A few days ago, I was in an African city to attend an important event and I decided to spoil myself a little with a deluxe suite and chauffeur package. Usually, when I travel around the continent in my line of work, I typically have experiences that are at the lower end of the budget scale for a number of reasons, not least of which is that the last thing I want to do is to actively attract attention. Lest someone recognises me and set off a sequence of unintended consequences. This time however, I was determined to experience “Africa” from the point of view of an expatriate.
What followed over the next couple of days was more than just a disappointment or a lack of value for money, so fear not – this is not an article about my petite bourgeoisie expectations and the lack of satisfaction thereof. It actually was not a terrible experience, neither could one pick out one specific problem to highlight. Rather than a flaming disaster, it unfolded as a series of minor oversights, mistakes and mediocrities that illustrated an important object lesson to me about the lack of cultural development that still pervades much of our continent.
It’s just a light bulb…
When a residential development offers high-end short let suites in an African city for more than $200 a night, the expectation is that more than 99 percent of that city’s residents are not the target market. The word “luxury” in the African context is inextricably linked with the words “expensive” and “inaccessible.” The flipside of this is that there is also an expectation by those who can afford to access said offering that it satisfies the parameters for classification as “luxury.” The unspoken agreement is that in exchange for extremely overpriced offerings, the small target market can expect service quality that is vastly superior to the less auspicious options in the city.
My experience however, was something altogether less enjoyable. The issues started right from the front desk, where a passive aggressive receptionist spent a good 15 seconds eyeballing my partner and I instead of offering help with our check-in. Instead of assistance, what we got was suspicion and antagonism – because God forbid that two youngish Africans can afford an experience in an African city that most Africans their age cannot afford. When we eventually got to our 14th floor suite and we were showed around, I noticed that the light in the living room bathroom didn’t work. The porter’s response? “Oh it’s just the visitor’s toilet. You won’t be using this one anyway. I’ll come tomorrow and fix it.”
That simple, seemingly insignificant statement is the crux of what this write-up is about – the total lack of understanding of what excellence means and why it is important.
To him, “Hey it’s just a light in a bathroom that you’re probably never going to use throughout your stay here. Why is that a big deal? Aren’t you impressed by how big and spendy the rest of this place looks? It’s just a lightbulb” By the way he never did show up to fix it. He also never bothered to actually take us around the property and explain basic things like access to the pool and so on. It was just “Bring your money, take these dusty keys wrapped in brown cello tape and enjoy your expensive suite. Goodbye!”
When I needed to get my outfit dry-cleaned, I headed confidently downstairs to the section boldly marked “Dry-cleaning/Laundry,” only to be informed to my amazement that this place offered no dry-cleaning services, and the “laundry” was essentially just a self-service washing machine arcade which was not even in service at the moment. My partner ended up hand washing her outfit and hand-ironing it to dry. We also discovered that using the main bathroom was an unpleasant experience because it was designed without a window and the air extractor did not work properly. The next morning on our way to the event when we stopped in the lobby to take pictures, we were then challenged by staff to prove that we were residents. Presumably, there was something written on our faces that suggested that we were a couple of meddlesome interlopers who somehow got past 2 security barriers for the sole purpose of taking pictures inside A Very Expensive Building™. For this “luxury” experience, we paid the tiny sum of $247, roughly N126,000.
It is NOT just a light bulb
What this less-than-impressive experience told me very plainly was linked to something that I once heard from a Marriott Inc. senior executive during a visit to Nigeria sometime in 2016. Responding to a reporter’s questions about the vast hotel conglomerate’s possible plans for building or operating 5-star hotels and resorts in Nigeria and across Africa, he made a profound comment, which I will proceed to paraphrase: “5-star is not a building. 5-star is an ecosystem. It is not possible to deliver a 5-star experience on a diesel generator. We cannot deliver 5-star without reliable garbage pickup.”
In essence, what a senior executive from the world’s biggest hotel chain was inferring about Nigeria and Africa was that we suffer from a misconception that negatively affects our ability to achieve and consistently maintain excellence – we believe in short bursts of visually impressive activity over long marathons of consistent output. We believe that erecting a 5-star hotel building means that one now has a 5-star hotel. We believe that purchasing brand new planes, shiny offices and expensive pilots means that one now has a world-class airline. We believe that electing a popular, friendly, affable politician means that one now has a good leader. We prefer the bigger, infrequent visual spectaculars over the prosaic, smaller details.
It can be argued for example, that this is at least part of the reason why successive governments across Nigeria devote so much money and effort toward constructing impressive white elephant projects. Instead of doing simpler but infinitely more impactful things like keeping all existing roads in good repair and ensuring that everyone on government payroll gets paid as and when due. These are actually the nuts and bolts of what constitute excellence, and it is impossible to achieve excellence without figuring out how to do these things reliably, consistently and to a high degree of quality. In the pursuit of cultural refinement, advancement and excellence, Africans and Nigerians in particular must understand that it is these little prosaic, unimpressive, banal things that are actually most important.
To paraphrase the Marriott executive, you cannot run a 5-star country on temporary solutions, improvisations and managed mediocrity. No matter how much money African individuals, businesses and governments spend on visually spectacular projects, skylines and solutions, as long as we do not figure out how to do the little things consistently, reliably and efficiently, we are merely reprising the isomorphic mimicry that we are renowned for. Building the impressive, $247-a-night residence I stayed in earlier this week was an event. Keeping the light bulb in the bathroom on is a process. Guess which one is more difficult.
It’s the light bulb. It’s always the light bulb.