I attended a private school. It was one of the best in Ughelli. I grew up in this small town. Father loved education. He believed it was his only way to escape poverty. He ensured we got it.
I did not get a new uniform termly or every session, but my uniform was well maintained. I trekked to and back from school daily. For me and my contemporaries at that time, this was not strange. We enjoyed the trekking–trips. We chatted and played mischievous games.
We ate only breakfast. No lunch in school. Yet, we were perfectly fine. Lunch and dinner was at home. Most neighborhood kids lived pretty much the same way. This was considered normal.
Father’s love for education was evident in success. Everyone with his surname- Daniel Ighalo Aziegbe excelled academically. I was no exception all through my education.
After university, my preoccupation was to get a job. I wanted (1) to work and (2) leave Nigeria for further education- a Masters Degree. With a Bachelor Degree, I got the best Nigeria could offer. I wanted something else. I craved the international exposure.
In 2013, after four years of working, my dreams came true!
I received a full fellowship in a US–accredited institution in Europe. All I had to do was get myself to the university. Every other expenses was covered. I was thrilled. My excitement knew no bounds. Education is truly one most-tested mean to escape poverty!
Then, came the shock of my life!
For the first time, I realized I was Black! Whatever that meant, I later figured out. I am from Africa. This meant I was poor and must be helped. I always knew Africa was in bad light, but I probably knew *too little* until I arrived in the Western World.
Every talk on poverty and disease found its way back to Africa. Sometimes , people represent a sorry state of poverty or suffering with a black face, even when the focus was not on Africa. I visited France on my birthday. In the restroom was a poster of an African Child that needed help and education– “Help feed an African child. One Euro will go a long way!”. The black skin color used in a negative light.
I had many questions- for myself. Was it the same continent I am from? Is Africa that poor? Do we really need help?
At first, I was furious. I countered every argument in class that depicted Africa as a continent that needed to be pitied. How dare one say I should be pitied! My childhood was normal. It was the best. I saw nothing wrong. However, the longer I stayed in this society, the better I understood the concept of poverty.
First, there are good paved roads. No dirt. Anytime I walked, my legs are not messed with dust or mud. I could plan to go anywhere in a bus, tram, metro or train. Arrival was punctual! Transportation was uncrowded. I sat comfortably. Most times, I stood because I WANTED to. Not because I HAD to. In Nigeria, I stood in buses because there was no seat.
There were large shopping malls, where I was spoiled for choices. Food varieties are unlimited. I could buy milk skimmed or unskimmed, organic or inorganic, flavored or unflavored! What about eggs? I only knew eggs as eggs in Nigeria! Alas, in my new world I saw different types with many names. Then, there was the rice– short, long, whole, brown, organic, basmati and–so–on-and-so-forth rice! In my head, I questioned why they did not simply make these things easier for people like me, who are accustomed to RICE! Rice is RICE! Period!
In Europe, I developed a new life- a life of choices. I did whatever whenever I wanted. I only needed to plan.
I am currently in the US, where the array of choice is worse, sorry, better! Sometimes I stand at a supermarket shelf more than ten minutes– to figure out what tomato-type to buy. There are simply too many types.
When I returned to Nigeria upon completion of my studies in Europe, I saw the country differently.
In the market, I wasn’t presented with different kinds of tomato. There was only one tomato. There was no organic or inorganic chicken. Chicken was chicken. I finally noticed the potholes and bumps on the road. I could no longer ignore the garbage on the street. “But why can’t Nigerians just dispose waste in bins?” I asked quietly. “Why are there open drainage? And why are they filled with muddy water, dirt and large swarms of mosquitoes? Why can’t the government clean them up?” And being a passionate waka-about, I wanted sidewalks so I could walk comfortably. I wont have to dodge okadas and car drivers in permanent hurry.
Did I consider myself poor before I left Nigeria? Did I ever feel I missed out on something? Did I know I need to be pitied? Never for once! Why then do people say Africa is poor? With these questions and counter questions, poverty took on a new meaning. The only explanation I found is CHOICE.
In USA, I walk to work daily. I do not take bus. On my way, motorists do not stop to lift me. They don’t think I walk because I own no bus or car. Generally, it is considered that I walk because I choose to. Especially when I wear work/formal attire.
I choose to buy only what I need and in this case, what I was accustomed to in Nigeria. For food, I don’t venture out of my comfort zone. I choose not to buy the cheaper American food. Sometimes, I skip lunch or even dinner. In a day, I choose to have fruits as food throughout. I cook my own food and don’t eat out. I want this way of life- I CHOOSE it!
In most parts of Africa, people live the CHOICE-LESS way because they have to. It is the ONLY way life present them. Unlike these people, I am (now) not poor because I (can) ignore choices! At work, colleagues eat tiny food pieces in a bid to keep fit. Sometimes I am tempted to ask if the food was enough. To me, they look (very) sick. If they were in Nigeria, they would look that way because they had little food to eat and NOT because they CHOSE to be skinny.
This is my conclusion. If one lived this kind of lifestyle out of necessity, then one is poor.
Now, that lack of choice can be interpreted differently. Limited infrastructure or lack thereof, few jobs, poorly equipped government hospitals, badly maintained schools etc are signals of poverty. For if these were available, we would have a choice to either take a bus, tram or metro from Oshodi to Obalende. I could decide to quit a job in UBA to work for Oando PLC. I could choose to cook with beef, goat or pork instead of only ponmo or kote-fish. These choices are missing. I HAVE TO TAKE THE OPTION THAT STARES ME STARKLY IN THE FACE! This is (Nigeria), by extension, all of Africa.