The English have long been masters of what Richard Cust, Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Birmingham described (in a May 2009 Inaugural lecture, “The Invention of Snobbery in Early Modern England”) as a “culture of distancing and distinction; elitism; social condescension.”
According to him early modern (i.e. 16th to 18th century) England was a “solidly hierarchical society”, defined by acts of landowning, hunting and hospitality (i.e. the hosting of receptions and dinner parties). In a bid to set themselves apart from the ranks of the undistinguished many Englishmen resorted to tracing their ancestries as far back as they could. Some went as far as the Norman Conquest. In at least one case a gentleman traced his genealogy to Noah’s Ark. Cust highlighted the obsession of many English families of that era with “Coats of Arms” – as markers of “collective honour”, or for the purposes of “mask[ing] ancestral and social origins.”
All of these were of course the beginnings of the famous – and still intact – British class system.
Fortunately for us in Nigeria, however, the ‘Snob’ industry is nowhere near as complicated as the English version. Trust Nigerians to simplify their imports, even whilst managing to maintain their size and importance. Where you stand in the Nigerian society is determined primarily by how much money you have today, not by how much you had last year, or how much your father had forty years ago. It really doesn’t matter where you are coming from, as long as you have done well for yourself. It also doesn’t matter by what route you arrived at your current financial success – politics, business, the civil service, Internet fraud, religion – everyone is welcome at the table of abundance.
As the Yoruba saying goes, money earned from carrying shit does not smell of shit. Unlike the English system, designed to run on a certain, ruthless form of exclusivity, the sky seems big enough for all birds to fly in Nigeria. We are pragmatic people, the edges of our practicality having been honed by years of wildly volatile economic conditions.
I once watched a documentary, about an Englishwoman whose family owned thousands of acres of land, upon which sat a mansion in which generations of the family had lived. The woman, finding it difficult to maintain the property, then decided to give guided tours to visitors, as a means of raising money. In line with traditional British obsession with the past, she was sure that people would visit, awed by the mix of grandeur and ancient history that she had inherited. England is laden with the ghosts and shadows of aristocratic backgrounds like these, sustained on the leftovers of proud pasts.
If that woman lived in Nigeria, a sad fate would await her. Lacking money today, her noble past would be unable to deliver her. Nigerians do not reckon much with the past. Which is what I think explains the gross disrespect we extend to our museums. No one is permitted to live on past wealth, or forgiven for attempting to do so.
On the other hand forgiveness for past poverty is readily dispensed. The man who today struggles to pay his children’s school fees, will have the chance to start afresh when tomorrow he becomes a local government chairman rich enough to export all his children to private school in England. By the time the children return speaking like native English people, the man’s place in the Nigerian social pecking order is all but assured.
I doubt that money would buy “class” in England. In Nigeria, the case is different. Even though there are occasional hints of a ‘taxonomy’ – “Old Money” and “New Money” and “Money-Miss-Road” – in the final analysis, all monies are one and the same thing. Chieftaincy titles, honorary doctorates and praise singers do not discriminate between one form of money and another. Money indeed matters, and God help you if you think that a mouth fluent in English will make up for a pocket that is not fluent in money. You will be told point-blank that you are only “blowing grammar!”
Polite conversation was also something that the English paid attention to. The higher your class the more adept you were in the ‘Art of Polite Conversation’. Coarse and rough and vulgar talk was for the bottom of the social heap. In contrast, rich Nigerians have no qualms about overlooking all laws of conversational decency. They are allowed to be shamelessly coarse, to throw, “Bullshit! Do you know who I am?” at everyone who seems to be getting in their way.
Nigeria certainly has its laws, which anyone aspiring to ‘stand-out’ would do well to learn. One example: The First Law of “shining”, as follows: “The more the darkness you surround yourself with, the brighter you will shine”. It is this law that explains why there are streets that have only one house with its lights on, while the rest remain at the mercy of PHCN, mournful in the glow of the powerful lamps from the Big Man’s house. Welcome, all ye intending snobs, to Nigeria.