At an evening service in a church I attended last week, the lady who led the prayer session did not even bother to quote from the Bible to drive home her point; she simply referred the congregation to the Book of Olajumoke: “How many of you have heard the story of the bread seller in Lagos and how her life has been transformed?” With several hands up, she enjoined members to pray by reminding everyone: “No matter the challenge we face either as an individual or as a country, God can instantly rewrite our story such that we can move from poverty into prosperity; from lack into abundance, just like Olajumoke. Now, pray…”
That this is a difficult period for most Nigerians is an understatement. With the prices of commodities, including foodstuff, skyrocketing as the Naira continues to dance ‘Skelewu’, life is becoming very hard for most families.
Even for the rich, not only are the shelves of the supermarkets where they shop getting empty, those of them who have children abroad can no longer sleep easy. And in the absence of any coherent policy options by the current administration to deal with these economic challenges, our people are left with only the hope of divine intervention as solutions to their problems. Then came Olajumoke!
A few weeks ago, Mrs Olajumoke Orisaguna, 27, was just another bread hawker on the streets of Lagos until she encountered celebrity photographer, T.Y Bello, a genius in her craft and a maverick quick thinker who, like most creative artists, could easily make sense of something that seems ordinarily intangible. In an instinctive moment of brilliance, she matched a bread seller with a Nigerian-born British singer, Tinie Tempah and produced a photographic “duet” that caught the imagination of the world. The rest, to deploy a popular cliché, is now history. Today, the young bread seller, married to a man who reportedly fits sliding doors, has hit the jackpot of fame and fortune that has elevated her to the status of a god in many Nigerian homes.
Before I go further, I join in rejoicing with Olajumoke on her good luck but I hope she also has the good sense to know that life cannot be the same again. From now on, the men she would have to deal with are no longer the lecherous ‘danfo’ drivers, vulcanizers and sundry touts who, according to Reuben Abati, “will offer to buy bread and something else along with it”; but the Lagos Big Boys who know what they want and how to get it and I feel sorry for her poor husband. The environment to which his wife has now been thrust, albeit unprepared, would not allow her to be and there are too many sharks in the river in which she must from now swim. How will she handle such pressure? Only God can help her now.
I watched Olajumoke’s interview on Youtube and she could only speak in Yoruba with an English interpreter which confirms that she is not educated. But she is very attractive—perhaps the attribute that qualifies her to be cast as a model in the first place. The good aspect of the Olajumoke story which of course is being ignored is that fortune found her in the place of diligence. She was at work, trying to earn a honest, even if modest, income for herself and family by hawking bread, when she ran into the photo session that changed her life. That ultimately may be her redemption.
There is a lot to read about Olajumoke online but the one that stands out for me was the piece last week by Abimbola Adelakun, easily one of Nigeria’s most gifted columnists of the current generation. Ms Adelakun, who interrogates the attempt to turn a happenstance into a prescription for success, argues rather forcefully in her piece, “Olajumoke and the trouble with sentimentality” that the uncritical national hysteria over the fairy tale story of the bread seller has blinded us all to the flip side: that she actually personifies the failings of our society with shrinking opportunities for children of the poor.
Ms Adelakun raises several questions about the hypocrisy of the men and women in corporate Nigeria who are now making the bread seller the face of their businesses, at a time one desperate young man who stripped himself naked inside a banking hall has been ignored by his banker. She reminds us that we have missed the real message in the drama of the bread seller. “Olajumoke’s story puts a face to the grim poverty statistics in Nigeria. Yet, she is just one case out of many others. Millions of people have worse tales to narrate. Her account of poverty and deprivation up till this time, however, has been obscured by the sentimentality of her discovery. We talk about her being a bread-seller only as a jump-off point to narrating the other extreme of the tale where she becomes a model. This, in itself, is the trouble with sentimentality: it induces emotions, but never channels them towards meaningful socio-political action,” she wrote.
The danger of fairy tales, especially in a society like ours, according to Adelakun, is that they “are not only non-normative, they are sedative; that is why they are read to children about to sleep, not adults that live in a realistic world. Fairy tales do not expect us to question their plot, rather they gush at the saccharine sweetness of ‘happily ever after’…”
I agree entirely with her summation. In as much as we cannot begrudge Olajumoke her good fortunes, it is important not to send a wrong message with her story. To the extent that there is such a thing in life as the luck of the draw, as we often see in lottery and football, there will always be people who would “make it” without much sweat. But they will be only a negligible few. So, making Olajumoke a formula for success or using her as a prayer point just does not cut. Indeed, for a great majority of the people, they may work very hard, keep positive attitudes, and yet could still end up with some “sliding doors” slammed against them in as many times as they try.
Therefore, the message we should inculcate in our young people is that it is still work that enables opportunity, not luck or chance. We must constantly remind them of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s wise counsel that their task is not to foresee the future, “but to enable it.” And in the age that we are in, working entails certain preparations which include good education. Unfortunately, that critical area of our national life is where we are leaving many of our young people behind to be hawking bread and other commodities without any future beyond waiting for luck.
For the attention of those who are romanticising the Olajumoke story, here is something for them to ponder. In the 2015 United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) report under Education, this is a paragraph about our country: “Forty per cent of Nigerian children aged 6-11 do not attend any primary school with the Northern region recording the lowest school attendance rate in the country, particularly for girls…Many children do not attend school because their labour is needed to either help at home or to bring additional income into the family…”
Nobody should get me wrong, I am happy for Olajumoke as someone who also comes from a very poor background and who knows what it means to experience serious poverty and the good fortunes to leave it behind, at some point. But even at that, I still fail to understand what message all the corporate entities and public institutions are trying to project by exploiting Olajumoke’s fame, and using her to be sending messages to Nigerians. Are they telling us we should send our children to the streets to be selling bread while they await the day they would have a divine encounter with Angel T.Y. Bello?
Ordinarily, I would expect the message to be about dignity in labour but then, those people are also smart enough to know they cannot promote hawking so in essence the only message left is the hollow one of luck. And you don’t sell luck, do you? Well, at least we know how it all ended for those who did in our most recent political past!
It should worry us that as a nation we have turned luck to an ideology. We are also not equipping our young people with the requisite tools to work by the manner in which we have criminally neglected the education sector. And we don’t make the right choices when it comes to other policy issues either. Yet while luck does happen, it is not something that you wait for as we do in Nigeria; and that explains why some people could benchmark the oil price for the 2016 federal government budget at $38 per barrel at a time the commodity was selling for between $28 and $32 per barrel, on the assumption that mother luck would smile on us and the price would rise again!
Therefore, while the Olajumoke story may be good for Nollywood, it is time we woke up to the real world. If we look back to the last four decades, periods of prosperity have been in moments of oil booms which means they were not products of our efforts. They were just periods when, like the bread seller, we ran into our own T.Y. Bellos! That is not the way to build a serious society.
The most unfortunate aspect is that we don’t even learn from our own experience. At a time you expect the current administration to sit down and fashion out economic plans to deal with this most difficult period, our president has become a crude oil seller, hawking the commodity from Saudi Arabia to Qatar. Rather than take responsibility for our future by planning without oil, we have surrendered to the philosophy of luck and chance by hoping (and praying) the price of the commodity would rise again so we will have more money to share and the value of our national currency can shore up.
In another context, the erection of the Olajumoke story into a myth of faith underlines a common failure of our public consciousness. In spite of the proliferation of schools, colleges and universities, a society that believes so much in education remains one of the most superstitious and non-logical in the world. In a population of 170 million people, one bread seller in Lagos gets accidentally ‘discovered’ as suitable for a modelling role and is therefore endorsed and rewarded by companies and interests that want to derive maximum publicity from her lowly circumstances. And with that, many Nigerians are using the bread seller as a “point of contact” to God in their supplications.
I wish those peddling the Olajumoke story will stop and compute the chance of another bread seller becoming a celebrity in our country any time soon. But we are dealing with a fickle society here. It is like the gentleman who claimed to have trekked from Lagos to Abuja in solidarity with Buhari’s emergence as president in anticipation of some reward. Soon enough, there were as many trekkers as there were imminent winners of governorship elections until the media and the public learnt to ignore the jokers. Now, every bread seller in our country is being made to see themselves as potential Olajumokes!
All said, I must clarify that as a Christian, I am also at home with the message that Olajumoke’s story exemplifies the fact that God indeed intervenes in the affairs of men. My point of departure is with those who believe we can build a sustainable future, either as individuals or as a nation, by relying on luck and chance.