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‘Respect’ – Making & Marring Nigerians Since 1900

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Last week, I was on a bus and a secondary school boy got on.  He came in and greeted everyone individually, “Good morning ma, Good morning Sir, Good morning ma…”. When he looked at me and said “good morning ma“, I smiled because I felt how could he be greeting a small girl like me and even adding ‘ma’. So while bringing out my fare, I knew I had to pay for him- no one calls you ‘ma’ and you let them pay their transport fare. As we got to our stop, it was shocking that every body in the vehicle was fighting to pay for the boy’s fare. People were all, ‘I’m paying’, ‘No, I’m paying’. The boy then smiled, looked at everyone and went again all ‘Thank you ma, Thank you Sir, Thank you ma…’. At this point I was laughing.

Respect has different interpretations in various parts of the world and even the different parts of our nation. Generally, respect is an acknowledgement of individuals and the space and position each occupies. In terms of space, every individual has his space so expects to be respected in that regards. In terms of position, people who hold offices or any authority superior to any other, expect the people of lower offices to accord the deserved respect.

In Nigeria, respect defined by space isn’t really considered in our society. The defining terms all relate to position – office, class, birth, uniform, wealth, etc. And some of these terms differ according to our different cultures and traditions.

Ever attended a function/ceremony in Nigeria where the anchor/mc errs in referring to a professor Obi as Dr Obi or even Mr Obi? Or a Prince Obi as Mr Obi? The Obi would feel so disrespected and not move until the error is corrected. He might even give a lecture during his opening speech on how he worked hard to be given that title or to have been born with it.

Or still, try going into an office in Lagos here with a friend. Have the friend kneel to greet the ‘mummy’ at the reception, while you just murmur a good morning and both sit down. Your friend would be attended to about 5 hours before ‘mummy’ acknowledges you are also there for a similar reason.

A few years ago, during my undergraduate studies, I passed by my department corridor absentmindedly, thus not noticing that our elderly departmental secretary was coming towards me with heavy bags in her hands. As soon as she got past me, she began to rant and curse heavily. Talked about how I had no respect, how could I have seen her carry bags and not offered to help with one? It took two weeks of going to beg her every morning to be forgiven. And because it was the right thing to do, according to the culture and practices of the community we exist in, I had no defence. Not even the fact that almost every Geology student of O.A.U (Ife) was bound to be caught walking oblivious of their surrounding, but rather occupied with worries and thoughts about the possibility and timing of graduation.

This and similar incidents during school days made me realise the value of respect in our society and how much a simple ‘good morning Ma/Sir’, followed by a full or half genuflection can open windows and doors faster than words. Of course this applies only in our African society. Don’t go to Yankee and be kneeling down to greet your professors or the secretary at the reception of the white house.

It could rather scare them than endear you to them.

Amarachi Alisiobi is a geologist by profession, a writer by interest and a co-deejay by association.

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