Author: Kong Shuyao
Translator: Zander Rounds
Published on: 12/21/2014
Source: Chengdu Business News
Original Text (in Chinese): http://e.chengdu.cn/page/1/2014-12/21/09/2014122109_pdf.pdf
Addressing common misconceptions about Africa, Kong Shuyao draws on personal experience living in Lagos and engaging with locals, adding depth and nuance to conversations about Africa. While this piece was written for a Chinese audience, it may be equally applicable to other parts of the world.
—-Zander Rounds (Translator)
“Look West, Look East” [a regular section for Chengdu Business News] authors have written about many places around the world. One day Kong Shuyao, someone who works in Africa, suddenly raised the question: where is Lagos? Where is Nigeria? We quickly got on the Internet to look it up. We had not considered that, as Kong Shuyao bluntly stated, no matter if you are using Google or Baidu, the information that you get when you search is either biased or outdated.
Lagos is Africa’s biggest city—that’s right, surpassing Egypt’s Cairo and South Africa’s Johannesburg. Think for a second: Nigeria’s Lagos is equivalent to America’s New York, Europe’s Paris, Asia’s Tokyo. However, except for soccer and the recent outbreak of the Ebola virus, we seem to be not familiar with it at all.
Entrepreneurship is a Nigerian’s primary means of making a living. Even if a Lagosian works a nine-to-five, they will still do a little bit of business during their leisure time. Many of the Lagosians around me put great effort into operating their own small enterprises: from new media to make-up companies, group-buying websites and take-out companies. Whatever you might possible think of can be found in Lagos.
Misunderstanding: Africa is really hot all year round.
The truth: It’s important to know that during our summer [in China], in the southern part of Africa its winter and sweaters are quite common. In addition, beyond just the Ancient Egyptian civilization, Africa also has others including the Nok and Sao cultures. In modern Africa, literature and arts are also very developed. Nollywood, Nigeria’s film industry, produces the second largest volume of movies in the world, even more than Indian Bollywood. In 2014, the industry market valued $510 million.
Misunderstanding: The cost of living in Africa is not high.
The truth: Because supplies are rare and scarce, the majority of Africa’s daily goods are all imported. As a result, the cost of living in many cities is the highest in the world. Want to eat a Chinese meal? If you don’t have several thousand kuai [RMB], it’s out of the question.
Misunderstanding: Africa is very poor and requires assistance.
The truth: Over the past ten years of high-speed development, many African countries formed their own middle classes: on the whole, those in the middle class come from good family backgrounds, received higher education and have substantial incomes. Take for instance the 22-year old Nigerian young person who sold vodka and at one point occupied half of China’s vodka market. In addition, Tencent’s biggest shareholder is a South African media company called Naspers.
Lets say you have read all of the “truths”; does that mean you understand Africa or understand Nigeria’s Lagos? Certainly not! In Lagos, the rooms in some areas look more like New York’s East Side, while other areas are messy collections of shacks; some people live in mansions with grand cars, throw parties and have a huge crowd of and servants supporting them, while others scrape by on a few hundred yuan a month.
The first time I heard of Shuyao, I thought she definitely must be a rich person because she had her own driver in Africa. However, she’s actually just a recently graduated young professional [工薪族] with a few years of work experience who had heard that one can rapidly expand a business and so came to Nigeria. This young lady, when not working, enjoys chatting with those people around her and uses this to understand Lagos’ various classes living situation.
My colleague is the “Child of a Official” [官二代]
The middle class perhaps best represents Lagos’ prosperity. This is especially true of the native Lagos middle class, that were present as the city transformed from a small fishing village into a metropolis. They are just like China’s “‘80s babies” [八零后], a group about which a book should be written. Because of [the transformation], they constitute one of Lagos’ waves, epochs, a type of fashion, as well as an important force that will shape Lagos’ future. Take, for instance, my colleague and good friend, Similola (Nicknamed Simi).
Simi studied abroad in England and has a job with a substantial salary in a multinational’s finance division. Not only is she beautiful in appearance, she is kind-hearted and cordial and has a steady boyfriend that might propose to her at any time. She is also a classic Child of an Official. Her father once was the second-in-command of the entire country’s police department. But if you think that Simi’s family is the corrupt government politician type, you are mistaken. Although Simi’s father is highly position and powerful, he is an extremely honest politician. If while in Lagos I ever brought up her father’s name, all of those in the police department would express their highest respect for him.
At home, the ideology that Simi’s father instilled in her was the following: education, education, and again education. How important is education? Simi and her older sister both got PhDs in England before returning to Lagos. She also has several male cousins that obtained PhDs and then stayed in England to become professors or researchers.
The result of the family’s emphasis on higher education is that everyone loves studying, everyone loves working, everyone has a good job, and everyone is very hard-working (Simi is a very hard-working colleague). More important, none of them show off. If it were not for the short conversations we had about China’s “Children of Entrepreneurs” [富二代: Children of those who got rich in the 1980s], I would never have known that her family background was so solid.
Simi is a classical patriot, the moment she stepped out of the country’s gate she knew she would come back. Even when in England an adviser wanted to recruit her for a doctorate program, she tactfully declined. In her own words: “I’m ingrained in Lagos.” As she said this, her eyes were suddenly lowered, her hand that had been snacking suddenly stopped and the MK earrings in her ears flashed.
I said: What’s wrong?
Simi said: Returning from England to Lagos was not an easy process. When you go abroad, you realize that Western countries can develop so quickly, life can be so easy – there are no traffic blockades, no twentieth day of a power outages; there are clean hospitals and high-quality schools. Upon returning to Lagos, you must ask yourself: “What’s wrong with our country? What’s wrong with this generation?”
Clearly, due to this year’s slump in oil prices, Nigeria’s current situation is not ideal. But still I asked her: “Simi, what is it that makes your bitterly disappointed?” Simi, without having to think, blurts: “greediness.”
Its greediness that leads young people to forget about the value of steady work and entrepreneurship—or to “take a shortcut” by fostering guanxi [relationships], cheaply selling Nigeria’s oil, land, and mineral resources and amassing riches in such a way as to anger others. And it’s precisely this type of greediness that turns everyone into egoists. On the streets there is no longer mutual modest behavior; everyone one is incessantly arguing, fighting, contesting, weeping…
I saw Simi blink away a line of tears, and then, as if nothing had happened, she continued to eat her plantain chips.
Of course, at her roots Simi is a very traditional girl. She plans to get married within five years, give birth to two beautiful kids and then be a working mother. As of the writing of this, I especially hope that time could speed up so that I could see Simi five years later and her happy family, career and life.
In Africa I have a private driver
Most of my surrounding colleagues are of Nigeria’s middle class. Especially those at a managerial level have annual salaries about the same as American managers. Most of them do not share the worries of common Lagosians’ lives: they drive off-road vehicles, can afford to buy small bunches of celery for 70 yuan [RMB] and have many nannies to help tend to daily life. This is not the case for my driver Rasheed. Through his bumpy road, compatriots can see the difficulties of making a living of fellow Lagosians’.
The majority of people upon hearing that I have a private driver all indicate that my life here is very high-class. In reality this is not the case; those of Lagos’ middle class can all afford a driver and a nanny. The monthly salary of a driver is around 1,500 RMB. My roommate and I split a second-hand Toyota for around 50 thousand RMB and then hired Rasheed.
Rasheed is 26 this year. He was born in Lagos and later moved to a suburb two hours outside of the city. He never drinks alcohol nor smokes and is incredibly trustworthy. His only bad habit is that he has many girlfriends (this is the common problem of African men). Why pick Rasheed? From him we can see the struggles and hopes of Nigerians.
If you want a good residence in Lagos, it’s not easy. Because of social conflict and infrastructure that is not robust, if you want to live in a safe, well-off area, residing in a house with water and electricity, you need to spend between 40-50 thousand yuan in rent (annually). What does this mean? The majority of people that can live in these districts are either extremely wealthy or are a foreigner like myself whose company sorts out housing problems on their behalf.
Those locals who, like Rasheed, have not graduated university and rely on driving as a primary business cannot occupy a place on the island of Lagos, where land is worth its area in gold [寸土寸金]. However home is so far away—so where does he live? This I asked him immediately upon meeting him for the first time. At the time he was still just my company’s driver. Everyday he got off work at 7:00 PM, arrived home around 10:00 PM, ate, chatted with his family, went to sleep at midnight, got up at four in the morning, sat in traffic for an hour on a public bus to arrive in the city. But what does one do at five in the morning? He said, if he was tired he would just rest in a car; if he was not tired he would hang around on the street or the beach until starting work at 8:00.
In my mind I pictured Rasheed’s lonely figure. Imagine for a second, every day only getting four hours of sleep, spending half of the day busily driving people around, often missing meals, rarely taking vacations and not receiving overtime pay. There are a great number of drivers in Lagos like Rasheed (After hiring Rasheed, I talked our landlord into giving Rasheed a small room to reside in so he would not need to ride three hours to get home ever day).
If residence is a troublesome affair, food is as well. As a result of too many intermediate connections and import restrictions, Lagos’ prices are very high. 70 RMB is only enough to buy one small bundle of celery imported from America. A typical meal out requires at least an average of 200 RMB per person. If one wants to eat Japanese food, steak, or decent Chinese food, unless he or she has several thousand RMB, it really cannot be done (as a result a lot of Chinese companies bring cooks from China to Africa).
Interested in what Rasheed eats everyday? Breakfast is a type of instant noodles called “maggie”; lunch is deep fried yam (a common Nigerian food, kind of like shanyao [山药: a yam found in Chinese cuisine] or potato); dinner is bread or street-side chicken wing. He likes to eat deep-fried bananas and roasted peanuts packed in used alcohol bottles that can be bought for three kuai on the street. If he has a craving he buys a three-cent piece of chocolate. If he’s really thirsty, he might buy a four-RMB bottle of coke (absolutely not sugar-free).
As such, in this society of great changes with districts lacking so many things, where is Rasheed’s hope? Rasheed’s hope is in himself! Even though he has never received a standard college education, Rasheed demands a lot of himself and is brimming with confidence.
As a driver, Rasheed strives to carry out his duties with all of his heart. Everyday he cleans the car in a timely manner and is always available when called. Many times, my flight was delayed and my phone did not have a signal, making it impossible to communicate. Every time, Rasheed, running back and forth, and contacting police or airport personnel, managed to find me. When I was coming back from Benin, he drove and then waited five hours.
Unlike many drivers that cheat their employers, Rasheed would not pocket gas money and were I to have him go out and help me by food or other articles for daily use he always clearly marked the price. I have 300% confidence in Rasheed.
In addition, Rasheed knows what he wants. He clearly said to me: I want to do business for myself. Ask yourself, how many Chinese young people would say this? The first time I heard this, I was secretly surprised, not knowing he had any sort of direction. As it turns out, he had long had a plan. The reason he left the company to come and work as my driver was because when I left he wanted to buy my second-hand car under his own name and then, using many years of built up connections, manage his own taxi company. His goal for two years later was to get married to many girlfriends and have a child. If he could perhaps return to college he would study information technology. Who would have thought this this Nigerian youngster had never been to college but nevertheless has personal ambition enough to come up with a strategy to make the best of both worlds. Who can be skeptical that along all kinds of bumpy path, Nigeria will not have its own future?
If perhaps my description of Rasheed is overly positive, it is because I do not look at him as my driver—he is my friend. I myself have witnessed the lives of Nigerians bit by bit and heard from their own mouths their complaints and desires for life.