31 May 2012

“The World Owes You Nothing,” Says Mrs. Sheila Solarin At 88


As the highly respected widow of Dr. Tai Solarin clocked the enviable age of 88 yesterday, admirers of her late husband’s most popular article “May Your Road Be Rough!” will also enjoy Madam’s version of it republished here with the above title. It’s a sort of career guidance for the 21st century youth and the young at heart.

 “Don't go around saying the world owes you a living.
The world owes you nothing. It was here first.”

I would like to suggest that the only thing that is certain in this millennium is uncertainty. The world is changing rapidly and we will have to change with it, whether we are ready or not. It will surely be better to prepare for this uncertain future.

You should grasp at every shred of education and work experience that you can get. If you have a week or two of vacation, or a compulsory stay-at-home for a strike, look around for what work needs doing in your area and start doing it voluntarily. Don’t look only for what you will be paid for. If there are potholes in your street, look for broken blocks or an abandoned heap of laterite.  Get others of your kind together, beg for a shovel and a derelict bucket or head-pan and fill some of those potholes thoroughly. Get used engine oil from a local mechanic to pour on top of your filling. This will protect it from the rain to some extent. You will feel so good, you will have got physical exercise and you will have shown what is possible without money. Who knows, you may one day be a PWD engineer, or a local government chairman, and you will remember what you learnt. Above all, you will have learnt to be a leader, not a follower.

Volunteer to work in a local hospital – read stories to children, hold the hands of someone afraid or in pain. Look round and see what you can do to help. I am not suggesting that you are going to spend your life in a poverty-stricken volunteer, but you will learn a lot from any kind of work experience.

As I said above, get every shred of education you can. I would like to emphasize mathematics, science and English. These are your core subjects in secondary school. You can read up subjects such as history, geography, economics and literature at anytime, but you must get the basic rudiments in mathematics, English and science. Your science should be as practical as possible, so try to encourage your teachers to give you practicals. Volunteer to help set up, clean up and put away equipment. Your teachers are probably overwhelmed by the number of students and lack of equipment. Try to suggest politely ways in which students can help. You and the teachers are not in opposing teams. You are on the same side, facing the same goal post.

When you reach the end of Junior Secondary class 3, you have to be thinking of your choice of subjects. Try to make sure that your results are good enough to offer at least biology and chemistry, and physics if you can. The world we are in – the millennium we have just moved into – needs science and technology. Don’t opt for physical education or religious knowledge because you can get marks. You may get through Senior Secondary class 3 and university and end up with a useless qualification. Music and art should be taught and should be enjoyed, but remember that very few people make a good living from either of these. The same goes for football. Sure, an international footballer may get, for a few years, a salary beyond its widest dreams but count how many such footballers there are. Get a degree in, say, biochemistry and play football thereafter. When your football career is over, you will go back to your biochemistry for the rest of your life – perhaps another twenty or thirty years after the period you spent on football.

Aim at becoming computer literate by whatever means. One of those compulsory breaks from university may give you a couple of months for a short computer course. Befriend somebody who has a computer. Offer to clean his car, do up his garden, scrub his cement yard or wash his clothes in exchange for half an hour on his computer. Read the theory by all means but try to get your hand on somebody’s keyboard. Bill Gates never went to computer school. His mother got hold of a computer from somewhere and he learnt as a teenager what he needed to know to become one of the world’s richest young men – a computer wizard.

Consider what you can do to be self-employed. If you want a job these days, you had better make one. What about making work and wealth from waste? There are a few people in Lagos combing the rubbish heaps for reusable materials but they are not well organised and do not own the processing equipment themselves to turn the rubbish into something useful.

You can sell waste paper, scrap metal, glass and cloth. Get yourself a collecting cart, two bicycle wheels, a rectangular metal bottom with the sides heightened with iron mesh. Go around your collecting area on the same day every week, so that your visit will be expected.  If you can afford to divide the inside of your cart into three sections, then you could collect paper in one, glass in one and metal in the other section. After your round, you have to press the paper into bales.

Reusable tins and bottles can be sold off to those who reuse them for selling palm oil, vegetable oil, etc. Other metals need sorting into types – aluminium and iron will be separated. Factories producing aluminium pots and pans accept aluminium for recycling and pay for it. Plastic can be recycled also to coat hangers and similar small items. Cloth can be cut up and turned into rugs or reprocessed for re-spinning and weaving.

Clearly, one quality you have to put aside is pride. What will my mates say when they see me collecting rubbish? Perhaps, ultimately you will have a small business producing coat hangers and your mates will still be dressing up to carry their application letter from door to door looking for a job ten years after they graduate.

If you are going into business, be ready to start small, producing something people want. ‘Eleganza’ knew what he was doing when he started producing coolers for carrying food for parties. Which household does not own one, or does not hope to get one? Slippers we need; carpets we can live without.

If you can manage to have two businesses going – especially if one is seasonal – you will have a better chance of surviving. If you drill a small borehole and produce bottled water, you could run it in the dry season and farm during the rains.  In China, on a commune we visited, the farm was a fruit farm but they also produce children’s cloth (which Nigeria imports from them) when there was not much work on the farm. Nigerian farmers are largely idle throughout the season.  

In the U.S.A. and United Kingdom, there are special department stores where all kinds of handcraft from the Third World are sold. You will find embroidery and crochet work from Zimbabwe, carvings from Ghana, textiles from India, small items of furniture from Thailand – from Nigeria, nothing. Yet this country has a wealth of handsome cloth, pottery, wood carving and metal work we do not seem able to show the world. All of these could be produced in the dry season as a second leg on which to stand when times are hard. You might also make a business out of going round the country collecting craft items for export.

If you are lucky enough to get a job at any point in your career, make sure you do more than you are asked to do. Tai worked an average of 15 to 16 hours per day all the time I knew him. Even before he came back from Europe, he had worked on a farm in Sweden and hit the headlines as the man who could pick twice as many potatoes in a day as any other farm worker. When he was in the Air-force in Canada, he collected from the dustbins the socks that his mates were too lazy to wash. He washed them and sold them back to those who had thrown them away.

When I was a student, I sold cloth in the Saturday market, cleaned the apartment for one bachelor and mended socks for another. I worked as a waitress in a hotel in the long vacation; one summer I worked on a farm. On fine days we were outside working on the fruit farm. On raining days we were inside packing sweets made from fruit juice, or making wooden crates to pack the fruits for market. There was no day when a lazy worker could put his head down on the table.

Tai also worked as a mortuary attendant. And he was already a graduate at that time, but he had learnt to take any job available. If you get a job, work harder than you are expected to do, and be ready to put in longer hours if need be – whether you will get extra pay or not – you will be training yourself to work and building a reputation that will always be useful.

So these are a few suggestions to think over.  The world does not owe you a living. You have to make a place for yourself. Good luck!