly, as we do in Nigeria, (especially where our friends or kinsmen are concerned) then it stands to reason that it would be reflected in government. If a society is indifferent to the plights of the poor, as it is also evident in Nigeria, that is the way government will be. If the society has degenerated to the level of everyman for himself, as our nation clearly is today, then we delude ourselves to expect anything different from our government.
It is indeed very telling that many of us got to our present station in life because, at some point or another, someone (who may not necessarily be a biological relation), made a critical intervention. But the notorious fact that many of us have long forgotten perhaps explains the primitive individual accumulation at the expense of the collective that has practically become a national ethos. Yet we delude ourselves because, as we have seen in the last 12 months, nobody is safe and secure until all is safe and secure. Because, as the Yoruba adage says, “olowo kan, otosi mefa; otosi ni gbogbo won” (One rich man and six poor relations–all of them are poor).
That is why we need to begin to build a new society that will operate with a greater sense of ‘community’. While I am aware of government failings which is a serious issue, the point here is that there is so much that each of us can also contribute to this society and it will serve our nation well if we begin to do that this year. I wish all my readers a happy and prosperous 2013.
– This piece was first published on ThisDay Backpage.
Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.