Shifting Sands


Victoria (Photo credit: Bill Bedzrah)

Frustrated your car broke down in the rain? The power is off (again!) or another shopping trip fails to find a dress for a special occasion? You can be guaranteed that airing these complaints will result in someone of your acquaintance contemptuously sniffing, “first world problem.” You, by implication, are a spoilt brat badly in need of perspective.

In my experience, men more often use the term as a put down to women, as though feminine issues are inherently trivial. I have never heard a man’s concern about a cracked carburetor or burgeoning beer belly dismissed as a first world problem. In fact, now I think about it, I have never heard or read those aggravating words being used by a woman. Please correct me if I am wrong.

I hate this phrase. Some self – righteous snit whose only experience of a developing nation is an annual trip to Bali is the usual culprit. The moral superiority and implied sexism is not the primary reason I loathe this phrase. Thoughtlessly muttering, “first world problem” at every opportunity suggests people living in developing nations are so busy grubbing around in the dirt trying to scratch a living they don’t have the same desires and daily frustrations as those born elsewhere. In effect, they are not like us.

In terms of dehumanizing the world’s poor, it is only rivaled by the, ‘they are poor but happy” stereotype. It may be shocking to learn that people living in the developing world are the same as people in richer nations. As human beings, our underlying psychological and emotional drives are remarkably similar. Apart from the deviants among us (every family has one) we humans care about looking nice, smelling good and getting through the day without pointless hassles. In that respect, the millions of people living in struggling villages, slums and shantytowns are no different to their wealthier brothers and sisters.

I live in Lagos, Nigeria. Lagos is filled with shantytowns and people doing their best to earn a living. The daily grind of surviving in the world’s most challenging city is not an excuse for dropping one’s standards or giving up hope for something better. My husband always knows when our young house cleaner has been. When he comes home I am wearing an ironed dress, shoes, makeup and have my hair done.  Betty arrives to mop floors looking like a film star, which shames me into making an effort. She is the youngest of ten children and earns a pittance, but that doesn’t stop her perfectly coordinating every outfit. She even wears a hat, generally a jaunty little pink or green beret that matches her eye shadow. Like young girls throughout the world she has ambitions for the future. Despite working long hours, Betty is studying photography.

The suggestion Betty’s life is too challenging for her to be bothered with how she looks (first world problem!) is ludicrous. Nigerians take great pride in maintaining their appearance, regardless of their circumstances, just like people in wealthier nations. Every street corner has a barber where men get their heads shaved, which is the fashion for men in Lagos. I have never seen a Nigerian man or woman look anything but perfectly groomed, even if they are selling goods by the side of the road or working on a building site. Maintaining an attractive appearance is not a trivial issue in Lagos, it is essential to human dignity.

Crowded busses, fractious children, traffic noise and fights with neighbors, also irritate Lagosians. In this respect, we humans are united in the same emotions of frustration, anger and sometimes despair. Poverty, disease, corruption and inequality do not stop people in developing nations sweating the small stuff. Life is lived in the details and the shared banality of everyday concerns is the emotional thread that binds us all, wherever we live.



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  1. May 11, 2013

    One thing missing in all of this, is the levels. Its a thin line of differentiation between the humanity of First world and Last world. While we very much have a connecting thread of wanting to look good and become better, that thin line changes everything. When in somewhere like Europe, you may not easily tell a rich man from the poor man. But here in Nigeria, the gaps are huge both in appearance, in presentation… You can pick up poor people everywhere and for them, sniffing at the people better off than them in contempt is the order of the day. Poor people here also express this discrimination you talk about. If you have a car, you have your hair well kept, your nails done, some jewellery in place and you live in a neat house, you will attract contempt from most people below. And what they call excesses and show contempt for, is often the basic standard of living everyone should be entitled to.


    • May 11, 2013

      I think you have expressed the complexity of this issue very well. One of my friend’s mothers always said, “The only thing worse than snobbery is reverse snobbery,” which is what you are talking about here, after a fashion. I experience a little of that being an expatriate where it’s assumed that you must be either fabulously wealthy or extremely important, neither of which is the case with me!


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