This book says ‘fiction’ but it is to be read with a very strong sense of reality, I’m afraid. It struck me even more because I could relate so much of what Teju Cole was saying about Nigeria to what I myself feel about Korea, something I wrote about before. Koreans think they are so far from Africa, not only geographically but also culturally, historically, politically or economically. Yet the more I learn about the continent and the ordeals some countries there are going through, the more I am amazed at the striking similarities between the two places. Maybe it’s the pressure of the fast development they had to go through in the 20th century, or maybe it’s the similar values they always had. Whatever it is, I think they both have much to learn from one another, and hopefully improve.
Cole deals with the different ailments his country and his people in Nigeria have to go through everyday, something he knew but was somewhat not prepared to face as harshly upon his return to the country. One of the biggest ordeals Nigeria faces and sees no way of finding a solution for is Corruption. In Cole’s words,
“I feel that my worrying about it is a luxury that few can afford. For many Nigerians, the giving and receiving of bribes, tips, extortion money, or alms – the categories are fluid – is not thought of in moral terms. It is seen either as a mild irritant or as an opportunity. It is a way of getting things done, neither more nor less than what money is there for.” (p. 20)
The more fragile is the system and society, the more various and ‘creative’ ways the people can come up with to use corruption to get what they want, be it something as simple as a car registration, to something as big as a job. Sometimes, a bribe here and there that does not affect the totality of your wealth or of your integrity seems almost harmless.
“But corruption, in the form of piracy or a graft, also means that most people remain on the margins. The systems that could lift the majority out of poverty are undercut at every turn. Precisely because everyone takes a shortcut, nothing works and, for this reason, the only way to get anything done is to take another shortcut. The advantage in these situations goes to the highest bidders, those individuals most willing to pay money or to test the limits of the law.” (p. 23)
I think corruption is, to say the least, ‘bad’, not only because it is illegal and even immoral, but mostly because it deprives opportunities to those who do not have the means to take that shortcut. This goes against everything that freedom and democracy represent, which should ideally provide the same opportunities in life regardless of your social status or wealth. Corruption does not only affect our leaders, but us, the ‘people’, who strive to live our everyday lives with a minimum sense of security. But when corruption sips into all aspects of society in such a way that it becomes even difficult and fuzzy to distinguish what is corruption and what is not, it spreads, silently and slowly, but critically. We, as society, become ill.
“The problem used to only be the leadership. But now, when you step out into the city, your oppressor is likely to be your fellow citizen, his ethics eroded by years of suffering and life at the cusp of desperation. There is venality in abundance here, and the general air of surrender, of helplessness, is the most heartbreaking thing about it.” (p. 75)
And I feel like this is what is happening in Korea as well: the whole Sewol ferry sinking, taking away more than 200 lives, mostly high school students who had so much to dream and hope for, and recently with the problems in the military system condoning strict hierarchy and violence, leading to the death of young men whose sole crime was to comply to the duties imposed by their nation. The link with corruption may not be obvious at first sight, but oh yes, the link is there. When large firms corrupt the government to go easy on their security measures and regulations, ferries sink because no one prepared them for it and innocent people die. When the military is drunk on maintaining hierarchy and so-called order that even the most decent men perpetuate the most unthinkable violence and some other fail to report them, young men are killed without getting justice.
Corruption is not simply the exchange of bribes. It does not have to involve an exact sum of money. Corruption is a refusal to obey rules and laws because we tell ourselves it won’t affect many people. Not too much anyway. Corruption is not an act, it’s a mentality, it’s a way of life, one to which we quickly get accustomed, especially those who can afford it.
These ‘incidents’, ‘accidents’ that should not have happened in the first place, may provide a platform for unity and cooperation among the people for a short while, but when nothing is done day after day and year after year, we cannot escape the “general air of surrender, of helplessness“. So what if we organize protests and peaceful marches? Nothing changes. People ‘up there’ resign without taking any responsibility, mumbling a pathetic ‘sorry’ and mimicking a pitiful bow, but nothing happens that could actually change how things are.
Protesters mourning the Sewol ferry victims and demanding that the government take responsibility being stopped by the police force.
From the outside, sure, things seem great. South Korea from the 1960s and South Korea of the 2010s are so different it is almost unbelievable, for anyone, to think so much change and progress could be possible in 60 years. There is wi-fi almost everywhere, shopping malls are thriving, people drink expensive coffee on a daily basis, the subway system is much better than the American one or the French one, there is rarely an international brand you can’t find in Seoul. My parents themselves are still often astonished at how much cleaner the country has gotten compared to what it was in their youth.
“But are these the signs of progress? Yes, partly. Business is booming, there is free enterprise and, with it, the hope that people might be lifted out of poverty. But it is as yet a borrowed progress and it is happening in the absence of the ideological commitments that can make it real.” (p. 149) (emphasis added)
“we do not foster the ways of thinking that lead to the development of telephones or jet engines. Part of that philosophical equipment is an attention to details: a rejection of only the broad outlines of a system, a commitment to precision, an engagement with the creative and scientific spirit behind what one uses.” (p. 148)
But see, economic and material prosperity only matter so much. People are buying expensive cars and designer purses, but there are those that still die working in the labs of the so-called ‘best Korean company’, Samsung, because security measures are not reinforced. I’m a Samsung user but everything they come up with seems a tweak of something Apple came up with first. People talk of the importance of innovation, but when they are confined within the mandatory long working hours and lack of proper rest, where will they find the time or the leisure to bring creativity to the table?
This is my first visit to Korea after barely a year in the US, and it only took me a couple of days to destroy the sympathy it had taken me a decade to build for this country. I was excited at the thought of the food, the friends I had missed, the excitement and exuberance Boston sometimes lacks. But what I found instead saddens me, but I just can’t deal with all this.
“Am I ready for all the rage Nigeria can bring out of me? The various run-ins a “humanist” might have in such a place as this?” (p. 72)