The vocational and artisanal sphere is usually a good measure of a people’s level of civilization for it is in the sphere that the bulk of the transactions which make up the practice of everyday life (apologies to Michel de Certeau) for the people occurs.
What a people tolerate and accept, what they rationalize and live with in the vocational and artisanal sphere determines whether they belong in 21st-centrury civilization or they are still struggling to find a way out of civilizations past.
I had asked him to design something for me. I agreed to his fees without “pricing it”. I added all the extras he playfully requested because he said I should allow “jand to shine” on him. When I went home for a lecture in March, he came to Lagos to show me what he had designed. He was beaming. One look at it and I told him I wasn’t satisfied. I told him that in terms of rigour, little details, symmetry, finesse, and imagination, what he had done for me belonged in the 17th century.
I gave him an idea of what I really wanted. “Ah, Oga, iyen ma na yin lowo si o”. I told him not to worry. Never mind that what he was now charging me extra money for was the same dream, unmodified, that I had initially paid for. I was prepared to pay him extra in order not to compromise on standards.
On a later trip home, he came to see me in Abuja. I sent him back to the drawing board because what he presented to me had now moved from the 17th to the 19th century. He grumbled about funds. I agreed to pay more until we got to the 20th century.
During my last trip home in August, he finally came to show me a prototype which belonged in the 21st century. I commended him but said I was yet to be satisfied. He grumbled very loudly: “nkan ti ki je kin fe gba ise lowo eyin ara ilu oyinbo re o. Wahala yin tip o ju. Oga, e o le manage e bayi ni? (this is why I am leery of working for you people from abroad. Your wahala is always too much. Oga can’t you manage it like this?)
I smiled and told him that although he has finally gotten the project to the 21st century after so many trials, I was looking for more than the 21st century. There must be that futuristic flight of the imagination, that touch of genius and poesy that would make what he was doing for me a leap into the future. And no detail is too minor.
He grumbled and asked for more money. I smiled and declined. This time, the entire redesign was going to cost him. He was going to fund it himself. And my work must be ready by so and so date I told him.
Today, he sent me photos of the final product. Fantastic. Even people in Ottawa would see it and be awed by its futuristic brilliance.
The Nigerian’s daily life is run by people in the artisanal, vocational, and professional sphere who are constantly selling mediocrity to him and pleading with him to “manage it like that because it is already good enough.” From his tailor to his mechanic to his vulcanizer to his bricklayer to his architect to his engineer to his interior designer to his teacher to his doctor to his barber and to her hairdresser, the Nigerian is constantly offered the 17th century by those saying it is good enough. By the time they improve it to the 19th century for him, the Nigerian accepts what he has been offered and beams in satisfaction and begins to recommend “that my mechanic” to all his friends.
When a people already does this to themselves at the level of their own social dynamics, the thieves in government build on that foundation by offering them roads, school buildings, hospitals and other infrastructure which belong in the 17th century. They then commission such inferior projects with fanfare and label them "ultra-modern". Two years later, after the projects have crumbled, they re-award the contract and improve the project to the 19th century.
That is why it usually takes two to three administrations to get a project from the 17th to the 20th century in Nigeria. And that is why the 20th century is the most advanced stage of our infrastructure – with caveat that the percentage of our infrastructure which belongs in the 20th century is about 1%. 99% of our infrastructure is squarely in the 17th century.
If I had my way, any politician who completes a project and launches it as "ultra-modern" would be tied to the stakes and executed. The word, ultra-modern, should be banned from usage in Nigeria. There is no modern infrastructure in the country, let alone the "ultra" in it.
What you can also learn from my experience with my work man is the fact that mediocrity is closer to human instinct than genius and perfection. Mediocrity has immense immediate rewards and demands very little effort.
Man will be mediocre unless mediocrity costs him dearly. The civil engineer who constructs a road in the USA, Canada, or Germany is not innately inferior as a human being to his Nigerian counterpart. He is just as predisposed to mediocrity as his Nigerian counterpart.
The difference between them is the price of mediocrity. There will be hell to pay for the engineer who constructs a mediocre road washed away by the first floods in the Western world. He will never recover. He will lose his license and go to jail. His Nigerian counterpart is in fact expected to construct mediocre roads so that the contract can be re-awarded every two years for sharing between him and government officials.
What Nigeria does not know is that any reward mediocrity offers is Pyrrhic. What the Nigerian does not know is that the compromises he makes every day to his tailor, his barber, his mechanic, his bricklayer, his washman, etc.”., add up to define Nigeria. And what the Nigerian does not know is that unless mediocrity is rendered expensive, it will always be our national default setting.
My work man produced futuristic genius only when I insisted he foot the bill of the extra work. So long as I was paying and adding money, he kept giving me mediocrity and pleading with me to “accept it like that” because it was “already good like th.”
In July this year in Ilorin, we huddled in Professor Adeleke Adeeko’s hotel room to inspect the designs our mutual tailor had done for us. Aside the clothing material, labor for each design ranged from N5,000 – N15,000.
Professor Adeeko was dissatisfied with one particular adire top he had ordered for his son. It was an almost imperceptible fault of symmetry. Almost invisible. The Professor wouldn’t accept it and told the tailor to take it back and redo it. The tailor was amazed that a whole Professor could be insisting on such minor repairs of something almost invisible after paying only N5000. A Professor from America fa!
Professor Adeeko no look Uche face. He insisted on excellence and rejected mediocrity. One week later, the tailor brought back the top. And the Professor returned to Ohio with excellence in his luggage.
That excellence cost the tailor because the Ohio-bound Professor refused to pay extra. Next year, we will use the same tailor. He is likely to produce excellence because we made mediocrity an expensive proposition for him this year.
Nigerian, make mediocrity expensive in your daily life.