The art of failing and failing better
I grew up in a close-knit family of eight in Ilaje-Bariga, here in Lagos. My father sold spare parts of motorcycles at Lagos Trade Fair. My mother sold clothes along the Yaba railway. She began clothes-selling business years after saving money from the soft drinks she sold in front of our rented home. We lived in a small three-bedroom apartment on a street frequented by vagrants, and area boys who instigated riots, and thieves who made away with generators and cars, often breaking into small stores and salons.
As a little boy, I thought that Bariga and, maybe, Yaba, constituted the whole world, even though my family had brief visits to our hometown in Anambra, and some of my siblings went to school in places like Owerri and Enugu. I failed to imagine a world beyond what I saw. So, a kind of overwhelming complacency set in. And I grew too comfortable. I failed to strive. I failed to grow.
In the beginning, I hated school. I hated my classes and teachers. I hated uniforms. Perhaps, I felt everyone in the school took life seriously. Why study, when I could be home, watching my favourite cartoons, eating my mother’s lovely food, hanging out with the boys on my street who pranked passers-by and sat on fences, naming each car that rolled by.
It was “cool” to be naughty. I never wanted to behave as it was required of me, so I would disrespect teachers and school rules. I failed to do assignments. I sang the national anthem, not because it was a patriotic thing to do, but only because I felt like moving my lips. I was cautioned, punished, laughed at. Not by my mother, neither by my father. In retrospect, I think I failed because I cared less about the options that offered me success, chances of becoming that acceptable child everyone would love. And here’s the thing: when we fail to evaluate our options, when we fail to listen, acknowledge, and weigh the forces that conspire for and against us, we risk the possibility of losing the fullness of our being.
It is important we know that some failure is not detrimental. And, perhaps, this is why J.K. Rowling, the popular author of the Harry Potter series, in her 2008 Harvard University commencement address, said, “Some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you fail by default.” I returned to school, with a new found love for stories. I spent almost half of my day in the school library, and I think I must have read all of Enid Blyton’s work before I turned nine. Well, I still failed in some of my academic work, but I think I must have attained the status of an average student. But in Class Five, a teacher, in front of the whole class, said to me, “Tochukwu, you will never amount to anything.” Her words shattered me in a million ways.
Failure tends to be more public than success. We live in a society where a person’s failure at something is a big joke. Now, I don’t talk about failure so as to romanticise failure or make it seem fashionable, when it isn’t. I talk about failure because I’ve known its necessity, how important failure is for the person who sees it as a step toward success.
But what constitutes success? What is success if it has no proper understanding of failure? This is the situation in our country: we forget that success is, at its best, a collective effort. To grow all round, we must constantly seek and strive to get rid of the divide between success and failure. If we must fail as a state, let us fail together, but fail better, so that we may celebrate success as one, for in unity alone do we stand.
Do not say, “All my life, I’ve never failed,” or, “I don’t intend to fail.” So long as ethnic hatred, gender inequality, and poor governance exist, we all have failed.
Now, after I had emerged as the overall best student in my secondary school after two consecutive sessions, I had expected a scholarship. Besides, the school’s prospectus stipulated that the best student would be awarded a scholarship. So, I had looked forward to the day when I would tell my parents that they no longer had to bear the financial stress of catering for my academic needs. The scholarship never came, notwithstanding my persistence as the best student and glories I brought to the school through winning academic competitions. Then one day, a boy in my class said I would never be awarded a scholarship in the school because I was Igbo. I was 12 and did not know that a boy like me could suffer the ethnic hatred that existed in Nigeria. In fact, I did not know what ethnicity was. The boy’s theory sounded true: the proprietress of the school was Yoruba and a great percentage of the school teachers was Yoruba, too. When I asked my mother if it could be true, if later in my life I would be denied certain privileges because I was Igbo, she kept silent for such a long time that made me wonder if she had heard me at all. Then she said, “Jisieike.” It was her way of telling me, “You must keep working hard.”
As a boy from a low-class family at that time, I accepted the reality that ethnic hatred exists in Nigeria, and it is not talked about.
The unintended consequence of accepting ethnicity was that I failed to reject it by doing nothing. I embraced the idea that ethnic divide is a permanent socio-cultural problem in Nigeria. Truth is, ethnicity is cultural, but it is dynamic, it is changeable. During my first year at the university, I refused to apply for scholarship awards. I thought such awards happened to people from other ethnic groups, not mine. Again, what is this thing with the segregation of citizens into people from oil-producing states and people from non-oil-producing states? Don’t we all share the same identity as Nigerians? A receptionist at a company I had applied to for an internship had once asked me my name, and when I told her, she grumbled that I had a slim chance of getting an offer because I was Igbo. Then after taking a look at my documents, she tore my academic transcripts, my cover letter, and my resume, only leaving the application form that barely had no information about me. She wanted to make sure that if I was called for an interview, it had to be by luck, and not because I merited an interview. I remember being angry and sad as I walked out of the company. But I also remember my silence. I could have chosen to educate her of the dangers we breed in our society due to ethnic hatred, but I did not. Also, when word began to spread in the Department of Electrical Engineering at the University of Benin that I would be the best student in the department and the whole school, I began to live in fear.
People said it was “strange” that I, an Igbo man with no roots of any sort in Benin, would be the best student. Perhaps, they were quick to forget how hard I had worked to earn it. So, I avoided social functions. I claimed to be shy. And I kept failing and failing to address the dangers ethnicity brings.
The moment we refuse to fight this social problem called ethnicity, the moment we get comfortable about it, pretending that it doesn’t exist, is the moment we fail as a people and as a state. I’ve come to explore ethnicity in my fiction and essays. Not because I’m a better person. Not because writing about it makes me political in a sort of special, endearing way. But because it creates avenues for conversations, it sanitises our humanity, it makes me fail better.
Finally, I will like to end with a quote by the American writer Denis Waitley: “Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat. It is a temporary detour, not a dead end. Failure is something we can avoid only by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.” What if I’ve never failed at something? What if I’ve chosen to be discouraged during my secondary education when I never received the validation I had always longed for? What if I never applied for those scholarship awards? What becomes of our nation when we learn not to fail better, in government, as a people? When we build on our failures, when we never allow failure have any of our energy or space, we give ourselves permission to be a remarkable people.