There but for the Grace of God go I…
I don’t know how many times I heard that phrase from my Mum as a kid growing up in Western Australia during the 1970’s, but it was a lot. It is different to Schadenfreud, the pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others. As a child, I assumed the phrase meant I should never be smug about my personal achievements, attributes or circumstances because all it took was a twist of fate (or the cold hand of God) to take it all away.
If fate had taken a different turn, I could have been the girl who turned up to school every day in dirty clothes with nothing for lunch. Or the boy born with paralysed legs who had to walk with crutches, dragging his feet through the sand in the playground so he could hang out with his friends. Another chum, Emilio, died tragically of a brain tumour at the age of 10. We had an assembly for his Italian immigrant parents where we sang ABBA songs- he was a huge ABBA fan. I remember being upset by his horrible death and grateful I was still alive and healthy.
Western societies seem to have lost this sense of the vagaries of fate, which means sometimes we are not as kind to each other was we should be. It is almost as though we blame others for their misfortune and resent tax money paying for others’ medical care, unemployment benefits, subsidised housing or whatever.
My young cleaner here in Lagos is under no illusions about the capricious nature of fate. Last week Angie mentioned she was saving to buy herself a bed. I assumed she didn’t have a bed, which concerned me as she has some health issues that require her to at least have a decent mattress. Therefore, I showed her the spare bed we keep in our BQ (servant’s quarters) and said she could have it. Western style beds and mattresses are expensive in Nigeria and she greeted my offer with a nod and stunned silence. My husband agreed and arranged to have someone from his work move the bed to her apartment later that week.
Meanwhile, the poor girl seemed enormously stressed. Her English is not great and she struggles with my Australian accent so I didn’t know the cause of her anxiety (something about the bed) and couldn’t reassure her much. Eventually, I realised she was certain something would happen to prevent her taking ownership of the bed. Perhaps the security people at the gate wouldn’t let it leave the compound. Maybe the contractors would refuse to move the bed for her- a lowly cleaner. Or she had misunderstood us and we didn’t mean for her to have the bed at all. In fact, even when the contractors turned up to move the bed and take it to her apartment, she was still waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop. I realised she simply couldn’t believe her luck and was certain something would go wrong. She has the bed now and is delighted.
On reflection, I realised Angie is no different to most Lagosians I have met during the last 2 years. Even middle class Nigerian friends live with the uncertainty that only those raised in a politically unstable, poor nation can understand. Security is an illusion that can be destroyed by an unpopular election result, the rise of a terror group or economic downturn. Callous fate rather than personal endeavour, plays a greater role in the lives of citizens in developing nations than it does for those of us born in more stable places. A personal misfortune such as injury, illness or bereavement can completely shatter any chance of a decent life, given the lack of social services. My hope for Nigeria as we head into the elections is that Nigeria’s fate will turn in a more positive direction than it has over the past year.