“Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. “ Jesus Christ
“I’m smart; you’re dumb; I’m big, you’re little; I’m right, you’re wrong, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” Harry Wormwood in Matilda by Roald Dahl
Permit me a degree of sentimentality in this essay. My excuse is that it was Father’s Day last Sunday and even though I did not set out to write about my father, I cannot help but mention him in this discourse.
On Monday, a Facebook friend, Claire, made a claim that generated a lot of comments. She said: “Nigerians are too meek. Too meek to stand against incompetent leaders. Too meek to stand against corruption, injustice and oppression. Maybe that is a good thing. The Bible says the meek shall inherit the earth. Maybe one day Nigerians will rule the world.” A few of us pointed out that there is a difference between weakness and meekness – they are not synonyms. In fact, if we look at those whom the Good Book described as meek (and there are only 2 people who were given this accolade), they were all but weak. I could argue that weakness and meekness are near antonyms.
One of the ‘friends’ who contributed to this discussion argued strenuously that Nigerians are not weak at all. As proof for this position he gave the example of Boko Haram in the north-east, and the militants in the south-south. Therefore, we should stop saying Nigerians are weak.
Ordinarily, I would have dismissed this contention as not worthy of reflection. It is obviously a hasty generalisation and therefore fallacious. You cannot draw a conclusion about all Nigerians based upon insufficient and highly extraordinary samples.
However, this was not just about discrediting a fallacious argument. I felt utterly disappointed that someone could describe those who prey on the weak and vulnerable, or those who use brute force to settle a dispute, as strong. What kind of twisted reasoning is that? And I wondered if Claire’s confusion of terms and this ‘friend’s’ understanding of strength are indicative of a sub-conscious, default cultural paradigm that celebrates force as strength and demeans meekness as weakness.
Think about it. Isn’t our society predominantly about political, social or economic domination and intimidation? Isn’t our society structured in such a way that there seems to be one law for the rich and another for the poor, and one standard for the political class and another for the rest of us? Apart from the fact that there seems to be inequality before the law, there is also an expectation of unquestioned obedience by those in authority from their ‘subjects’. Our culture promotes mindless acquiescence to authority, and it is considered rude for a child or a subordinate to ask questions. So our children learn to stop asking questions. Curiosity which is a defining attribute of childhood is quashed by culture because children may ask questions we cannot answer.
In my experience as a senior manager in the private schools where I have worked, the most frequent complaint I hear from teachers is that ‘these children do not do as they are told.’ And at the other end of the spectrum, the students complain that ‘my teacher doesn’t listen to me. He/she just punishes me and doesn’t allow me to explain.’ The child that conforms and does not ask questions is regarded as ‘good’, and the one who asks questions is labelled as ‘rebellious.’
Technology and travel are contributing to a dilution of our cultural norms and many schools and families are experiencing cultural conflict arising from generational differences. Children are exposed, many of them more so than their teachers. And increasingly, they are asking questions and demanding for answers which the traditional mind set lacks the creativity to answer intelligently. Today’s child is refusing banal platitudes and demanding reasoned responses from the adults around them.
I learnt many lessons from my father. He gave me the answers before I even asked the questions. He did not sit you down and lecture. He lived it his life.
One of the lessons that stands out vividly for me, one which is pertinent to this time when we are all rethinking the concept of leadership in Nigeria (I hope), is that ‘might is not necessarily right’. I was being intimidated in my own home by an older relation who was living with us, for absolutely no other reason than that I was a child. I don’t think this relation actually thought she was doing anything wrong; that was just the way things were. Children were given orders and expected to obey – no questions asked, no courtesy, no respect. You just did as you were told because you were a child.
My father asked a simple question: ‘Why are you telling her to do this?’ He wasn’t rude or obnoxious even though he could have been. It was his house after all, and I was his child. Instead, he just asked for an explanation. None was offered because there was none to give. And so, I wasn’t taught to be rude or insubordinate, I was just taught to ask questions, to find out why. And I have come to discover that sometimes the only reason that can be given for an action is ‘I’m big, you’re little…and there’s nothing you can do about it’.
One of my sisters wrote this about our father: ‘He loved children, and he allowed me to be a child, seeming quietly happy at all my childish acts. I remember the first time I went on moving stairs. Well, that’s what they were to me. I went up and ran back down and went back up. My older brother told me to stop, but my dad said, “No, leave her alone. Let’s wait till she’s had enough.”’
Recently I asked my nephew who had lived with my parents as a child what motivated him to become a doctor. His reply: ‘I always assumed I would be a doctor. It never occurred to me that I would be anything else. I liked going to the clinic with grandpa (my father) and he let me. He gave me my own consulting room – a spare office – while he went to his office to consult with patients. I think I just played in ‘my office’. Of course, I didn’t see any patients, but I formed the impression that I was a doctor, and on no occasion did I doubt this conviction.’
That was my father! Leave him alone. Let’s see what happens. Not an irresponsible neglect but an intentional cultivation of curiosity. My father didn’t stifle our creativity; he nurtured it. He offered me the strongest motivation to submit to authority: love. I wanted to make him happy because I loved him and I knew he loved me. It was as simple as that. No threats required. No force needed.
He taught me the true meaning of meekness. Intrinsic to its definition is love and gentleness, and an ability to value the weak and the vulnerable and make them feel important.
So are Nigerians meek? Are we weak? What do you think?
Ms. Ishaya Audu, a lawyer, and a school administrator, is a member of the Premium Times editorial board. She writes from Abuja.