Six Million Dreamers, with Eyes Wide Open, By Eloho Omowande Omame
My friend Ifeanyi Uddin challenged me to write, so I write. I feel honoured that he would indulge a guest post from me, although I am unconvinced that my thoughts could be interesting to anyone other than he or I.
Lately, I find that I am obsessive about issues affecting the economics and politics of Nigeria. I am impatient with news coverage, domestic or international, and carry with me a building sense of anxiety. I wake with it, sleep with it and go about my days with it. It is interesting that this feeling, that has me typing this piece at two o’clock in the morning as 2013 comes to a close, is one that I did not have 18 months ago, when I left Nigeria for the UK on a sabbatical.
I left my heart in Nigeria, with every intention of coming back home, and there has never been a desire to build a new life elsewhere. So nowadays, this sense of what sometimes feels like panic follows me. I am afraid, I believe, of two things. First, that time is running out. Second, that this feeling will build up until I explode, an internal combustion of sorts. Until I am scattered in a thousand pieces and strewn alongside dusty roads spread across the length and breadth of my country. No hyperbole here – that is how I imagine it.
Ifeanyi and I are at different points in our thoughts about Nigeria. He believes that when I am as old and wise as he, I will understand his apparent stoicism. But, the more I think about it, I realise that this prediction lies at the core of what frightens me most: it is only a matter of time before Nigeria breaks my heart. My country will eventually remove from me every sense of hope or possibility. I will lose the capacity to vision, and will be left with a broken spirit. Unless I am mindful, Nigeria will rob me even of the consciousness one day that my head is no longer held high, and, while doing it, she will distract me by making light of a predicament that ultimately isn’t hers, but mine, and lay charge after charge of conspiracy at the feet of those kind enough to point out toxic failings that I should already see.
I’ve read that people’s lives are motivated, fundamentally, by one of three desires: to find love, make money, or change the world. My country doesn’t make it easy to do any of these, and I have been unable to think of a credible fourth. Who could care about love when you barely have a moment to yourself, dealing with the complicated logistics of everyday life? Or, when unemployment means you have so much time on your hands that you can’t afford a meal? How could anyone change the world when his or her own reality looms, dark and invasive to the point of distraction? Who dreams about changing a world they barely feel connected to? And as for making money – I imagine this to mean a whole lot of money, not a paycheck – how many of us honestly feel that Nigeria is a place where, short of a random stroke of luck or a much prayed-for miracle, an average Joe can do that?
So where does that leave us? The painful truth I’ve learned over the past 18 months is simply this: as Nigerians, the world expects the worst from you and I. I didn’t fully appreciate this until I stepped away, quieted down, and saw Nigeria from their point of view. One of the Economist’s predictions for 2013 was that the world’s unluckiest children, with the bleakest futures, would be born in Nigeria. The World Bank estimates that six million babies are born in our country each year. We could argue methodology. That wouldn’t take away the sting.
Earlier this year, in the midst of early confusion about the details of the Woolwich killings in London, I remember waking up to Sky News on the second day – their breaking news was that Lee Rigby’s killers were ‘of Nigerian descent’. Others were still sketchy, but this detail was apparently worth releasing and no doubt said it all. Our children may never escape us. I open global rankings now and my eyes automatically skim to the bottom. I exhale only when my country ranks more than five places up from last. My habit betrays a shameful tell: I am also beginning to expect the worst – from you and I, not from Nigeria; she exists only as a collective moniker for us.
Ifeanyi quoted me out of context in his ‘Playing the Ostrich’ piece of November 25 2013. He paints the picture of one who is naïve and, consequently, one who even I would label as irresponsible. My point in our long running debates is merely this: my biggest concern is not that Nigeria’s coffers will one day lie bare. Instead, I fear that because our own spirits are crushed, we tell our children, through words or practice, directly or indirectly, that Nigeria is not a place where they can dream. And they will tell the same to their own children. Fiscal leaks can be plugged, corruption can be stamped out – we may not have achieved it, but we’ve seen it done. Take away a people’s capacity to vision though, strip them of life’s basic motivations and you have taken futures away from their generations.
By now, you’ve probably guessed which of the three – love, money or changing the world – is my own motivator. My deepest desire is to see my world changed. That is what I work towards every day. That’s what keeps me up at night and has me restless from one day to the next. I believe that if 160 million of us could each change our own little worlds, 7 billion of them would stand up and take notice. Close your eyes and imagine it. Can you?
Eloho Omowande Omame is a finance professional, with over a decade’s experience in global corporate finance, working in the UK and Nigeria. She is a follower of, and believer in, all things Nigeria. She wrote this piece in challenge of claims in Ifeanyi Uddin’s article of November 25 2013.