Friday, January 26, 2007

Happy Birthdays

A few weeks ago, I had an argument with a Nigerian friend of mine about extravagance. One of the things she loves about Nigerians, is that, "if a Nigerian has money, you will know they have money". Basically, she likes the fact that Nigerians are one of the most showy, opulent people in the world. I don't. There's never any need to show the whole world what your bank balance is. It's not what civilised people do. Yes, terribly British, I know.

I've thought about what she said, and I guess I'm more Nigerian than I think. I'm known for wearing African shirts - in a European country. This would be seen as extravagant by any tiny stretch of the imagination, yet I cringe at thinking that I'm extravagant. What the shirts attempt to betray though, is a certain flamboyance, rather than extravagance. There is a difference, and this is where I part ways with money shower offers. The shirts I wear are quite cheap when you compare them the badge of honour TM Lewin, and Thomas Browne. Or should that be Thomas Pink?

It is the idea that what I'm wearing is somehow indicative of how much money I have which sticks in the throat. I'm very uncomfortable with the idea that I can be sussed out as loaded from the shirt on my back. I do agree that Nigerians are flamboyant, but this doesn't always have to mean show offy. There's a distinct difference, and that's the crux of my argument. I can hear all my friends bellowing that I'm only carping because I don't exactly have Oprah's bank balance.

Which brings me finely onto the topic of the post - kids' birthdays in Nigeria. When I was growing up, there was always a feeling of one upmanship with regard to birthday parties. Did you go to Uche's tenth birthday party? They had Ken and Barbie dolls in the party pack, they must have spent so much money. Wole, from now until your birthday party, we'll eat just two meals a day. I refuse to be disgraced as the only mother who couldn't put Transformers robots in the party pack. Every gathering becomes an ode to "mine's bigger than yours", a kind of penis envy for parents.

Naturally, the greatest cardinal sin of all is the first birthday party. All the bambinos sleep through the whole thing, sucking on dummies, or dazed wondering what all the fuss is about. Meanwhile, the parents are dancing the night away, spraying (abusing) naira like it's 1999. It's supposed to be a day dedicated to the children, but instead becomes an ode to parental extravagance. Why? We couldn't possibly let the Adeyemis, Okonkwos, or the Abdulahis get one up on us.

Whenever children's birthday parties are planned, the people furthest from the parents minds are the children themselves. How will this make me look. Imagine my shock, and I suppose, slightl elation at finding out that this disease isn't exclusvely Nigerian. Americans are also afflicted. (Then again, it is America, land of the bigger is better). Listening to this item on the Today programme made me wonder about my Nigerian prejudices. I wondered if I judged Nigeria too harshly for sins that are universal, and not particularly unique to Nigeria, but which I sometimes insist is a thoroughly Nigerian ailment. I thought, " I should lay off Nigeria for a while, we're not the worst people in the world". And then I thought, nah...
Image from Anne Karinglass.


Nilla said...


There are still a couple of parents that couldn't be bothered. Then it's the kids that feel bad about other kids talking about their not "up to" party in school.

Unknown said...

Nkem, you know me I'm cheap as chips when it comes to spending money. For goodness sake I even flog my old stuff on eBay but neither am I poor. I guess I learnt early that being rich isn't about designer labels its about having enough money to do what you want when you want. My parents had lots of money in the bank yet we lived in a Mobile Home for a year whilst our home was being built. Most parents would have taken a bridging loan to enable us to still live in our old home before the new one was built but not my parents. We had my 9th birthday in the Mobile Home, all 10 friends and me - what a squash!!

I have money in the bank so I can go on holiday at a moments notice or do an Open Uni module not buy flashy clothes and a sports car.

I know Nigerians can be quite flashy, its something I really dislike but I equally dislike it in the British and Americans.

Thankfully my boyfriend is smartly dressed but as happy in M&S as Ralph Lauren and he doesn't require me to dress all flash to get a compliment - yay :)

Dami said...

hmm that's one of the reason nigerians like america. land of the lost

Anonymous said...

I love Nigerian flamboyancy!
Hate it when I see people in the West with lots of money looking like ‘house boys’! What nonsense!
Saying that, I do object to the fact that a lot of Nigerians steal and then show off with the money.
What I’m waiting for is the day Nigerians learn to respect ONLY those who earn their money the right way! There is nothing wrong with having money and landing a party wearing expensive lace, jewellery and a serious gale, oh yes!

Anonymous said...

That's why I hate parties. Too much fanfare. I never grew up getting parties thrown for me except once when I was named. I remember I used to hate getting dragged to birthday parties but until I was old enough to stay home on my own, I had to go with everyone.

Nigerians have this showing off mania that continues to amaze me. We saw it with the advent of the mobile phone. It's in everything we do...

Anonymous said...

“…people in the West with lots of money looking like ‘house boys” oh my god, this also annoys me. Especially those that go to the thrift stores or free soup kitchens – I just want to throw rocks at them or something.
I think it’s only natural for us (as Nigerians) to judge ourselves more harshly for sins that are not unique to Nigerians. Yes Nigerians have a showing off mania (big parties, spraying, etc) but so do people from other countries, don’t get me wrong though, that doesn’t make it particularly right though. Take for example the (absolutely useless) show cribs, or the competition where celebrities (mostly athletes) pimp up their rides and the person with the best ride wins (sorry, can't remember the name) - these are all their ways of showing off also. I guess to some extent its human nature.

Anonymous said...

i sort of hate this houseboy comment. how much of the fact that a person gets to feel superior in thier expensive clothes is based on merit? the fact that any one of is NOt a houseboy is usually a matter of heritage, luck and dirty business, but no one wants to say so. Everyone wants to convince themselves they've earned thier luxuries, and, by extension, the poor are poor by choice.

who is it we worry about impressing, who do we think will mistake us for houseboys? rich white folk? the ones who own the clothing companies?

Anonymous said...

Well it is what it is sometimes. Majority of the people I know and have seen that behave this way are mostly Caucasians. It has absolutely nothing to do with trying to impress anyone but why are they trying to pretend to be something they obviously are not? Are they all trying to be “down” with the masses? If they own the clothing companies, surely they can afford some proper pants.

"the fact that any one of is NOt a houseboy is usually a matter of heritage, luck and dirty business, but no one wants to say so." Truth be told, I'm sort of insulted by that comment. There are people in this world that have worked hard for the wealth they have "accumulated" without putting a penny into any form of dirty business and by those means they HAVE earned their luxuries. As much as we hate to admit it, poor folks are always going to be around, they are needed to keep the factors of production going – it’s a circle, it’s going to keep going. No ones poor by choice but we are poor by circumstance.

Marin said...

Truthfully, Nigerians care a lot about the external trapping, but like some other people said, its not unique to Nigerians.
What I disapprove of is the fact that Nigerians, and many black people care more about how they look, their fake hair, what people think of them based on the external etc than how they live, etc. You'll see some children going to school in tattered uniforms in Lagos with no books and yet their parents prefer to spend the money on some frivolous party or aso ebi for some other party.
My family is still sore at me because I refused to do a flamboyant wedding, what is the use of spending so much money(even if its not my money)to do an elaborate ceremony, where I don't even know half of the guests and they don't really give 2p about my happiness. My coz got married in flamboyance after an elaborate party, even though she and Mr didn't have any jobs. Afterwards, she kept complaining and asking for loans, does that make any sense?

Now, don't get me wrong, I also care about the external, but if I lived in Maroko, for instance, I would be more occupied with getting myself outta there than with baffs or weave or an owanbe and such other things.

About the birthday party thing- IMO, a party for any kid less than 3 yrs old is just for the parents and the adults as the kid cannot really appreciate or understand what is happening. One of my closest friends is still sore at me because I did not take the 1st birthday party of he little princess as serious as she did, lol.

Talatu-Carmen said...

I like your differentiation between flamboyance and extravagance. I love Nigerian style, and I hate the American schlepp. (University students showing up to class in pajamas etc.) but I'm uncomfortable with the tendency to throw around money one does not have.

I think there's got to be a place between.

I admit that I'm one of those Americans who go to thrift stores, but then I don't buy any old tattered, sweat stained thing but the more "flamboyant" vintage treasures that look good and are cheap.

Monef said...

I think I agree with some elements of everyone's comments. For me, it is merely a matter of keeping things in perspective. If I can afford a Gucci bag and I really love it and think it is beautiful then I see no reason why I shouldn't have it. If on the other hand, I am about to go hungry for a week to get this bag purely as a status symbol, then it is obvious that my biggest concern is keeping up appearances as opposed to expression of self!

Finally, in this day and age of high street shopping, cheap really doesn't have to look awful. I am therefore forced to conclude that people with copious amounts of money who walk around in tatters are rather affected, and I think it is a touch insulting to those that genuinely do not have.

internationalhome said...

I'll admit to Nigerian flamboyancy as that is all i know! However, i need to point out that this isnt peculiar to Nigerians alone. Was watching something on the beeb recently and they pointed out how people sell their Kidney's in India...reasons given were for a daughter's wedding or father's burial. Is it not similar to the yoruba mechanic in Nigeria who kills three cows when he looses a parent or his daughter gets married|?

Anonymous said...

One of the things she loves about Nigerians, is that, "if a Nigerian has money, you will know they have money"

For me, its one of the things I dislike about my brothers and sisters!...STILL

Anonymous said...

birthadys can be tricky. i decided to celebrate my sons birthday my own way i.e. cook a special dish, cake and drinks on the very day not shift the 'party' for three months so i can get enough money to outshine the 'Ugohs'. some friends have accused me and hubby for not wanting to spend money. another friend of mine does an estimate of how much the party will cost and invest the amount in shares for the child. i guess that makes more sense than Ken and Barbie.

Bébé's History said...

Birthday parties, wedding parties...overly extravagant. Celebrating a joyous event is a good thing, but having an authentic celebration that is not designed with the intent to impress? would that be so bad?
How many young couples with empty bank accounts would not do better with a stronger financial start? My aunt once said, 'Won a n'o l'ebi', meaning 'they will say you have no family' { family that can afford a fancy party}
What a waste.