A friend's experiences with his builders perfectly illustrates this issue. After investing a considerable sum in his new house in an African city, he was expecting high-quality workmanship, i.e., no uneven steps, or windows or doors that don't close properly.
However, his reasonable demands provoked immediate contention from the builders. It went beyond build quality to questions about the size and design of the rooms. Wasn't he being a tad extravagant and wasteful having such comfortably-sized rooms, the builders asked.
My friend was perplexed that the builders should want to limit his living space, or challenge his high standards. He stood his ground before the workforce got on with implementing his vision, though now with a simmering resentment.
A few days later, he was further amazed when he overheard the construction team talking about a recently completed house for a European expatriate. The workers talked about the amazing house marble everywhere, huge rooms, and even the toilets were finished to the highest standards. It was like a palace, fit for kings and queens!
At this point my friend shook his head in despair, wondering why his attempts to create not a palace but just a comfortable house in their locality, had been so fiercely challenged by the construction team.
Suffer and smile
What was going on? Was it a deep psychological belief that we don't deserve the best, that life must be joyless, and we must--to paraphrase the great Fela Kuti--simply suffer and smile?
This attitude is everywhere in the African world. While I was travelling in the Caribbean recently, eight people were crammed into a five-seat taxi, making the journey totally uncomfortable and joyless. This practice of making do, or squeezing into the tight margins of life, lends itself very quickly into accepting mediocrity.
This was again illustrated by my recent experience when visiting a market in Nigeria to buy a small table. It was a win-win situation. I needed said table, and the market women, who had had very little trade that day, desperately needed a sale. However, the four legs of the table were badly uneven, so things left on top were liable to slide off. When I...