My son has been in his school’s rugby team since he was in year 7(JS1/Form1). He is now in his final year of secondary school and whenever they have a match I have to remind him to stay safe; avoid injury and avoid injuring others. This is necessary because he goes to his matches with the mind-set of playing hard and winning. Looking back to when he was younger, he wasn’t always as determined to succeed.
When he was in primary school he participated in many sporting activities but he never took any of them seriously. I remember the time he went for an inter-school competition and came second to last in a 400m race. When I questioned him on his performance he told me that it was his participation that counted. Really?!! Naija boy? Somebody lied to my child!
His sister was no better. She took to telling me ‘calm down, mum. It is not a competition’ any time I asked how she was doing in her class assessments compared with her classmates. At some point I must have put both hands on my head and wailed at this unfolding ‘aje-butter’ mentality which was slowly robbing my children of their ‘Naija spirit’. It worried me that we were bringing up children who were being taught that they didn’t have to be competitive to succeed.
What is the Naija spirit? To my mind, it is the ‘it is not over until it is over’ mentality. It is that which makes the average Nigerian work hard in the face of adversity, even in hopeless situations. It is the determination to be better than all your neighbors, and if that is not possible, at least be better than some neighbors. It is that which drives people to do JAMB six times, NECO and WAEC numerous times. The Naija spirit rejoices in hard-won success and doesn’t stop at the first achievement. It lacks shame and is happy to self-congratulate. It makes people pose for Matriculation pictures at age 35 and still post them on Facebook. It makes people apply for visa several times, even when there is no chance they will get it, but one day they actually do. The list goes on.
Some say it is a ‘suffer-head/ suffering and smiling’ mentality, but I see it as a ‘keep-trying till you achieve’ mentality. In Nigeria, sub-consciously develop this mentality due to our parents’ attitude to success and failure. I remember how I used to dread school results day when I was a child. Of course, only the first position was good enough for any naija parent, mine included. That first position always eluded me and I always braced myself for the questions and reprimands my parents fired at me for not coming first in my class.
Sometimes I found the queries unfair especially when I scored very highly in my exams but was still not the best in the class. Oftentimes my parents’ questions and reprimands were quite justified and now that I am a parent, I am not sure that I would not have accompanied those questions with a sanction/slap, especially if my son got the shocking 18% I got in my last ever Physics exam in SS1.
My parents had no problem praising my abilities and bemoaning my failures. I recognize now that it was for my good when they told me that I was not good at the sciences, even though I knew they had hoped I would study medicine. I didn’t mind because I always wanted to study law. My parents reiterated the need to work hard but I didn’t quite work as hard as required and did not get into Law at University of Ibadan (UI) the first time I took JAMB at sixteen. I started to study Communication and Language Arts at UI but my parents kept encouraging me not to give up on my dream to study law. I decided to try JAMB again at the end of my first year at UI and got into Law at Ogun State University. The rest, as they say, is history.
Those lessons are invaluable and I am now a firm believer in striving as hard as possible. I will not allow anyone to tell our children that mediocrity is okay. Hubby and I are still working on changing their mind-set but it hasn’t been easy because we live in a society where being competitive is crude. Our children are still Naija children and they must understand the ‘Naija way’ of thinking. Now they don’t question the fact that they must work hard to be better than some people in all they do. We didn’t come to England to become ‘follow-follow’. If they come last in an endeavour, they need to figure out why. If they know how to improve, they must do so. If the endeavour is a hopeless one ( e.g my daughter doing gymnastics at school), they must be sensible and re-direct their energies into something achievable.
After we started working on teaching the kids to try harder, my daughter entered a singing competition at her primary school. She came fourth and cried after the results were announced. Her teacher was perplexed and asked why she was so upset. She replied that she knew she wasn’t going to win but she would have been happy with the 3rd position! I was so proud of her for demonstrating her determination to do even better.
‘I beta pass my neighbor’ and ‘Naija girl/boy no dey come last’ are not jokes. They should be one of our mantras for hard work, determination and success. Let no one teach our children that participation is all that matters.
BTW: I took JAMB twice and SSCE once. I was definitely not the matriculant at 35! Also, my mum confirmed I did better in Physics than I thought. I got 20%!! What? I tried o!
Abi Adeboyejo lives in Birmingham, UK, with her two children and her fabulous man, who by the way, prefers that his wife writes down her thoughts than listen to her musings on everything.