‘Just manage it’, a phrase which is heard with increasing frequency in Africa, merely exposes our deep-seated lack of self-esteem and how we short-change ourselves. By Onyekachi Wambu
A friend’s experiences with his builders perfectly illustrates this issue. After investing a considerable sum in his new house in an African city, he was expecting high-quality workmanship, i.e., no uneven steps, or windows or doors that don’t close properly.
However, his reasonable demands provoked immediate contention from the builders. It went beyond build quality to questions about the size and design of the rooms. Wasn’t he being a tad extravagant and wasteful having such comfortably-sized rooms, the builders asked.
My friend was perplexed that the builders should want to limit his living space, or challenge his high standards. He stood his ground before the workforce got on with implementing his vision, though now with a simmering resentment.
A few days later, he was further amazed when he overheard the construction team talking about a recently completed house for a European expatriate. The workers talked about the amazing house – marble everywhere, huge rooms, and even the toilets were finished to the highest standards. It was like a palace, fit for kings and queens!
At this point my friend shook his head in despair, wondering why his attempts to create not a palace but just a comfortable house in their locality, had been so fiercely challenged by the construction team.
Suffer and smile
What was going on? Was it a deep psychological belief that we don’t deserve the best, that life must be joyless, and we must – to paraphrase the great Fela Kuti – simply suffer and smile?
This attitude is everywhere in the African world. While I was travelling in the Caribbean recently, eight people were crammed into a five-seat taxi, making the journey totally uncomfortable and joyless. This practice of making do, or squeezing into the tight margins of life, lends itself very quickly into accepting mediocrity.
This was again illustrated by my recent experience when visiting a market in Nigeria to buy a small table. It was a win-win situation. I needed said table, and the market women, who had had very little trade that day, desperately needed a sale. However, the four legs of the table were badly uneven, so things left on top were liable to slide off. When I complained, the women begged me to ‘just manage it’.
When asked who had made the table, they named a local carpenter who makes all their tables and chairs. When asked why they would purchase uneven tables from their supplier to sell to the public their response was again: “We just manage it.”
My conundrum: do I purchase this table to help the women and the local economy or do I insist on the best and go elsewhere and buy a well-made, probably foreign table? The irony is that in the 60s and 70s the local craftsmen used to make perfect high-quality chairs and tables, some of which my family still possess.
I bought the table for the sake of the local economy but later on, viewing it side by side with the table from the 60s, the deterioration in craftsmanship and gulf in overall excellence that had taken place was clearly evident.
But it’s not just about the table. We now do ‘just manage’ politics, ‘just manage’ housing, roads, hospitals, infrastructure, schools, universities, etc. If you want good medical treatment or education you avoid ‘the just manage it’ situation and seek solace abroad.
There is a great need for a big campaign on how we might begin to move beyond the ‘just manage it’ attitude and think about African joy and pleasure even whilst doing the most banal and mundane things. Yes, we have great challenges and there is great poverty, but there is also a poverty of ambition which often makes us settle too readily for the mediocre.
I did later go back to the women in the market and explain that I would be insisting on higher standards from them, and they must do the same from their supplier. We can’t compete globally with such mediocrity. Beyond that we owe it to ourselves when we produce things, for them to give us joy. NA