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I declare you winner of the ‘Sufferlympics’ and I award you no medals

In 2003, I won a national essay writing contest which was kind of a big deal at the time. I was on the front page of three national dailies with my goofy 12-year-old grin and Harry Potter glasses — the epitome of the geeky wunderkind character archetype, or so I thought. I assumed that it was common knowledge that little boys who wore round glasses and stared at stuff a lot and avoided saying much in public had a secret lab at home where they planned to take over the world.

I mean, I did not quite have Dexter’s Laboratory at home, but I had free and unrestricted access to a huge family library with everything from Soyinka’s ‘The Trials of Brother Jero’ to Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf.’ It was not news to me that I was smart, and nobody at home ever particularly made the point to me, because, before nko, what else was I supposed to be? So it came as a shock to me when someone I had never previously spoken to accosted me at my parents’ church the Sunday after my photos graced the front pages and literally blurted out the following comment:

“I did not know you were intelligent!”

At first, I was like huh?! Is this guy serious? So am I supposed to be dull? Does he know how much my school fees cost? Then slowly, as he kept talking with the blithe and effortless lack of self-awareness that is the red-blooded Nigerian male’s innate superpower, I realised what he was actually saying. He was not saying that he was surprised I was able to take advantage of winning the genetic lottery by gaining knowledge and skills that I otherwise would not have. He was saying that he was surprised that I had anything upstairs because my folks were well to do.

According to him, all I ever did was follow my parents to the Kingdom Hall, sit down for two hours, keep quiet and then go downstairs to the car. Apparently, the idea that he and the other congregation members had was that D.F. Hundeyin’s children must be a group of dummies because well, na rich man pikin. We did not need to know anything or have any intellect, unlike those who were born and bred in Ketu-Mile 12. Unlike those who had to hustle, life was all laid out for us from birth to age 32, so what were we using intellect to do?

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I do not think I had ever been that offended in my life up to that point, but the dude kept on talking. Going into 2nd gear of the Nigerian-Male-With-Zero-Self-Awareness routine, he then proceeded to offer unsolicited advice for how I should act in future lest other church members think that I was in fact, just a privileged simpleton. Apparently, their opinion about me was clearly an objectively important and life-defining metric or something. I thought about dropping a snarky response, but I decided that as a dumb rich kid, I did not particularly want any part of it, so I mumbled my thanks and walked away.

Nigerians by and large genuinely believe that whatever did not come out of trauma and horror is somehow unworthy. I find this problematic in the extreme

It may sound somewhat trivial, but this little exchange over the years became a recurring motif of my relationship with Nigerians who approach the world with the problematic idea that somehow, suffering and struggle is the badge of honour through which virtue and competence is established. Only God knows where the idea came from, but Nigerians by and large genuinely believe that whatever did not come out of trauma and horror is somehow unworthy. I find this problematic in the extreme.

Suffering is the gold standard — Says who?

My friend Liz Okogun who runs a sports management agency recently noted that part of the reason she does what she does is that her agency provides an important pipeline for foreign talent scouts to access Nigerian talent from middle to upper class backgrounds. This she says is because there exists a wrongheaded but popular notion that if you are looking for sporting talent in Nigeria, you should “go to the ghetto.” Meanwhile the kids playing the same sports in Ikoyi are not genetically or physiologically different in any way to those in Ajegunle. In some cases, they are even more talented in addition to being better equipped.

An example of this is Nigeria’s fastest man Seye Ogunlewe, whom I once competed against during Atlantic Hall inter-house sports events. It is no coincidence that despite his achievements locally and internationally, the athletics establishment and fans in Nigeria have never particularly warmed up to him in the way that they did to say, Divine Oduduru. One of them is Johnny Everyman, and the other is a suave, self-assured child of a former cabinet minister. This is completely irrelevant to on-track performance, but nobody ever accused Nigerians of being logical and objective people.

To understand why Seye was treated like that in Nigerian Athletics circles, it is instructive to watch a viral social media video from 2019 showing people in a danfo bus getting angry because a lady dared to pay for her kids to sit like human beings. Just like Seye was supposed to come from a dilapidated state school in Ajegunle before being welcomed, this lady was supposed to crush her kids together like sardines before these people would be happy.

Some of us have faced this energy at every turn in Nigeria. Back in 2005 as a competitor at an U-15 athletics event, I was warned that I stood no chance against the boys from state schools and Kings College. Apparently they trained by dragging Volkswagen Beetles and tractor tires tied to their waists, and they ate “real” food unlike us Grange fairies who ate rice and spaghetti. When I took the gold medal, surprise surprise, it was then assumed because my competitors did not perform to expectation.

Strugglympics and the myth of ‘Purification by Fire’

Ten years later on the job at BHM, my boss Ayeni Adekunle had a favourite Yoruba proverb that translates as “White Eko comes out of a black pot.” He loved this proverb so much that he even had it printed and displayed conspicuously on the walls of the building. Referencing his less privileged background and his turbulent 20s and early 30s, he would often make the point that the 26 year-old version of him would scarcely believe what he would end up achieving in his life if he could go back in time.

Considering that tens if not hundreds of millions of Nigerians were also born into less privileged circumstances, it is easy to see why the “passing through fire to become a winner” meme has become such a fixture in our culture. The problem arises when this ordinarily harmless idea takes on a life of its own and becomes a tyranny. The Hero’s Journey through extreme adversity to conquest is a cultural trope invented to help humans visualize possibilities beyond their present circumstances and eventually transcend them. It is not the sole or ideal route through which to achieve an outcome as many now believe.

Ayeni may have passed through fire and the interior of the black pot to become the white Eko that he is today, but which fire did Bill Gates pass through?

The richest (or is that second-richest) man in the world dropped out of Harvard after obtaining a million-dollar loan from his multimillionaire father, which he used to start Microsoft. Jeff Bezos went to Princeton and then spent many years in a series of well-paid jobs at companies like Deutsche Bank before launching Amazon. Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook from his dorm room at Harvard where a single year’s tuition costs an average of $47,000 (N25 million). John Legend worked in a well-paid business consultancy role at BCG before facing music full-time.

Get my point? None of these guys have ever spent a single minute of their lives inside a black pot. And since we’re on the subject, Ayeni’s kids will never do so either. The point is there are many routes to success in life and running barefoot with one hand tied behind your back dragging a Volkswagen Beetle across a field of broken glass inside a black pot sitting in a 3,000 degrees fire, is only one of many routes there — for that matter, an undesirable and inefficient route if we are being honest. We all love a good grass to grace story, but Nigeria has approximately 100 million grass-to-grass or even grass-to-sand stories that nobody ever hears; or wants to.

For every white Eko that makes it out of Nigeria’s black pot, thousands of hopefuls fail and turn into charred scum at the bottom of the pot, out of sight and out of mind forever. Suffering does not in any way improve people’s aptitude or make them better capable at anything. It simply swallows people, embitters people, limits people and alienates its alumni from its current interns. Worst of all, it convinces people to needlessly drag a metaphorical Volkswagen Beetle with them in life while resenting others who have never been burdened like so.

This is the reality of competing in the ‘Strugglympics’.

Everybody loses.

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