"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: The American economic crunch: A personal narrative

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The American economic crunch: A personal narrative

By Farooq A. Kperogi
One of the joys—or burdens—of being a commentator in a public medium is that you easily become a magnet for parasocial relationships— that is, the illusion of intimacy that sometimes develops between celebrities, media personalities, etc and their fans/readers/viewers. For instance, since the beginning of last year or thereabouts, total strangers who I will probably never meet have been writing to inquire about how I am coping with the economic meltdown here.

Well, to be fair, perhaps these inquiries are not merely a function of parasocial relational imperatives; they are also probably inspired by my readers’ thirst for a more personal narrative of the economic crisis—from the perspective of a Nigerian who is witnessing it— than the disembodied, distant, and often lifeless media narratives they have been reading.

The people who write to me want to know, for instance, what it means, in real human terms, for the world’s most prosperous nation to be caught in the jaws of an economic crisis. What has changed in the everyday lives of ordinary Americans other than news of the fall in the values of stocks and other arcane business stories they can’t relate to?

Have prices of commodities shot up spectacularly? Has my salary been cut? Do I now feel financially vulnerable enough to want to forsake whatever I am doing here and relocate to Nigeria? Just what is different now?

I actually individually responded to most of the emails because I didn’t think I would write about this topic. And my response to most of the emails was basically that I didn’t have any personal connection with the economic crisis. Nor was I aware of any Nigerian—or any American for that matter—who had been affected by the economic crisis in a personal way.

My paycheck has not changed—yet. The prices of the commodities that I buy regularly have remained reasonably stable. In some cases, in fact, the prices have dropped. No, I take that back. The price of goat meat imported from Nigeria has doubled in the past couple of months!

OK, well, in Atlanta, as in many big cities, the cost of renting apartments has declined slightly because there are comparatively fewer people able to afford renting these days. So, on a personal level, the economic recession here is really only a distant tremor.

Perhaps, about the only other pangs of torment I am enduring from the economic crunch are that tuition fees have been raised in my school by $100 as a result of budget cuts, and my health insurance (that elaborate capitalist scam!; topic for another day) will increase slightly this year. Other than these, at least for now, nothing has changed for me.

But it occurred to me that I needed to shake off my complacency and get interested in the personal experiences of people around me. Perhaps they have stories that will personalize the economic crisis for me. It was Joseph Stalin who once infamously but correctly remarked, in his bid to underscore the importance of personalizing human suffering, that “One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic.”

Last semester, I started my search for personal experiences with my students— final year students who would be in the job market in a matter of months. I asked if any of them had been affected by the economic crisis in a direct way.

More than 80 percent of the class raised up their hands. Many said they had lost their jobs. Some said their salaries had been cut by more than 50 percent. (Most students here work full time while they go to school full time). Still others were not sure if they would be enrolled in school the following semester—if they failed to graduate. There were yet others who said their parents had lost their homes to foreclosures. And some more knew people who had committed suicide because they couldn’t bear to live with the torments of the times.

Their varied heartrending stories, which I cannot capture in this piece, humanized and brought home what had been a distant subject for me. But it got even closer home. A few days after the discussion with my students, I met a middle-aged man—whom I recognized as distinctly Nigerian— looking distraught with grief at a train station.

“Kedu,” I greeted him. He looked unmistakably Igbo. I guessed right. He responded to me excitedly in Igbo, and went on and on until I told him I had already exhausted all my Igbo. He said he had lost his job and that his wife, who is a nurse, had abandoned him. She took their children away to another state. He was on his way to some place to apply for certification to teach high school. I wished him luck.

And last month, a homeless beggar in downtown Atlanta accosted me, with broad smiles and a hint of familiarity. “My home boy, how are you?” he said. Home boy? Me? Well, it turned out that this hapless man is a Nigerian who has lost his job— and his home— and is now at the mercy of the full fury of the elements. He knew I was Nigerian the moment he saw me, he said.

A week after the encounter I read a story in the online edition of the Independent newspaper about Nigerian immigrants here fleeing back home as a result of the economic crisis. The story quoted Nigerian Embassy officials as saying that over 500,000 people, most of whom are low-skilled workers, had already left the US as of December last year.

Although I am dubious about the accuracy of this figure, it’s easy to see why many “Green Card-holding” Nigerian immigrants who work menial jobs here will be some of the hardest hit by the economic crunch. In moments like this, low-skilled workers are the most vulnerable. Of course, high-skilled professionals are not immune, but they have greater latitude to search for alternative employment than people who do what Americans call minimum-wage jobs.

But I cannot help but feel intense pity for the Nigerian immigrants who have returned to a home that has been in a worse state of economic crisis than America since the mid 80s. What reprieve will they get by going back to a home about which the president himself has given up hope (as evidenced in the decision of the presidency to budget billions of naira to buy generators for Aso Rock because PHCN is insusceptible of reform), a home where an arrogant but ignorant Central Bank governor impudently rides roughshod over the country (he first said the fall in the value of the naira was a “deliberate” policy before saying something else and had boasted that Nigerian was immune from the global economic crisis and now says he didn’t say so), where venal and inept cronies of people in power manage strategic sectors of the economy, and where basic conveniences are becoming scarcer and more out of reach for ordinary folks.

I read elsewhere that the minister of Labor and Productivity, Adetokunbo Kayode, said the government was preparing to receive Nigerians from the Diaspora who would be returning home as a result of the economic crisis in their host countries. The papers reported him as saying that a “buffer” had been created to help absorb the shock of returnee Nigerians.

On the surface, this looks like an admirable initiative. But isn’t it hypocritical that a government that can’t find jobs for thousands of graduates at home is suddenly concerned about Nigerians who have lost their jobs abroad?

What kind of “buffer” will the government provide, for instance, to a low-skilled, erstwhile economic refugee who had worked as a security guard in America or Europe before losing his job? What morality would justify leaving thousands of graduates at home to vegetate in cruel, unconscionable poverty while providing “buffers” to people who ran away from Nigeria in the first place, people who have no more special skills than the thousands who are unemployed in Nigeria through no fault of theirs?

I hope this “buffer” business is not another gateway to fraudulent personal enrichment for some people in government. I know I am being cynical, but given what we know about Nigerian government officials I don’t think my cynicism is unhealthy.
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