Friday, October 17, 2014

The Nigerian Concept of "Cake"

What is odd about the debate around the concept of “cultural diversity” is that our culture here in America is a melange of bits and pieces of other cultures, mostly but not entirely European, in which we seem to have picked one from column A and two from column B and then declare that we invented it. Regional cuisine, Southern music, the tradition of the Christmas tree, our notions of a fair and just war, and so forth are mash ups of other people's cultures made our own with a few misunderstood regional historical events and a little stuffing for the poor oppressed turkey or great turnip replacement, the pumpkin.

Today I want to advocate that we borrow another cultural concept that I think is very appealing and has a lot of applicability to this great country of ours and which I propose we make our own. This is the Nigerian concept of “cake”.

What a healthy looking birthday cake with depth of field!

Like many countries in the world and in sub-Saharan Africa in particular, there are great extremes in wealth with the vast majority being dirt poor and a very few who are quite rich. But Nigeria is also blessed (or cursed as may be) with great natural resources, such as oil. The wealth generated by this oil is vast and yet most Nigerians are still extremely poor, with no improvement in their lives, no new schools, hospitals, and so forth. So where does all the money go?

Well Nigerians have noticed that nearly all the money goes either to the foreign oil companies or to the offshore personal bank accounts of senior government officials and some of their aides. Very few people in Nigeria benefit from the oil outside the government. There is some employment of local workers, but not much, and they are not paid well. Most of the engineers and managers who work for the oil companies come from outside Nigeria and return to their homes in other countries when their assignment is done.

Not only do the people of Nigeria not see any of this money, in general the Government does not see it either. These offshore bank accounts for Nigerians may have tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, but those are the personal accounts of their government or military officials. Apparently, only a small amount of this money actually goes back to the country in the form of tax or other revenues that might be used on public works projects.

An industrious Nigerian with some cake

The Nigerians calls this vast wealth from oil “cake” as in chocolate cake, or a birthday cake. They are not looking for justice, or a government who is not corrupt and provides real services for their people, or any of those worthy concepts. They may desire those things, but they realize that there is very little chance of ever getting them in Nigeria. At least not the way things have been going for the last few centuries. What they would like is a small part of the cake that is being pumped out of the country.

Being forthright and straightforward people, the Nigerians have come up with a variety of ways to get small pieces of the cake which they figure is at least as much theirs as it is the people who are profiting by it. One way to do this is to get some friends together, rent a rusted-out old ship of some sort, a few hundred empty barrels, punch a hole in one of the pipelines that run alongside the rivers, and voila we have a recipe for instant cake. The oil companies come by in a day or two and patch the hole, leaving the spilled oil where it lies.  Of course the government and the oil companies complain bitterly about oil theft but just who is stealing from whom, I wonder.   In this, energetic and productive fashion, Nigerians are able to make a much better living than digging in the mud with a stick or swatting flies as their government would like them to, and so benefit from the Globalization we hear so much about.

This shows initiative and a positive attitude on the part of the Nigerians.  A true demonstration of the entrepreneurial ideal.  Rather than waiting for someone to come along and "give them a job", they get off their rear ends and collect a little crude oil on their own.   

Now in our country, our government officials also profit on managing the natural resources and economy for the benefit of their rich masters but their fees are much less. In America, the corruption is more discreet as well and are usually channeled through reelection campaign funds and so forth.  The rest of us work for slave wages and although there is a larger middle class than in Nigeria, it doesn't add up to much. And besides, our government is working to reduce the middle class and being quite successful at it. When the Dow average goes up, it is the tiny wealthy elite in this country that benefits. The idea that it is the “retirement funds” that benefit as well is very much an obvious lie from the last century.

This fine concept of cake would have to be adapted to our American way of life of course.  The carved turnip from Africa must become a carved giant gourd here in America, metaphorically speaking.  We all want a piece of cake, but just punching holes in oil pipelines may be appropriate for the colorful native peoples of Africa but would not do for those in the west with our sophistication and finely honed environmental sensibilities.  But I am sure Americans can run with this idea and suitably modify it in a way that does not compromise other values and allows us to deceive ourselves into thinking that we invented the idea.

I hope that Americans will not let foolish pride stand in the way of adopting interesting ideas from other cultures.  If the world can adopt "blue jeans" and "jazz" from America, surely we can benefit from their concept of "cake" and thank the Nigerians for showing the way to a more just and fair world.

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