One summer day in 2015, I decided to take a train ride to downtown Calgary. The train was almost empty, it always used to be so full, that finding a seat after a hard day’s work was almost impossible. Downtown Calgary was the heartbeat of the city. It used to be infused with the energy of people bustling up and down 1st through 9th street by day, and clubs and restaurants filled to the brim, overflowing with energy, music, and laughter by night. But now, things were different. There was an economic downturn, and it had hit Calgary quite hard.
The train stopped at the 3rd street station, and a tall man in a dark suit got in. We made eye contact, and he smiled. He was probably in his forties, with a dusting of grey on his beard and temples. He asked if I was Nigerian and I nodded yes.
His face lit up. “How naa, my sista,” he said in greeting, as he sat down beside me. We exchanged pleasantries, talked about Nigerian politics, and then the conversation shifted to our city, Calgary. We lamented how empty the train was, and how having seats suddenly didn’t feel like a blessing anymore.
As we passed by one of the intersections, he pointed to a tall building. ” I used to work there,” he said. “They laid most of us off, just like that.”
He was an Engineer. He’d worked in the oil sector for over fifteen years.
“…and I don’t even have a house to my name,” he said, almost to himself.
I was taken aback, not because of the revelation, but because Nigerians are very proud and usually don’t share, at least not in that way.
“My sista,” he continued, “you know how the situation is in Nigeria naa. Everyone was just saying give me, give me, give me, especially my parents.”
At this point, I could tell he just wanted to talk.
“Hmmmmm,” I replied. I figured he didn’t really want me to say anything. He just needed someone to listen.
“Are you married?” He asked.
“Congratulations o,” he said. “Me, I no marry. Where I see the money naa?”
“I’m sorry,” I replied.
He told me there was nothing to be sorry about, and then he really began to speak. He said the requests for money started coming even before he’d completed his second year of University. Someone was sick and needed medical care, his mother needed a new phone or a pair of glasses and so on. He’d scrape together whatever he could from his student job as a cleaner, he’d send it home without leaving much for himself and would rely heavily on high-interest credit cards and fast food. He explained that he came to Canada on a full scholarship, so his tuition was taken care of, thank goodness.
He graduated with distinction and got a job in Calgary right after. At this point, the financial request amounts grew larger and more frequent. New cars for his parents; a mandatory house built in the village for Christmas holidays but empty the rest of the year; tuition and fees for his nieces; and rent payment for his siblings. But he didn’t mind, because he was making more than enough money for everyone, or so he thought. A few years later, he got an even better job and a six-figure salary. But even with his career success, he couldn’t for many years, afford anything more than a one bedroom apartment with a mattress on the ground. Why? He was still responsible for every birthday celebration; electricity, water, food and medical bill; every church thanksgiving; and every large sum financial pledge to the church by his parents. He’d put his life on hold, postponed everything from buying a house to getting married because for his family everything was urgent, a matter of life or death. He’d been so busy putting out fires back home that he never found time to think about his own needs and future. He said that whenever he refused to send money his father would call, tell him his mother was gravely ill and disappointed in him, and warn him of the curses that would plague him if his mother died.
In those days, both of his parents were younger and able-bodied. They lived in the house he’d built in their name, somewhere in Iyana Ipaja. The house was supposed to include a shop and three five-bedroom apartments. He instructed his parents to live in one apartment and lease out the other two. He also gave them capital to set up a convenience shop for additional income. He never received a penny from the rentals, and as for the money for the convenience shop business, there were many stories: someone fell ill, a sibling got mugged on the way to the market to buy supplies for the shop, or something needed renovating and the rest of the money had to go to that instead. He later found out they only built three two bedroom apartments and there was no shop at all.
“Now everibodi dey sufa am,” he said and clicked his tongue.
His mother had high blood pressure, and his father had suffered a stroke. He had lost his job and had no savings, his four siblings, the oldest fifty with a wife and two children, the youngest nineteen, a university drop-out, all lived in the three apartments in Iyana Ipaja. They had no skills, didn’t work and couldn’t contribute.
“So what do you do?” he asked me.
I told him I was a writer.
“Hmmm, no write about me o.” He said, laughing as he stood up.
“You sure?” I asked.
“Abeg, my sista, write if you want, make our people dey hear word,” he said. “Just no put my name.”
He got off at 8th street. He said he was going to a recruitment agency a few blocks down the road. He didn’t tell me his name, and I haven’t seen him since then.
Before I go any further, I have to state that this article is by no means an indictment on parents, especially in a place like Nigeria, where there is no social safety net, where over 152 million people live on less than two dollars a day. This piece is about the exploitation and manipulation perpetrated by some family members and loved ones, which prevents success and perpetuates the cycle of poverty.
For the sake of this article, I’ll call the man from the train Jide. Jide’s whole family had opted for early retirement, and he was their pension fund. But everyone was suffering because a human being, is a volatile and unreliable retirement plan. Perhaps things would have been different if his parents had been patient when they were younger, and had helped Jide make a plan, and build a solid foundation for himself. Unfortunately, he’d had to carry everyone on his shoulders while still trying to find his own feet. He’d given all he had when he was in his youth. They’d feasted on the seeds Jide could have sown, so nothing was planted, nothing grew, and there was nothing for him or for his now sick parents to fall back on.
Many demanding parents do not sincerely consider the future of their children, though they may say they do. This points to a narcissistic trait which can sometimes underlie situations like the one in which Jide finds himself. This narcissism plays a role in the lack of foresight evidenced in the never-ending demands for money by Jide’s parents. Their actions prove while they clearly thought about how to satisfy their own needs at all costs, that they probably never stopped to ask themselves questions like: has Jide saved anything for himself? Does he have enough for his own rent? Does Jide have enough to eat and pay his bills? What would happen to all of us if Jide had a heart attack and dropped dead today? What if he decided to marry and have children? Does he have enough to take care of them? Would his parents and siblings still come before his partner and children?
But I cannot blame Jide’s parents entirely for their narcissism. This is because it is normalized and socio-culturally accepted as a part of our way of life, and is rarely if ever noticed. For instance, when a young man or woman graduates university, people say, “now you can take care of your parents.” Some guilt their children, “your friends, have bought jeeps for their parents, what have you done for me?” Some judge their children by how much money they’ve received from them, or whether or not they’ve built a house in the village.
There is a faulty assumption that if a parent brings a child to the world, the child should be grateful and if parents have sent their child to University either in Nigeria or overseas, there should be payback. In other words, “I took care of you, so now you have to take care of me, it’s my right.” But in truth, a child sacrificing his future and the future of his own children, to care for his able-bodied parents and siblings, even after providing them with capital to set up a family business has nothing to do with parental rights, and suggesting so is equivalent to saying children are indentured servants.
Many young men and women, just like Jide, want to walk away from this injustice, but cannot. Perhaps because parents may have repeated a lie over and over again from childhood: I did you a favor by giving birth to you, and then I suffered to raise you. The myth of the privilege of birth is one which children may internalize and carry into adulthood. They may aspire towards success, not for themselves or their future offsprings, but so that they can pay back and please the parents to whom they became indebted the moment they were born. But the truth is that children do not choose to be born. Children do not call out to potential parents from the great beyond wailing in agony, asking to be let into the world. Having children is a self-satisfying act without which many of us are unhappy and feel unfulfilled. So we make a conscious decision to bring a child into the world, not for the child’s sake, but to fulfill a personal desire. Therefore, what parents do for a child, in terms of providing his or her basic needs is a responsibility towards that child and a right that every child deserves.
A child is not a retirement plan. But in Jide’s case, he was everybody’s plan, both for daily upkeep and for retirement. I hope Jide finds peace. I hope he gets another job, and after that, a good financial planner to help him sort out his finances and make a life plan. I hope he finds the strength to give less, say no more often, and perhaps meets someone great to build a life with. It’s never too late to start over, well, for a lucky few, and I hope that Jide is one of them.
Let’s take a moment to ask ourselves a question: Why do we have so many educated and active people in the workforce, with millions in diaspora, yet generational wealth is almost unheard of in our society, except for a very few elite? According to an article by CNBC, women’s income growth slows by the time they are 33 and by the time they are 40 years old, it stops. For men, the age is 49. More worrying, is the finding that many employers do not want to hire someone over fifty. Faced with ageism and other intersecting obstacles including racism and colorism, a person, just like Jide, perhaps loses his job and is unable to find new work. In a flash, life passes by, and he is suddenly considered too old. His job prospects wither and disappear. He is without savings, a retirement plan, or a hope for the future. He can barely care for himself, and in time may become dependent on his children, if he has any, just like his parents were dependent on him. The cycle of poverty continues, and the possibility of generational wealth for those that come after him is also taken away.
Most of us have parents who will go to hell and back for us. But they aren’t perfect. Many are uneducated on wealth building, budgeting, and financial planning. For some, the concept of long term savings and preparing for the future is left entirely in the hands of supernatural beings. However, there is a famous saying: God helps those who help themselves, and it needs no further explanation. Our resolve must be to do better than our parents did, and that means that while we appreciate and reminisce what they did right, we must improve on what they could have done better: Educate ourselves and our children about money, investing, retirement, and getting ahead in an extremely competitive world. We must also fight to suppress any narcissistic and selfish tendencies we may have.
Let us give our children our shoulders to stand on. Let us liberate and permit them to soar like eagles and break new grounds. That way if we genuinely ever need them, they’ll have strong wings to carry us to the skies, far and well into our oldest years. We must reflect on our truths, celebrate the good and most importantly reject the bad. My wish for all of us is that while we are young, we always remember, that a child is not a retirement plan and that we strategize accordingly, for ourselves and our children.
Art by Insecta Studios