Disparity of Opportunities: A Personal Take on Africa and Humanitarianism


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"Abuja? That's a long ways from Jengre... How long have you been there? ... Since 2003? Wow... You said you're making a living doing what, again? ... Ah, public transport?" Yohanna's voice traversed the globe softly and less than clearly. His answers to my questions were delivered quickly in a thick Nigerian accent. I haven't talked to him in nearly eight years, so I can't be sure if he usually talks that fast, or if he was just trying to save minutes on the exceedingly expensive trans-atlantic telephone call.

My sister and I met Yohanna when we were living in the rural village of Jengre in 2000. He's now in the nation's political capital working as a public transportation driver (Which, most likely, means he's driving a twenty-year-old beat-up beast with three and a half wheels and a hole in the floor). I didn't catch all the details, but he told me that there are too many taxis in Abuja (Again, "taxi" does *not* mean shiny yellow air-conditioned cab), and competition is rough. "I am lucky if, with God's help, I take home 500 Naira," he told me (Per day? At about $4.25 USD, he could just as easily have meant per week), and I think he said he was hoping to have saved up 15,000 N by the end of the year. "Where did you fly out of when you went back to America?" he asked. "Abuja or Lagos? I know I will need 800,000 Naira."

Despite his adamance that he was not calling to ask for money, I know that, if he manages by some miracle to get a visa, he would love my help when it comes to the plain ticket and getting situated in the U.S.A. Yohanna has caught a wiff of the American Dream. "I want to do something with my life, to achieve something," he said. "Right now I am working, working, working, saving money. I've learned that I can't depend on other people all the time -- I made that mistake with my parents. I am trying to get in contact with the people I know and get their advice. I want to come to America. I know it will not be easy. Thank you for being encouraging, I like the way you are talking with me right now. What do you think I should do?"

Wow. What do you say to that? It's not like the kids who would swarm our house by the hundreds in Jengre asking for crayons and Hot Wheels. It's easy to dismiss a mob (Think of how abstractly we talk about the "immigration problem" of Hispanics sneaking across the border), but an individual that you are directly connected to is different, more difficult to dehumanize. Especially a smooth-spoken, passionate individual such as Yohanna. But what can I do? He is not well educated, and doesn't have the money for American university even if he could get a student visa. "I'm a hard worker. I don't know what it is like in America -- do you know of someplace where you could tell them about me, where I could work? You know how it is in Africa, we are farming, farming, and it makes us very strong. I like working with my hands. I cannot select a job, I will take anything. If it is like you say and most are looking for a university degree, then I don't know, I do not want an office job."

I don't know much about immigration procedures, but I do know that it's very difficult for someone without a specialized education or professional experience. H-1 visas are specifically designated for skilled labor, and L-1's are exclusively for international companies. In a nation where less than 1% of the workforce produces all of the food for 300 million people, where does a farm boy from Africa find an excuse for America to provide him with opportunity? I mean, sure, there would be jobs available in construction, maintenance, factories, and transportation -- those arenas add up to about a quarter of the jobs in America (According to James C. Franklin, "An overview of BLS projections to 2016", The Monthly Labor Review, Volume 130, Number 11, Nov. 2007). But why would our beloved USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) bother to let a foreigner like Yohanna, one of billions who would probably love such a chance, come here to take a job that might just as easily be filled by one of our own.

"So tell me about your life, talk to me about your friends, and about America," he said wistfully. I explained that I'm in school, but for the summer holidays I'm working in Indiana. "Indiana is a state," I said, "and Andrews University is about two hours away by car, in the state of Michigan. I spend the weekends in Michigan, where I live with my sister." "So you are in Indiana state," he repeated it several times to be sure he had it right, using the Nigerian custom of putting the word "state" after the name. "And how do you get from one to state to another?" I hesitated. "I drive myself, I have my own car."

I didn't know how else to say it. It's hard enough to admit to some of my friends here in the States that I, as one of the privileged few born into the world's top income percentile (You may be surprised how high your family ranks: Have a look at http://globalrichlist.com/), have my very own automobile that my parents bought for me. How am I supposed to make such a confession to someone born into the bottom decile? "Wow! Eric, you are a big man! Your own motor car! I only hope that one day I can have my own." He went on to briefly explain that owning your own car -- as opposed to driving somebody else's -- is the holy grail of the public transport business, with the real tycoons owning five or six.

At just twice the size of California, Nigeria has almost half the population of the United States, and contains just over 16% of all the people in Africa, each of which would consider themselves lucky to scratch together $1000 a year. Having lived there for part of my childhood and seen children first-hand dying of malnutrition, I've maintained a nostalgic soft spot for the international vista, globalism, and of course for Africa in particular. When ordering food at a restaurant I often visualize it in terms of the third world income: Eggplant Parmesan at Olive Garden? A week's wages, assuming no appetizers or Mountain Dew.

Simply feeling guilty for being born in America is to no avail, however. Becoming religiously devoted to alleviating the injustice of the gap between us and the developing world is of no benefit either if I don't go in with my thinking cap on. The developing world is rapidly catching up, but where is it going? I joked to the attendant the other day, when paying for a tank of gas at $4.19 a gallon, saying "there goes my youth." America, Europe, and the speedily modernizing China have big changes if we indeed are running out of oil. Middle Eastern countries -- and Nigeria -- who rely on black gold for their GDP, could face serious set-backs to the advancement that they are currently enjoying. And that's not to even mention global warming. (Here's an intriguing video on third-world development, with lots of brilliant visualizations: http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/92).

Laying aside the panoramic question of the problems entailed in repeating the industrial revolution in the third world, I've been seriously considering the Peace Corps for quite some time. I've even been learning French, with the aspiration of being equipped for service in the grander arena of West Africa. Partly, I'll admit, it's just for the sake of adventure and to add flavor to my personal perspective and autobiography. But I've also been inspired by the example of my parents and grandparents, all of whom have been missionaries abroad, and by the passion exhibited by friends at Andrews. For example, Abebe (Not his real name) a master's student I've shared some classes with, is here from Africa on a student visa, and can give you a detailed and eloquent speech on the hopes he has for his country, the amazing things he's seen and learned about in America, and how he intends to do his part to make a positive impact in his little corner of society when he goes back home.

What Africa needs is a change from within. I could be a help by joining the Peace Corps and teaching English or, more likely, computer skills as a foreigner to students in some city or other. What will really, and was is really making a difference, however, are people like Abebe, who will step up the standards, pursue education, crack down on corruption, and help provide opportunities to Africans from within Africa. It is afterall, their home and society, and it's not only ineffective but arrogant for us in the West -- and least of all a student like myself, more worried about chasing grades and girls than studying far-away economics -- to pose as the architects of their future.

So what can I do about the injustice? Yohanna is no different as a human being than my friends here in the States. Both have great potential and competent intelligence. The difference is opportunity -- something I've taken for granted my whole life. The fact of the matter is, if I dropped out of college right now, and took no further support from my family, I would *still* be in the top 1% of the world's income.

I stumbled upon an interesting presentation this morning, delivered to my study via the great and grand Interweb, in which the former Finance Minster of Nigeria, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, discussed the economic development of Africa from a positive perspective (Link: http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/127). Her primary objective seems to have been to encourage Western investors to take a look at African markets. "There's a huge market out there," she says, "and people don't know about it, or they don't want to."

My sister and I had just been talking this weekend about how to responsibly handle our money as young adults venturing into independence. I have a terrible tendency to spend all my cash at Barnes and Noble as it comes in, and am sorely tempted to chalk up the money and get my own Encyclopedia Britannica Home Library set this summer. It takes a lot of will power to ignore the little voice in my head: "Seven years wages in Nigeria..." All that just to make my bookshelf look pretty. What I should do, if I have extra money lying around, is invest in a mutual fund or something of that sort. And what do you know -- connect the dots -- a whimsical Googling and I found http://www.africamutualfunds.com/. Of course I'll do quite a bit more research into options before actually putting money into something, but now I have another idea of how I might do my part to satisfy my experience-fed, family-fostered humanitarian urge.

(Names of friends have been changed in this article)

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About Me

I'm Eric Scott, a junior at Andrews University studying Computer Science and Mathematics, working for the summer as a web programmer in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. I call home southern Illinois, where my father, Steve Scott, is a (currently non-practicing) family physician, businessman, college biology teacher, and head elder of the local SDA church.

As a hopelessly addicted journaller, this post mimicks in prose (And length/wordiness) the dozens of notebooks I've filled with thoughts over the last three years. I'm interested in not just science but philosophy, music composition, self-understanding, and cognition. Raised in a wonderful Adventist family, I now consider myself one of the many wandering young intellects that is struggling to make sense of the world (And universe) and where he fits into it.

My personal website is http://www.SigmaX.org


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/631