Breezy Tribalism

The other day on one of the WhatsApp group chats I follow, someone shared a picture. It was a row of young men at a corporate presentation looking dapper. The idea of sharing this particular picture was just Hey, look, its me and my boys looking fresh to death. Nothing serious. Not so apparently because before long the conversation slid into comments about the tribes of the people in the picture. (As you can imagine, the members of this group are almost all from one tribe.)

“That one has a face like Yoruba.” “Look at this Hausa man.” Stuff like that. There wasn’t anything said that was directly offensive and usually one can accept some jocularity, but there was a subtext to the whole thing that made me uneasy. Like we are better than these others. It reminded me of how, growing up, I came to imbibe several pejorative stories about different tribes in Nigeria. This one will cheat you. This one is a trickster. This one cannot be trusted. Etc. So many of these ideas are imprinted in our minds when we are young and most impressionable. By the time we are old enough, these stereotypes are too tightly rolled up within us to be unwound even if we wanted to.

It was only after living in South Africa where I witnessed what a society built on racism was like that I came to really despise tribalism. I believe tribalism is no different from racism, frankly. (And other forms of prejudice, but lets focus on these two for this post) It relies on the same vague beliefs and broad, mostly pejorative, assumptions about collectives. Remarkably, many people who despise racism are entirely happy to nurture a rabid sort of tribalism in their hearts. They get angry because that white fellow gave them shit service at the restaurant for no other reason than that they are black, but they will tell their daughters to not date a fellow from this other tribe.

Some of my best people are Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa, Bini, Idoma, Urhobo, Itsekiri, Ibibio, Efik, Oro, Buganda, Shona, Kikuyu, Basotho, Ashanti, Batswana, Pedi, New Yorker, Dutch, Jewish, Cape Coloured,… I don’t even know where it ends.

So I must judge people based on who they are. I must give people the benefit of the doubt. I call out any kind of ridiculous prejudice around me whenever I can. In this particular group everyone went deathly quiet when I pointed out this breezy tribalism. This tells me that I was dealing with fundamentally decent people. They were embarrassed by their own unconscious prejudice. But that’s how deep it has driven into our psyches. We don’t even know when it is there. We are all victims of this, me too.

Staff Buses

Every morning on my way to work I drive past buses carrying the sleepy staff of various institutions in the private and public sectors. Where ever you are in any city in Nigeria look for a Coaster bus and there is a good chance you have found one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of such fleets run by institutions as varied as the Navy Dockyard, the Ministry of Justice, Zenith Bank, Etisalat, AIICO Insurance and so on.

It appears these institutions have worked out that running these fleets is an overall better proposition for them than not doing so. It is certainly not costless since it involves a non-trivial commitment to a line of business–transportation–quite different from one’s core competence.

I can see how this might make sense for a single institution seeking to optimise its output: better to provide a transport solution for your staff than suffer the consequences of not doing so. But what could these consequences be? Disgruntled employees? Late employees? Risk of losing staff because you do not provide easy transportation? I don’t know. What I do know is that there are many employees who do not have these facilities but carry on. Drivers, for instance, don’t have staff buses. Yet they must be at work at 6am on the dot to get ready for the day ahead. This may just be a legacy perk that institutions are too scared to remove. It would be interesting to compare the frequency of this practice in newer v. older institutions (however you define this).

But let’s step back a bit and consider an optimised transport solution from say a city-wide vantage point. From this macro level it is clear that the setup is not great. In fact, it is terrible. I can think of at least three broad areas why:

  1. Downtime: Rather than a fleet of buses that traverse the length and breadth of a city continuously throughout the day each day, we have these fleets that work twice a day (beginning and end) and are parked the rest of the time. The drivers and buses are underutilised.
  2. Duplication/Lack of Scale: Does each institution need its own bus(es) for staff travelling from Victoria Island to Ikorodu? It should be better to aggregate all commuters along this route and to find a solution for this big problem rather than having several micro solutions.
  3. Lower efficiency: Transportation is not the primary business of any of these institutions. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that they haven’t managed to develop the competence to achieve the efficiencies of a pure play transport provider.

All of this amounts to a wasteful, expensive and staggeringly inefficient setup. But it is also a frustratingly familiar arrangement. We have several templates for how we end up with miniaturised, private solutions for what are vast, public challenges that require scale interventions. We use boreholes with local filtration systems rather than pipe borne water. We import ship loads of refined fuel which are transported on trucks on our torn roads rather than vast refineries that rely on pipes. We use small domestic generators to power our homes intermittently rather than an electricity grid that provides 24-hour electricity. The list goes on and on and on and on.

 

Bad Stuff Fatigue

By now you’ve probably seen this crazy video of a dead frog in a sealed container of Cway water. Also, take a look at this tweetstorm of what I am assuming is the same event.

My reaction? Mostly Meh. I mean at some level I am outraged. It really is criminal if there is a systematic dropping of standards in the quality of water that is represented as pure. And this is not a philosophical issue either, we only ever use Cway water in the house, so this dead frog saga is a problem. But still, I’m mostly Meh.

Why?

I think it is because of bad stuff fatigue. (I don’t know if this is a technical term but I suspect it has close parallels with actual mental conditions that people in highly stressful situations display.)

In Nigeria, you get pulled in so many directions at the same time that you live in a sort of defensive stance to withstand the blows of a capricious and random environment. You are moved by nothing but the most immediate, direct and critical threat to you (and your loved ones’) continued existence. There are simply too many atrocities. Off the top of my head, I can rattle off a whole list without thinking too much about it.

The massacre of the Shiites and the jailing of their leader and members of his family; the jailing of bloggers; the starvation in Borno; my N250,000 air-conditioner which I used once before it went poof; the car which I can’t fix because it is too costly but can’t sell because everyone’s broke; the recession all around and the imminent Venezuelaisation of Nigeria; the woman with the gangrenous tit I saw in CMS this morning begging; the disabled kids begging every day I drive home from work on Alfred Rewane Road; the faces of the countless street hawkers I drive past every day who are just trying to survive; the kids chasing my car to wash my windscreen for a bit of cash–they should be in school; the water turning brown all of a sudden in the house and what that means for bathing my kids; the cost and availability of diesel; the water seepage in our new house this wet season and what it will cost to water proof all the vulnerable spots; the lack of a gutter to collect rain water at the back of the house and the consequent damage this is doing to the wall and the doors.

I could go on. The point is, big and small, near and far, we live in a state of siege by the relentless force of an army of nasty things. Whatever sliver of concern, empathy or anger we may have is crushed, finally, by our awareness of the staggering apathy of our government and fellow citizens to any other citizen’s suffering. You are alone.

To cope we become apathetic. We unlook. We almost have to, to survive.

 

The Obligatory “Testing” Post

So here I am, testing. I hope this will become my blog going forward. I am going to be posting stuff about my life, my work and anything that catches my fancy. I have no idea how this will work. It might be one of those thing I will abandon (and then regret later on) or I may be able to make something of it.

Whatever happens here’s to a great start.