56 years and counting after independence, Nigerian parents still want their kids to be either doctors, lawyer or engineers.
In the days before Goodluck Jonathan brought Facebook to Nigeria, our fathers got jobs at multinationals with their Ordinary Levels. I know it’s hard to imagine, but these levels were more ordinary than the tag implies.
Back then, education was mostly run by the government and institutions like the Catholic church but it wasn’t as accessible as it could have been. Going to the University was not for an option for all and sundry, so fresh out of secondary school, students would apply for low-level desk positions and slowly work their way up.
For most of them, there was no real need to choose a definite path when the opportunities were so vast and unrestricted.
Nowadays, the average Nigerian university degree is worth just a tiny bit more than the paper the certificate is printed on. With every passing day, the skills that we used to take for granted become more important than the things we spend a decade or more trying to learn.
Graduates of Yoruba Language are reading the news on television. Agric Economists are making a living as account executives at major banks. Nothing works like it used to anymore.
But no-one seems to have told our parents.
Growing up in one of the many suburbs that make up the city of Lagos, Wale (not his real name) wanted to be a pilot when he was little. The sight of planes passing overhead convinced him he wanted to fly, but by the time he started secondary school, that dream had long crashed and burned.
He was in an intense relationship with music and as the years passed, it became his day and night, his dawn and dusk.
His grades did not suffer for it like one would come to expect; he was an exceptional student in school. The way he saw it, if he could perform beyond expectations, it would be easier to convince his parents to let him build a life around what he loved.
So the look on his face was fire and brimstone when his father convicted him to five years of studying law. “You cannot make a living with this music thing”, he said as he put his arm around his shoulder, “… but I know you like to write so it’s better if you study Law, and when you’re finished, you can manage all these artists”.
The idea of letting their children decide their career paths remains strange to most Nigerian parents. It starts just after junior secondary, when they ‘encourage’ you to go to science class because you have shown one or two signs that pass for being smart and you can stand the sight of blood.
It might seem like harmless advice at first, but more often than not, it’s part of a plan. A grand master plan that includes your course of study, university of choice and first job if they can help you find one.
When you consider the fact that the process of trying to make a living, otherwise known as a career, makes up most of any person’s adult life, this habit is deeply disturbing. In a country where any individual’s chances of making a decent living drop with each presidential election, it is not a decision to take lightly. But do they care? No.
Today’s world is shaped by thinkers and innovators in all areas from design to fashion; but Nigerian parents still want their children to be either doctors, lawyers or engineers.
It’s very tempting to think this is part of a culture that goes beyond just school and jobs. And rightly so. As children, our parents’ beliefs are foisted on us from the moment we begin to absorb information. As we grow into ourselves and begin to embrace our individuality, we are taught more that we are our parent’s children, first and foremost.
You get sent off to school with quips like ‘Don’t forget the son of who you are’, reminders that who you are to be is a function and reflection of their whims, beliefs and proclivities, regardless of what or who we become outside of that.
It’s why Nigerian parents don’t see you as an adult until you move out of their house.
You can create empires or lead nations, but your father will always be smarter than you. It is as simple as that.
Nigerian parents, though, are not the enemy. It is the times they find themselves in; circumstances that threaten to overwhelm them and all they know. Each day breaks with stories they struggle to understand – and beyond the headlines and breaking news reports, they are confronted with the reality of a world where a good life is becoming more of a privilege than a right.
The natural instinct of parents anywhere is to protect their own, more so in an environment as dangerous as ours. It’s the least we can expect from them. Perhaps that’s why it seems too much when we ask that they accept when things are beyond their capacity.
Between studying ungodly law texts and understanding the limitations of his student visa, Wale makes random performances at pubs and clubs in London, the city he now calls home. There are ears for his music here, and with every opportunity to sing his songs and tell his stories, he becomes more confident about the course he’s taking.
I often ask him what he plans to do when the years in school come to an end, and he says a lot about it, but somehow, he never answers. Something about the strength in his voice makes me think he has it figured out already.
There are certain decisions nobody can or should make for you.