Like many Nigerians, I was excited to read the story of Olajumoke Orisaguna, the bread-seller turned model. A fortnight ago, she hawked bread on Lagos streets and happened to ‘photo-bomb’ – to use a social media patois – a Nigerian-British singer, Tinie Tempah, who was being photographed by T.Y. Bello around the Sabo area.
After the photos landed on social media, people developed an interest in her. She was searched out and the rest is a fairy tale being enacted before our very eyes.
Since the hoopla started, Olajumoke has been given a new look and a new life. Apart from gracing the covers of some magazines, she has been interviewed by local and foreign media, given a posh apartment and an opportunity to polish herself in a finishing school of sorts.
Olajumoke has become a brand ambassador for two companies. Her life mirrors the fairytale Cinderella who was rescued from poverty and domestic abuse because she embodied societal ideals of goodness – good looks, good morals (read: passive acceptance of one’s fate) and eventually attracted good spirits and good fortune. Olajumoke was sought-after, too, because she ‘looked’ the part of a model. If she had had a different body type or less appealing looks, her story would probably be different.
Just as Cinderella was found through a glass slipper, Olajumoke was found through the glass screen of a photographic camera. Such luck is not commonplace and it is understandable why the latter’s story, cutting through the mundane machinery that grinds our daily experience, interests us this much.
The whole hoopla began to rankle me, after I had read seemingly endless NaijaPentecostal-esque rhetoric, which attributed her story to providence, to God and an instance of the miraculous.
I have read effusive commentaries encouraging people to have faith and strive. They use her story as “a point of contact” to God to hasten their miracles, too. Then I became very uneasy. Turning Olajumoke into a formula, an anodyne, a pole on which our expectations can be hung, is like asking every young woman in Cinderella’s world to pray to meet a Prince!
Soliciting a Deux ex machina-ic intervention in the plot of real life is faulty thinking, disempowering and frankly, indolent. Fairy tales are not only non-normative, they are sedative; that is why they are read to children about to sleep, not adults that live in a realistic world. Fairy tales do not expect us to question their plot, rather they gush at the saccharine sweetness of “happily ever after.”
When a society that is as socially and economically imperiled as Nigeria begins to luxuriate in the sentimentality of a tale like Olajumoke’s, then we should hit the pause button and introspect.
First, there is a need to ask why the same set of people, who walk by the Olajumokes of this world every single day without seeing them, now converge to derive vicarious pleasure from her luck.
Like Ralph Ellison’s “The Invisible man”, the working-class and masses that Olajumoke once represented are sighted but never actually seen. How many people who now consider Olajumoke a point of contact for their own miracles ‘see’ young people, male and female, hawking or riding Okadas in their prime of life? Without education and no guarantee of a future, they survive by any means necessary. We “see” them of course when they dart to and fro in traffic, hustling to survive but do we really see them? They exist, but only as props of daily drudgery.
Once in a while, the world in which they live comes up through the racist anthropologist lenses of foreign journalists seeking Africa’s next Noble Savage or in the photo-shopped reality of glossy magazines where elegantly costumed models use the aesthetic of degrading urbanity as backdrop.
Combining the incongruence of poverty and modelling glamour, and turning both into a commodifiable resource to satiate elitist/middle-class appetites brings their world into focus momentarily but, simultaneously, mutes its hardness so that it does not compel any urgency in the spectator.
Olajumoke’s life so personifies Nigerian failures that you can almost draw up a checklist: foregoing education for child labour, vanquished dreams, artisanship without concomitant financial independence, rural-urban migration, urban squalor, homelessness,and survival on less than $2 a day.
Olajumoke’s story puts a face to the grim poverty statistics in Nigeria. Yet, she is just one case out of many others. Millions of people have worse tales to narrate. Her account of poverty and deprivation up till this time, however, has been obscured by the sentimentality of her discovery. We talk about her being a bread-seller only as a jump-off point to narrating the other extreme of the tale where she becomes a model. This, in itself, is the trouble with sentimentality: it induces emotions, but never channels them towards meaningful socio-political action.
Sentimentality gives us something to do while we do nothing. It does not enable us to ask uneasy questions because we cannot risk a critique of our complacence. The emotions we generate eventually become a waste, flushed into the cesspit of collective contentedness.
Our lack of engagement with social institutions that produce stories like Olajumoke’s is more palpable in the way we have failed to connect how representatives of certain institutions rushing to snag a photo-op with her are systematically (not necessarily individually) complicit in the socio-economic, socio-cultural and socio-political forces that leave the likes of her behind. Now, a bank is offering to sponsor her children up to the University level after making her the face of their brand because – they claim – they care about her progress.
Such unreflective capitalist exploitation masquerading as humanitarianism should be called out on its hypocrisy. If a fortnight ago Olajumoke had walked into their bank to ask for a loan to start a business to better her life, would they have cared about her progress?
Now she is a candidate for reductionist fortune cookie sloganeering: never stop moving forward as if stagnated Nigerians merely gave up on themselves, not that they were shortchanged by antagonistic social structures. Do not be surprised if politicians jump on this train and use her as a mascot for the supposed endlessness of miraculous possibilities in Nigeria.
This is why the sentimentality should bother us: the very class of people who have the cultural and economic power to advocate for the Olajumokes in our society are the ones merely emoting over her story. There is no ideological marriage between her story and the larger warped social and political frameworks that churn out Olajumokes. Yes, we have saved one woman from poverty; we can back-slap and hi-five each other for our efforts. We can watch in pleasure as she leaves her well-furnished apartment every day to go to school and learn poise; but no, the goal of this sentimental crowd should not be singularised.
We should redirect our emotional energy towards confronting the harsh reality that drowns millions of people from birth to grave.
At this point, let me reiterate that I do not begrudge Olajumoke her luck. As much as I abjure an attribution of certain happenings to fate, destiny or the supernatural, one cannot rule out the element of pure luck in her story. Yet that should not stop us from pointing at the determining weight of social injustices that keeps the Olajumokes of this world down.
T.Y. Bello, who perhaps can be described as Olajumoke’s fairy godmother, in an interview with the CNN, pointed out that Olajumoke’s story resonated because times are tough in Nigeria and everyone is “looking for that magical break.” The whole idea of “magical break” is doubtless appealing and desirable, but it should be recognised for what it is: an anti-reality and escapism that should be tossed so that as a people, we are not tethered to an illusion. One way to start is by making a critique of the appeal of Olajumoke’s fairy tale.
– See more at: http://www.opinionnigeria.com/olajumoke-and-the-trouble-with-sentimentality-by-abimbola-adelakun/#sthash.3AffMpsI.4XNgncWX.dpuf