When a culture that defines economic opportunity as the massive manufacture of inferior material quick fixes for Africa (China) meets, falls in love with, and marries a culture that is pathologically resistant to maintenance (Nigeria), the results can be devastating.
From Lagos or Abuja to the hinterland, you keep changing rooms within a hotel. With every call for a room change, you notice the exasperation in the voices and on the faces of hotel staff who don’t understand all the fuss. Then you start changing hotels when you run out of options within a particular hotel.
You used this same hotel just last year. This same room. Everything brand new, gleaming from China. Now one or two bulbs are dead. The toilet roll holder is bent or broken. The shower curtain is torn. The water heater in the bathroom is heating water at half capacity. The toilet is no longer flushing properly and needs to be fixed. The list goes on. Very little things that are hard to spot because everything is still gleaming and luxurious.
For every complaint, there is an explanation and a suggested solution accompanied with a lot of begging.
The toilet is not flushing? Oga please, just run water in the bucket and pour it into the toilet bowl. E go flush. We will try to fix it tomorrow. Tomorrow usually never comes.
The toilet seat is broken? Oga, please just lift it up and sit on the rim of the toilet.
The water heater is not bringing the water to a boil? Oga please, we will bring you hot water now now from the kitchen.
Here, the solution is never in fixing the problem but in making the mediocrity nicer and more accommodating. And from Maitama to Nyanya, Banana Island to Okokomaiko, this is the prevalent culture.
The soul begins to get weary. This is your world. This is your soil. This is your soul. These are your peeps. The oxygen of this land defines you. How can you be an outsider to their culture? Are you an outsider? Where is the border between fastidiousness and insistence on the basic little things that define human dignity in the modern world?
Are you being overbearing and unreasonable? Are you the arrogant importer of the cultures, standards, and values of other lands into this space? After all, these rooms that you keep abandoning for other rooms have been inhabited every day by other Nigerians since you were last here a year ago.
The Nigerians who inhabited these rooms flushed their shit by pouring water from a bucket; saw nothing wrong with a dead bulb because the lighting in the room is still great; did not insist on the water heater being fixed because hot water arrives promptly from the kitchen in a bucket. They lived in and standardized this mediocrity. If they can stay in this sort of luxurious hotel, they are the elite. They are the ones who establish, define, and drive culture in the land. Their culture invariably defines the culture of the land. Yet this room is like this because they have lived it as their world and culture. They have made love in it, checked out and tipped generously without seeing anything wrong.
In order not to be an alienated diasporan always grumbling and looking down on things, you say, ok, maybe there are little compromises you can make for and with the culture. In the 21st century, somebody will loot, build a hotel worth billions of naira, and put only one socket near the toilet, far from the bed area. It means you have to go and charge your laptop and phones near the toilet.
Professors Adeleke Adeeko and Tejumola Olaniyan have their own little compromise: bring your two-kilometre long extension wire box from the US to avoid stories that touch. They travel with backpacks the size of a Dangote container, filled with little things that can help you make your hotel room fit for human dignity as defined by 21st century standards.
I say, ok, my own compromise will be with wifi. Last year, it was half strength in many hotels. This year, it is half the strength of last year’s half strength in many hotels. When I click send on that email, I say to myself, I am content with grabbing a glass of Orijin and watching the drama on my screen. Gmail will say “still working”. After three minutes, Gmail will say “oops, your message has not been sent”. Sips Orijin, clicks send again: “still working”, then after another five minutes, “your message has been sent”. One down, twenty more messages to go. Orijin will see me through.
The self doubt returns. The self flagellation returns. To what extent is your little compromise to blend with your culture a rationalization of mediocrity? Why should insisting that a light bulb be changed, a toilet seat be fixed, water pressure be made consistent with acceptable standards be deemed imposition of Oyinbo culture?
How did these little things, so essential to the basic dignity of humanity, come to be fixed in the collective imaginary of this land as Oyinbo attitudes that are strange to our essential culture? In accepting even the slightest compromise in order to maintain your sanity, are you not facilitating the lazy ways in which they define maintenance culture as an Oyinbo thing and even proceed to develop a very hostile attitude to it?
This morning finds me in yet another hotel room in a new hotel. Everything checked out yesterday. We did a most meticulous check and I finally basked and certified it close to the standard of a 4-star hotel in Ottawa, Paris, or London. Then I wake up to shower this morning. No hot water. Somehow, between my inspection at 6 pm yesterday and this morning, the witches of Isanlu had gotten to the water heater. It has packed up. China.
I call to complain. We will bring you water from the kitchen sir.
No, I don’t want water from the kitchen.
We will change your room sir.
Nope, that is not what I want.
We will send maintenance sir.
What do you want sir?
You need to change the water heater.
Yes. I am not asking for me. I am asking for you, for your future, for your humanity. I am doing it to change your mindset for the sake of the future of your children. It gets to a point where even fixing things is not a solution. You also change things. A hotel this size, a hotel this luxurious ought to have a maintenance storage space for replacement things anyway. This ought to have been part of the thinking of the proprietors.
They transfer me to the Manager. The Manager almost has a heart attack when he hears me. Prof, you will need to talk to Chief o. I don’t know who Chief is but I think he is the owner or one of the owners of the hotel.
They give me Chief’s number. I phone, greet him very warmly and introduce myself as one of his guests. Chief is very warm and affable too. Then I tell him what is going on. He is a little surprised. Must be a first for him. Then he says, Prof, you know, you may be right. I will have maintenance check it and if it really cannot be fixed, we will install a new one latest tomorrow. Awon China yen ni. We bought and installed those heaters just last year o. They are packing up after one year. By the way, Prof, anything you eat and drink today is on the house.
If you are reading this and you are in a hotel, a government office or space, your own home, please get something changed. Insist that the dead bulb must be changed today. Do not shit and flush with water from a bucket today. They must fix that toilet. What about that old towel that is no longer even fit for a floor towel? Don’t use it this morning. Insist on talking to a manager. They must give you a new towel.
One million of you can change the destiny of Nigeria and repair this deleterious mindset by rejecting something today no matter how minimal.
I come against that spirit in you that justifies everything which defines basic human civilization as “oyinbo stuff”.