Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Shut Up! Am I Your Mate?!

Let's talk about respect. 
"A positive feeling of esteem of deference for a person or other entity, and also specific actions and conduct representative of that esteem."
And respect in Nigeria?
*Silence.* "Yes, sir." *Silence.*

I have always lived in Nigeria. Growing up in a middle-class household where I was the last child, in the larger context of an educated extended family where I was the youngest girl, adults (not just family members) liked me. They thought I was irrepressible, funny, quick - they encouraged me to speak my mind and sometimes even to contribute to their conversations. It was like living an episode of 'Kids Say' every day. 

Then I went to boarding school, and suddenly none of the adults wanted to hear my voice anymore. I wasn't allowed to question anything or chime in, regardless of the relevance or value of my contributions. I went from being called sharp and funny to being called rude and 'mannerless'. The fact that I had an opinion, that I could think for myself, became a problem instead of a plus. I was beaten and sent out of class by teachers who were affronted by my audacity to raise my hand when they had not opened the floor. I heard things like:

"Oya come and take over now, ITK ('I too know', or 'know-it-all'.)"
"You are very stupid. You were not even born when I started teaching!"
"I know your mother, she is a very nice woman. I'm sure she trained you well, so I don't understand where this rudeness is coming from."

I later learned that I was often the topic of staff room conversations. Things were worst of all with my English and Literature teachers; one of them, having been promoted to principal, vetoed the student body's election of me as head girl because I was 'rude and indisciplined.' And this trend continued the older I got, the more certain of myself and my ideas and place in the world I became. I started to hear things like:

"Don't you know you're a Nigerian girl?"
"Your strong-head (stubbornness) is too much. No one will marry you."
"This your white-girl behavior is so fake. Stay there and be deceiving yourself."

There is something wrong with a culture in which a young person (read: young woman, but that is another post entirely) having a mind of her own is perceived as behavior deserving of punishment. When young people are infantilized while older adults and/or people in positions of authority are practically deified, how can we expect to raise much other than mindless mules? A Nigerian 'adult's word is law, without question. A person who dares to ask for explanation or require presentation of rationale is instantly branded rebellious and disrespectful. (Yet these older adults expect these young people to, after years of being taught to follow instructions like mute sheep, go out and change the world. Or at least Nigeria, so they can have light and water and not have to bribe policemen every day.)
I am reminded of this: We were told as children, 'you are tomorrow's leaders', yet tomorrow has come and yesterday's leaders remain. And now our parents are complaining that nothing is changing, even though we are grown. So I ask them, how is this magical leap from "shut up!" to "speak out against the madness!" supposed to come about? 

Nigeria doesn't have a voiceless youth population; we have a silenced one. 

Until we learn to let our children think for themselves, to use their voices at home and in school and in religious gatherings, until authority figures no longer feel threatened by honest inquiry and constructive criticism, Nigeria will not change. Our greatest resource is our youth, whose greatest resource is their minds, yet we perpetuate a culture that stifles those minds. So you, Pastor, Principal, Parent, next time you want to point fingers and cast blame about the state of our nation, you know exactly where to look. You are entirely complicit in the production of incompetent graduates and vapid young adults. You are responsible for Nigeria's stagnation. Don't look to us to change the country; look to yourself to handle your authority better. 

Let tomorrow's leaders be great, and see if Nigeria won't follow suit. 

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