America’s richest man wears a $10 watch while Kwesi Mensah, your random next door neighbour, keeps time with a $500 iPhone. Politico’s report this week has set me on a path of reflection over values — the profound versus the superficial, the functional versus the impractical, the aspirational versus the materialistic, the essential versus the frivolous!
Mensah is a variation of the so-called ordinary Ghanaian. He cares about his appearance and so dresses the part. He uses an iPhone, never mind if it is not an authentic version. He believes in making the right impression and so invests in good cars when the opportunity presents itself. Even when he is in transition to owning a good car, he looks down with contempt on anyone that does not drive what meets his criteria of good quality.
And by the way, there would be almost nothing wrong with any of this if only Mensah did not simultaneously think of himself as poor and needy. I have sometimes marvelled at the contrast; the truly wealthy with nothing to prove, and moving with a very practical focus on the functional, and the rest of us, perhaps with something to prove, spending a lifetime trying to make the right impression.
Take Marie, a woman who by her senior position in a truly global organisation and her ownership of houses in pricey areas in America was clearly of solid financial make, but not if you judged by the car she drives. On a US trip one day, here came the acclaimed Marie in a mere Nissan to pick us up. Given her schedule, the car served the purpose and she was content.
On any trip to Africa, one could predict what clothes Marie would wear. She had worn the same clothes for years, clothes she had chosen because they were soft, comfortable and helped her deal with the heat. Whenever the trip was over, she laundered them and packed them in readiness for the next trip.
She needed to impress no one. No overarching concerns about what people would think of her, but greatly focused on applying the highest standards of professionalism to her work and making impact in the lives of women and children! Where we stayed for programmes, she stayed there too, and what we ate, she ate. No pretentious airs!
Au contraire, I recall a professional who, on returning to his base in a Ghanaian district from further training, out rightly rejected his two-bedroom accommodation because it was simply not befitting of his new status! So much so that the organisation built him an extension!
You run into a man or woman of depth walking around, engaging high and low alike on first name basis. Professor Kwadwo Koram, Noguchi head, said to me, “Call me Kwadwo”, something that my mouth could not do. A little digging gives you some perspective on what an accomplished professional he is, which I suppose makes the lack of airs more striking. In another encounter, Kwesi Mensah, with a contrived doctorate, asks, “Do you know who I am? I am Chief Dr Dr Olomide Bankole Shoshosho!”
Still, Bill Gates, $10 watch draws other recollections. Eighteen months into my working life as a younger doctor, I thought I should have been able to afford something fancier than the Nokia 1100 that appeared glued to my hands. It was robust, had a soft key pad and was highly functional for me at the time. I did not realise that I was lowering standards until I served as the best man at a friend’s wedding.
As I picked up calls and co-ordinated events in the full glare of the public, a very close relation came up to me at one point and confessed, “Honestly, any time you whip out that cheap phone, I am engulfed by a deep sense of shame and embarrassment on your behalf!” The telephone was fine and working excellently, and yet was not making the right impression. If I had a more impressive looking telephone but which was faltering every now and then, she would be much more appreciative, I thought.
State of mind?
In my current organisation, there are enough mighty cars that if I schemed long and hard enough, perhaps, I could get one to glorify myself in, given my sufficiently senior position. I suppose this is the reason why driving around a year ago in a Kia Rio did not make sense. One day, a driver with whom I had a very informal relationship walked up to me with an urgent plea:
“Honourable, in fact you cannot be driving around in a KIA Rio. It is way below you. It does not suit you. Can’t you see all these Pathfinders and Toyota Land Cruiser V8?”
It did not matter that I had grown to love the Rio for its fuel efficiency, its amazing air conditioning and a small but crucial point, that we had discovered a USB port that enabled us to satisfy our thirst for music. Besides, it was so cute that we could negotiate some unbelievable corners in traffic. In short, we were content, if not happy with the Rio, but apparently, it was not enough! Arrive in a Rio and be viewed with disdain. Show up the next day in a Prado and you see their faces light up. How very superficial!
I have seen people with good educational backgrounds, people who are certainly not starving and have never starved in their lives, scramble for food at public events. I have seen respectable people attend parties and cart away food in plastic bags as if it would last them a lifetime or that they were from war- torn countries, so much so that on some occasions, some of these gatherings ran out of food even before the last guests arrived.
We are not hungry, we are not poor, but why do some of us behave as if we have not eaten for days? Is it a state of mind then? Have we suffered so much need and deprivation in our past lives that even when God blesses us and physically frees us from this poverty, we yet remain poor and hungry in our own minds? Do we care so much about not being seen by others to be poor and yet have our very actions betray us as people poor and hungry at heart and in our minds?