I went online the other day, onto a social media platform that connects professionals with one another, you know the one, and there I saw a familiar face. Someone I had contact with when I was employed. Someone who worked in an organization that has some measure of clout with its stakeholders across Afrika and internationally. Someone who left that organization some years ago and has since blended in with the rest of the citizenry of his country. His job description now says, former such and such at such and such. Former. When he was current, his title moved mountains. Now, he blends in with the rest of those dependent on the goodwill of those in their networks, or the seeds they have sown along the way in order to get recognition, acceptance, access or the aforementioned mountains to move. How I wish that we would all live aware of the upcoming ‘formers’ in our lives. Maybe we would do things differently.
I have seen, over the years, many people in Afrika who were once hailed as rising stars, champions of industry, and at the top of their game become former such and such at such and such, clinging with all might and power to the fading claims to fame that being a such and such once offered them. Somehow, by association, perhaps a glimmer of the former ‘glory’ of yesteryear might just grant them another moment in the sun. I know this quest. I have been on it. Peppering my CV with certain statements of great achievements, with the hope that being a former such and such will grant me some kind of favor in the eyes of the ones who have the power and authority to grant access to their exclusive club either by way of contract or by way of employment. Hoping to ‘elevate’ my ‘status’ once more to the levels of ‘acceptability’ that society demands. It’s humbling and sometimes even terrifying to contemplate your ‘once upon a time’.
I remember one titan, who I admired with everything an up and coming career person can admire someone who they have been told bears every hallmark of admirability that can exist in the corporate realm. After all, that is the standard that you are taught to aim for and to do it with everything that you’ve got. It is the standard that informs the pair of high heels, the fragrance, the hairstyle and the outfit that you select in order to attend that ‘all-important’ cocktail party, networking event or interview that could radically transform you into a current such and such at such and such. This titan had scaled the heights of every possible realm in the public and private sector. This titan’s star never appeared to dim, they were the darling of the government, corporate and social glitterati until, one day, that star dimmed and the titan became a former such and such who literally vanished from the limelight and entered the netherworlds of ‘once upon a time’. This, at the hands of a society that is obsessed with success attained by a standard everyone adheres to, one way or another. Never once questioning its fallibility. Soon, invites that one once overflowed from their desk, invites that were picked through selectively in order to decide which events to attend to maintain their lofty status gradually dwindled to nothing.
In a society that is built on status and achievement, you fall from grace when you appear to have no value attached to your name and are consumed by the obscurity where this fickle society casts you to and unless you – what is the popular term now? Pivot and reinvent yourself? It’s game over. You will be called upon only to attend or officiate events that are being held to reminisce about bygone days. Once upon a time…
But what if I told you that being ‘left out’ is not actually the problem and that wanting to fit in is? What if in exiting the popular scene, you actually stood to gain more from self-discovery and determination than being one of those who drive the ox-cart called modern civilization?
I had an opportunity to participate in an activity that raised in me great concerns about the world we are living in and just how fake it is. Someone was giving another individual some very well-intentioned and highly professional counsel about how to navigate their office environment. Believe me when I say that this counsel was absolutely flawless, bang on and exactly what the person needed not only to hear but to implement in order to survive their workplace and remain relevant such that they can rise through the ranks and even keep their job. It was precise and accurate for the paradigm this person and most of the world believe in. The counsel did absolutely nothing to change the true heart’s position of the one counseled, but instead equipped them to be able to master the rules, put on the correct mask, play the game and get away with it until the next time they get fed-up with company politics and their true opinion shines through again. It was in that moment I thanked God again for rescuing me from that life. I can see it for what it is now, but in that moment, I just thought I was misfiring. But I had seen something, something that was not right, I just couldn’t articulate it then. So I reacted. I now put it to you, what if the paradigm is rotten and wrong? This would mean that one can play the game and on the basis of the rules be found perfect, but be utterly misplaced and inaccurate with regard to what is actually needful.
But what if I told you that being ‘left out’ is not actually the problem and that wanting to fit in is? What if in exiting the popular scene, you actually stood to gain more from self-discovery and determination than being one of those who drive the ox-cart called modern civilization?Chioma Phillips
Walk with me a moment as I try to explain. The majority of the world has embraced a Capitalist system which is driven largely by excessive consumption (market size), wastage (planned obsolescence), pollution (manufacturing, packaging) and debt (financing, loans). In order to ensure that the system has a modicum of sustainability, everything from government policy, to education policy and content, to legislation, to taxation, to fashion, cosmetics, you name it, is designed around it. It is the equivalent of choosing an operating system for a phone or a standard for digital television and then building everything in the market to support that system or standard. Devices and components are manufactured, licenses are issued, training is carried out, marketing is conducted, construction for masts is undertaken, applications are developed, shops are stocked, taxes and duties are levied, university degrees are created etc. The universe surrounding the operating system or standard is established and the train rolls out of the station with everyone is committed to ensuring its success. There is a structure to it. Is it necessary to have a new OS or standard? Someone somewhere deemed it to be. Why? The most popular reason is usually progress. What was wrong with the old one? It’s old. Was the old one even necessary? Don’t stand in the path of progress! So Capitalism, as a system, created a super-structure to ensure that it is sustained. That means for those who want to remain a part of it, for whatever reason, they need to do the dance. What dance? Be relevant. Fit in. Play the part. (i.e. clothes, shoes, fragrance, cocktail parties, education, language, corporate policy compliance etc).
But, if Capitalism is inherently evil, which it is, and driven by greed, which it has to be in order to survive, then the entire universe surrounding it to support it has an issue. Ergo, the paradigm has major foundational flaws. In previous issues of this magazine as well as in the book, A People Called Afrika, Samuel and I have explained how the greed and selfishness that are the building blocks behind Capitalism render it a system that is only suitable for the trash heap. It is a Ponzi scheme, bolstered and sustained by men and women with an unhealthy agenda and it is going down! It propagates hypocrisy and callousness in people and forces their minds to remain fixed on elements such as competition, underhanded tactics and all to acquire money and the praises of men (status). It leaves in its wake highly stressed out, performance-based, people pleasers whose sole purpose is to sustain the system so that they can remain in it long enough to pay their children’s school fees and clear their mortgages or other debts.
There’s a reason why ‘Once upon a time’ is such a frightening concept for so many people. Because they believe in the system and its right to exist and therefore they give it permission to define them, to elevate them and to reduce them to nothing. They do not question it. Despite there being ample evidence to justify it being judged and brought down. So many have fallen colleagues who were ingested and used by the system before being spat out through a ‘redundancy’ or a manufactured exit that was obviously unjust and so many held their breath and ducked their heads down so that they don’t get picked to go next. What kind of living is that? And you wonder why people are stressed. Both the current and the former such and such, laboring under burdens of pretense, pride, fear and frustration. For what?
I once had the distinct sorrow of watching a man in his fifties in a supermarket clutching a tiny shopping basket, thousands of kilometers away from his family and home. He was living in a forced exile of sorts because his place of work was in one country and by virtue of whatever necessity, his family was in another. The job paid him well. Allowed him to do more for his family. I can’t say his working conditions were dignified though. The money was great, the boss, not so much. He and his colleagues were miserable but cash-rich. Their boss was miserable too. For money.
Once upon a time, Afrika had more than jobs, debt, stress and frustrations. Her people had more than cars, houses, clothes, positions and networks. Once upon a time, we valued life more than money and a decision to end the pollution of rivers and other water bodies would not even have been one we were considering… because the rivers and water bodies were fine. Once upon a time, we had simplicity and purity of life and purpose that was not obscured by a Western perspective of life and living. The job, the marriage, the children, the car, the house, the dog. Once upon a time…