Sunday, August 10, 2008

Shuffering & Shmiling

Another memoir from Ofilispeaks. Sad to think that 30 years later, Fela's insightful analysis of the Nigerian state of being is still ever so apt. As Ofili puts it, "Nigerians have bypassed the government and look to God for hope". Necessarily a bad thing? Not if it gets you through the day. However, this system of "shuffering and smiling" is not sustainable, as things cannot progress without an accountable (and active) government in place. As our leaders turned themselves into demi-gods and drove our nation further into the ground between 1999 and 2007, we suffered and smiled. As the new administration busies itself with nothing, we continue to do what we do best. I only hope that we don't wake up one day to find that we have raised a new generation of suffering smilers who have learned to expect nothing of their leaders and wait in vain for elusive divine interventions.


Memoirs Of An Immigrant: Shuffering and Shmiling - Ofili

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 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 childhood in Nigeria that had religion as a mandatory part of life, almost everything involved religion...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 as 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 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.


Nigerian Drama Queen said...

After this sentence,
"We have to charge people to demand more from themselves and government, while simultaneously praying to God as a catalyst for the solution"- there is nothing else that needs to be said. That right there is the truth.

This was a beautiful piece. I enjoyed reading it.
*Hides head in shame* I am not as well versed in Fela as I should be, so thanks for the insight into that song
*Chides self* Why am I just discovering your blog?!!!

Naapali said...

I liked most of this write up as it echoes many thoughts and conversations I have had. It recognizes Fela for the sage that he was, his music now seems like revelations from a higher power. Not only did he write Shuffering and Smiling but he also wrote Army Arrangement about how Obasanjo and Yaradua rigged elections and the whole population did nothing. It was true in 1979 and true in 2007.

I fear that the writer though displayed an unwillingness to take his argument to its logical conclusion that religion has been a barrier to progress in Nigeria. The suggestion that religion as practiced in America is a model to adopt is an erroneous almost dangerous one. Religion as currently publicly practiced in Nigeria has left the realm of private belief and conduct to become one of public expectation. If America's vocal religious leaders had their way, they would model many parts of American life after that of Nigerian public life and not vice versa.

Anonymous said...

naapali firstly thanks for your comments. Am a little bit confused to your point. Are you saying that America should emulate the Nigerian religious practice of public expectation? If so can you explain what aspects you think America would like to copy.

Secondly my point with Nigerian emulating American religion stems from my experience in an African American church and my current experience at Lakewood. At Wheeler Avenue Baptist church they had lots of programs on Education and AIDS, they brought up their congregation in the word while equipping them with data to survive. Lakewood in the same light would conduct Financial classes on money managment while preaching the word. The point is Nigeria too many times preach the word and forget the practicalilty needed..."God helps does who help themselves"

Unknown said...

"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."

I totally agree with Fela's stance on this as outlined by the writer. I also agree with Naapali:

"...that religion has been a barrier to progress in Nigeria."

This is what I don't get about Nigerians and religion -

Our ability to always select the 'no reasoning/no thinking' button, using our religion to justify our inaction without seeing the limitations this brings to our collective conscience as a nation when we totally allow ourselves to be immersed in it...not acting as rational human beings should be able to when there is a problem...irrespective of what faith we subscribe to.

Jennifer A. said...

Kai! Desmond Tutu's statement, though seemingly harsh, is so true (for lack of better words). When we opened our eyes we had the bible, and they had the land.

The University of Michigan succeeded in proving what Fela sang about many years this point I've gotta thank Fela for being a genius.

I like what Ofilispeaks said in response to Naapali, "Nigerians too many times preach the word and forget the practicality needed..." We've gotta step up and not use Religion to cover up our hidden sufferings (which we can solve by the intellectual abilities God has bestowed upon us). It's time to rise up.

Like NDQ said, this was indeed a beautiful piece...I not only enjoyed reading it, I also got some inspiration from it.


"We have to charge people to demand more from themselves and government, while simultaneously praying to God as a catalyst for the solution."

I don't think I could ever have put it so succinctly. When i try to make this argument, I am sent emails that i am encouraging public disorder!!!!

There is a psychological deficit in Nigeria and I attribute it to religion (Xtian and native, but can't speak for Islam) this notion of constantly waiting for a miracle, without realizing that we can make our miracles happen.

Oh well, it was nice to read this. I am looking for inspiration on what next to write about but alas, I will just keep reading today.

For the love of me said...

A very well written piece. One of those write ups you save to read again and again.
Tolu Ogulensi had something on religion and Nigerians in today's guardian.
Will be back to leave a proper comment.

Naapali said...

@ Ofili; thanks again for your writing and response. I reread my comment and realize I gave up clarity in seeking brevity.

My concern about modeling Nigerian religious/spiritual life is that all is not as rosy as it may seem in American Christian practice. The Christian Right in America would seek to move America closer to where religion is no longer a private communion but a public litmus test of one's worthiness in society.

My opinion is that for Nigeria to flourish it must be completely secular in public and people are free to their private beliefs, privately.

Unknown said...

Beautifully written article. I've always leaned towards the thinking of the author of this article. Its amazing/insulting to see how much these religious heads in Nigeria lay so much emphasis on the prime reason to success being God/religion, and in fact many of these same folk don't speak much of subversion, resistance or action against the unscrupulous kleptocrats who milk their own country dry, since the days of Fela till now. That of course isn't to say that religion is the cause of Nigeria or even Africa's problems collectively but it certainly plays a cataclysmic role in pacify the minds of a populace that should be damn well furious with their leaders and request for a much more equitable,fairer and convenient treatment.

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