BOOK IN PROGRESS
The year is 2076. In an old people’s home in Palm Beach, Florida, 92-year-old software developer, Benny Gilbert, 90-year-old award winning journalist, Simon Avner, and 94-year-old billionaire attorney, Ryan Fleming, spend a rainy day together to talk about their lives, chronicling from where they once were, to where they now are, and where they wish they were.
This is a story about three men and the five cardinal choices that life brings to all. You might never know when these choices come, but you would surely know when they’re gone. Find yourself in the story. Saving Tomorrow, Losing Today.
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3 Apes and a Recession
Is something wrong with our economy, or is something wrong with us?
Copyright © 2017 by Oluwafemi Reis
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations and certain other non-commercial uses permitted by copyright law.
At the peak of the global economic meltdown, veteran professor of economics, Ola Williams, is invited to address world leaders, economists, financial analysts and other pertinent experts at the World Economic Summit in Geneva.
Known for his proven economic theories and brilliant postulates, expectations are high that his carefully researched data and in-depth analysis would chart a course that can be followed through to solve the looming economic problem that has swept through major economies of the world.
It is 8:15PM and Professor Williams is welcomed to the podium with a rousing applause, that takes a little while to die down. The hall is soon in perfect silence. Professor Williams clenches the sides of the lectern with both hands; he has no notes, no slides, no charts, no graphs, just a warm smile on his 76-year-old face, and a heart that is ready to speak.
January 29^th^ 2018
Ladies and gentlemen, family and friends, neighbours and strangers. I feel compelled to smile and greet you “Good evening”, as would be appropriate for such a gathering as this, but then most of you might be forced to pick up your things and leave, concluding that there wouldn’t be any point listening to one more word from an old man who opens his speech with a big fat lie. Is there nothing good about the evening? I know most of us must have lost our patience, along with many other things we’ve lost over the past eight months—our jobs, our homes, our families, and for some who are not here with us tonight, their lives. It has gone past the red line for most of us, and the last thing we need is one more speech, or one more address, or one more story. Yet we are all here, left with little or no patience, to listen to these very things. I consider that a huge sacrifice, and for that I say, “Thank you, and good evening.”
Two weeks ago I was in Somalia, and I happened to spend more of my time among the dying than I did among the living. In a huge tent which served as a free clinic to the community where I worked, hundreds of sick people laid on beds in long rows, and I particularly made friends with this young man named Kamil. Day to day, Kamil laid there on his bed—skin and bones—to the doctors he wasn’t living, he was dying, but to me he was doing both, just like all the rest of us. Kamil was receiving treatment for acute cholera; though he didn’t respond so rapidly to treatment, he still seemed to get better by the inch, day by day. Soon Kamil could eat by himself, he could spend long hours talking with me, he could laugh, he could tell me jokes, and within a week he was out of the clinic. But two days later I saw Kamil wheeled back into the tent; this time he wasn’t dying, neither was he living; he was dead. The next day, one of the doctors tearfully explained to me that what was actually wrong with Kamil wasn’t cholera but some other disease that had cholera as a striking symptom; hence the doctors were treating the symptom, while the disease slowly killed Kamil like a smiling foe.
Now it would have been beautiful to have us gather here on a different note than we’re gathered tonight; I wish we would desist from waiting till times are turbulent before we gather as one people, putting aside our fundamental differences. It indeed would be beautiful if we don’t have to wait till we have a common enemy before we make ourselves common friends. But we are here tonight, and there is a problem that appears to be defying solution.
I want to start with a question—and I’m not into the habit of asking silly questions, especially not when I’m speaking to intelligent people like you—but do please permit me to ask this one: Why are we all here tonight?
Now one might say we are here because there’s a global problem that has pushed us out of our cosy corners and into the cold evening. Well, that might be right in some sense, but I really don’t think that’s why we are here. Though there’s a problem in our hands that must be solved as fast as possible, we were not pushed out here by that problem; we were drawn out here by hope. Our being here does not simply signify that we have a common problem, but goes much further to signify that we have a common hope. If we had the problem and had no hope of ever seeing its end, we wouldn’t have bothered coming out here tonight; we would have sat in our homes—for those of us who still have homes—and simply let the hopeless case deal with itself. So we have a problem on one side, and we have hope on the other; hope brought us to Geneva tonight, and hope does not disappoint.
I’d like to ask another question. Like I said, I’m not into the habit of asking silly questions, but I beg you to give me the liberty of asking just one more, and I promise I wouldn’t upset you with a third.
My question: What exactly is the problem?
This might seem extremely unnecessary, as though I’m taking us back to the beginning, after our progress has taken us so far from there; as though I am taking us back to an issue that has long been trashed out; as though I’m taking us back to ABC when we’ve long left that behind and moved on to critical reading. But could it be that the reason why we’re spending so much time on critical reading and not making as much progress as we ought is because we didn’t really get the ABC quite right in the first place? Perhaps we should go back to this ABC, and if we get it right—of which I believe we will—then we will all walk out of this situation as a victorious people, and never have to live in the gloomy apprehension of it showing up again.
So what exactly is the problem?
The issue has been analyzed, the facts have been itemized, and the figures have been summarized. Much deliberating has been done, much analyses have been carried out, and the problem has been made very clear to all of us: There’s a big problem with our economy. We are experiencing a recession.
The experts have said it; the economic analysts have said it; the businessmen have said it; the politicians have said it, and it has been made crystal clear by the press: “There’s a big problem with the economy. We are right now in a recession and we must come up with a solution really fast.”
Well, I think that is where we’ve gotten the ABC all wrong. We have been so short-sighted in viewing the situation that we have all along been dealing with the wrong problem. Tonight the question, “What exactly is the problem?” is by far the first most important question we can ask in this hall; it is the first most important question we should have asked ourselves before coming here. It might shock you to know that we have been working with the wrong answer to that question all along, and that’s why we are still struggling with the situation, and like sinking horses in quicksand, the more we struggle the more we sink; and all our paperwork can’t get us out.
Tonight we are going to address the issue as plainly as possible. We would be plain, yet profound; simple, yet blunt. We are going to view the issue as who we are—people. We are not going to view it as economist, or as businessmen, or as businesswomen, or as politicians, or as lawyers, or even as professors, but as people, for that is exactly how it affects us—as people. We are simply going to come together as people and calmly ask ourselves that question one more time: What exactly is the problem?
Dear friends, if we could all keep a minute of silence and ask ourselves that question… Can we all do that?
[Professor Williams pauses for a minute and the hall is in total silence, then he continues]
Deep in the silence of our hearts, we would find the real answer to that question:
The problem is not with the economy; the problem is with us.
And until we start from there, dear people, I’m afraid we might simply be dealing with the symptoms of our real condition, and though we might get rid of all the symptoms, the problem still remains. Tonight we are all here in this huge tent, like Kamil was in his; we could either keep treating the symptoms of our illness, or we face the root of the illness and deal with it from there. This decision will spell out as much difference for us as it would have for Kamil if the doctors had realized what the real problem was and dealt with it before it brought the dying young man to that shallow desert grave.
We could spend much time and effort trying to fix our economy; we could bring new packages, adopt new strategies, implement new policies, and take all the new steps we can. This is good, and we sure must do it; the economy would pick up and things would return back to normal, our currencies would rise again, the stock market would rise again, forex would rise again, international trade would boom again and we would all be back in business, but just for a while—five years, ten years, twenty years, maybe fifty—but it sure will return, my friends, because the problem is not with the economy; the problem is with us.
I’ll tell you a story, it’s quite long but I hope it is interesting enough to get your full attention till I am done. It’s a story my mother told me when I wasn’t wise enough to appreciate its moral and worth, and I think many children receive a lot of things at a time when they are not wise enough to appreciate them. Thankfully, I kept the story with me long enough until wisdom came, and the story has been worth more to me than every inch of King Solomon’s mines. My country was going through a recession when I was six, and I watched my parents make several adjustments that I couldn’t understand—the things we owned, the house we lived in, the clothes we wore, the toys we played—and I simply played along, until the adjustment began to touch the food we ate. At that point, for me, it had touched something sacred, I wasn’t going to comply with that, at least not without an explanation of what exactly was going on. So I turned to my mother and demanded an explanation why this six-year-old me couldn’t enjoy his breakfast with the usual eggs and beacon anymore.
I love my mother; I owe her more than I can pay for the man I am today. Long before the eggs disappeared from my breakfast they had disappeared from hers; but all I knew was that they were now gone from mine and I needed an explanation.
African mothers always have a story for everything, and my mother sure had one for this as well. I want you to come with me to our old smoky kitchen as I share that story with you tonight.
Many, many years ago in the thick jungle of Ajasha lived the happiest apes ever to be seen on the face of the earth. Now, for those of you who know the lush green jungles of Africa, you will agree with me that no animal on God’s earth can be happier than an African monkey in an African jungle, and perhaps no animal can be sadder than an African monkey in an English zoo.
Well, in the jungle of Ajasha the apes had everything they needed in superabundance—trees tall enough to block out the sun, and yet the sun bright enough to shine through the trees, bananas sweeter than anything you’ve ever tasted, and crystal clear streams running through rocky paths, reflecting the glitters of the noonday sun! And most importantly, above all these, the apes had apes. Nothing excites the heart of an ape more than the company of another ape.
So everything was fine in the jungle of Ajasha and the idyllic life of the apes continued uninterrupted, then one day something happened: a poor shabby hunter named Saka strayed into the thickest area of Ajasha, an area from which all the hunters stayed away for great fear of the unknown. This was the area where the apes had made their home, living in closely knit clans and families, of which Saka sure wasn’t a part of. The apes captured Saka and he was brought to the patriarchs of the clans—Ayo, Bayo and Dayo—three old chimps with more sense than all the rest. It was decided that Saka be kept in a cave while the patriarchs thought of what best to do with him. While the apes thought, Saka thought too, and since humans think faster, and most times better, than apes, Saka had thought up a brilliant idea while they were still trying to figure out what to do with him.
Three days passed and the patriarchs reached a conclusion—the human must die. Four guarding apes were sent to bring Saka to the Ground of the Patriarchs, which was the meeting place of all the apes, and there he was to be stoned to death. All the apes were gathered, and they sang a song that only apes sing. I don’t have a voice as good as my mother’s so I’ll spare you the singing and simply tell you the words:
Fit to die, the judgment says, for man has crossed the line;
Cast the stone once he’s in sight, the man is fit to die.
As soon as Saka was brought to the Ground of the Patriarchs there was a loud cheer, all the apes where excited at what was about to happen. But just before the first stone was cast, Saka raised his voice as loud as he could and said to the congregation of excited apes,
“If only you knew what I could do for you, you will rather worship me than kill me.”
At this, Bayo motioned for the apes to be quiet. The singing and chattering stopped, and once the crowd was calm enough to listen, Saka repeated himself.
“If only you knew what I could do for you, you will rather worship me than kill me.
“I was once an ape too, just like all of you,” he said, “every man was once an ape. Can’t you see all what we have in common?”
Ayo the patriarch chimp stepped closer to examine Saka, who waved his hand above his head so they could all see.
“I have two hands; you have two hands too.”
All the apes held their hands up to their faces and looked closely at them, like it was their first time of seeing them.
Saka marched two steps forward, “I walk on two legs; you walk on two legs too.”
All the apes looked closely at their legs like it was their first time of seeing them.
“Every human was once an ape,” Saka continued, “And if you will let me go free, I will tell you how you can all become humans too.”
There was a quiet murmuring among the apes. Ayo, Bayo and Dayo took counsel together, and after some moment of deliberation, they came up with their verdict.
“The man lives, and we all become men!”
A loud cheer erupted among the apes, they were so excited at the thought of becoming humans it took a while to calm them down again, and when they were finally calm, Dayo turned to the man and asked, “So, Wandering Man, will you now tell us how we could also become humans like you?”
And so Saka went on to explain what he had cooked up in his head over the past three days.
“There’s an ape god,” said he, “an ape god who visits the ape kingdom once in every hundred years. When he comes, he brings with him a magic portion that is able to transform the ugliest chimp into the finest man. But he doesn’t just give it for nothing. To every ape that presents him with a single bunch of banana having no less than five hundred bananas on it, he gives a drop of his portion, and that ape is transformed into a human as soon as the drop touches his tongue.
“I once was an ape too, in a jungle hundreds of miles away, but blessed was the day when a man strayed into our side of the jungle, like I just did into yours, and he told us what I now tell you. Not too long after that, the ape god came and I had my bunch with six hundred and seventy-five bananas on it waiting for him, and the rest is history. Today I am a man, I am married to the most beautiful woman you will ever see, we have a beautiful daughter, we live in a beautiful house, in a very beautiful neighbourhood, and we have an ape like you as a pet for our daughter! That’s how it goes, the apes who fail to become humans will end up as pets to the humans who refused to remain apes! Which is why you all must work hard to get the bunch that matters, that bunch with over five hundred bananas on it, and everyone must see to it that he isn’t left out of the transformation.
“I believe it is fortune that has brought me to you this day; my being here is a sign that the ape god desires to visit any time soon, and has sent me to get you ready for his visit, just as he did for me and all my fellow apes many years ago.”
The apes listen very attentively to Saka. Then Old Ayo asked, “How then do we know when the ape god shall come?”
“The night of the day it rains with loud peels of thunder such as causes the hearts of the bravest of apes to tremble, and the strongest of men to quake; the night of that day, he shall come. When you find the bunch that matters, you must do everything to save it for the rainy day.”
There was perfect silence in the congregation of apes. They always believed all humans were once apes, but they never knew how the transformation happened. Now a man had come around to explain the mystery; this was indeed fortune smiling on them.
Ayo stepped forward and slowly approached Saka the Man, and when he was close enough, he fell to his face and bowed before him.
“You should be worshiped and not killed,” he said. And all the apes came down from their trees and all bowed their faces to the ground saying, “You should be worshiped and not killed.”
The next day they led Saka through the jungle to the path that led out to where humans lived, the path that left the beautiful scenery of Ajasha behind and opened into a world the apes believed to be better than theirs. Saka promised he was going to keep coming to check on them from time to time to see how they were doing in preparing for their transformation, which, said he, could take place at anytime. He added that, just in case the ape god came before his next visit, and some of them became humans, they should endeavour to pay him a visit where he lived, for he would really love to meet them as men and no longer as apes. So they bade Saka farewell, and returned into the thicket.
Now while my mother spoke, I kept wondering what the story had to do with my missing eggs and bacon, but my six-year-old mind was so fascinated by the story of talking apes and a poor shabby hunter that I stuck to it excitedly.
The apes in Ajasha were now no longer satisfied with being apes anymore; they wanted to be men. But how could they get a single bunch of banana to have as much as five hundred bananas on it? No ape had ever gotten such bunch from the plantations before, not even at the peak of harvest.
They began to toil. They tilled the ground and dunged the soil, they fought the pests and cleared the weeds, they planted banana suckers on every inch of space they could find. And when the harvest came, they painstakingly counted the bananas on every single bunch, but none of it came close to five hundred. For the first time they were no longer satisfied with just having tall trees and sunshine and the crystal clear streams, and bananas; no, the number on each bunch was now all that mattered, it was to determine whether they were succeeding or failing, and they knew they were failing, for none of them had found The Bunch That Mattered.
After every harvest, the laborious counting began. All hands were on deck. They taught their children early enough how to count using pebbles—one, two, three—and they helped them understand that, once they had mastered the art of counting, the most important thing they should look forward to counting was bananas in the field. The young apes mastered it fast and also got involved in the toil of counting bananas; if it was less than five hundred, it wasn’t worth rejoicing over—yet it was always less, and they were always sad.
Then one day the three patriarchs called for a meeting of all the apes.
“It’s been thirty full moons since fortune brought the Wandering Man our way,” Dayo explained, “and ever since then we have all laboured tirelessly in search of the bunch that matters. We seem to be coming closer with each harvest, and we perceive success is just a breath away. But we the patriarchs have been thinking and deliberating an issue of great concern. Should the bunch that matters be found in the near future, whose will it be? To whom shall it go? We have thought much about it, and this is our conclusion: Henceforth, we share the land, and every ape works on his portion, whatever comes from any portion belongs to the ape that owns the portion, and if it be the bunch that matters, then so be it.
The apes gladly agreed to this, but then they had a little problem; the patriarchs had to decide how much land each ape got. This was very difficult for them to decide, as no ape wanted to be cheated out of what he believed to be his fair share of land. The patriarchs deliberated and threw several options at the apes. First it was proposed that lands should be apportioned according to body size. The gorillas excitedly accepted this, but the little tree monkeys vehemently protested, and so the idea was dropped. Next it was proposed that lands should be apportioned according to physical strength, and again the gorillas and orangutans rejoiced at this, but the smaller and more feeble monkeys protested. The apes spent days and weeks proposing and protesting and protesting and proposing, till it was finally decided that every ape old enough to till the ground would be tested and assessed by the patriarchs, and lands would be apportioned according to the outcomes of the tests. This was done, and every ape got what the patriarchs judged right, and that day, the jungle of Ajasha, which once was a single field owned by all, was suddenly divided into multiple portions owned by many.
The search for the bunch that mattered continued. Every ape minded his own portion of the jungle; toiling, tilling, sowing, reaping and counting, silently hoping he would be first to get what his neighbour was looking for. Each ape concentrated his energy on his portion of the ground, hardly finding time or reason to attend to that which belonged to another. Apes now owned banana trees from which other apes were not permitted to eat. They now owned plantations upon which swinging through would be considered trespassing. And since having a larger area to cultivate increased the chances of harvesting the bunch that mattered, the apes with larger lands had more chances than the apes who received smaller portions.
But the larger lands came with their own problems; as every ape was now focused on tilling his own land, apes with large lands found themselves with more land than they could cultivate all by themselves. Seeking help from other apes was out of the question, for every ape was now too busy with his to help the other.
The apes with smaller portions wished they had more land, and the apes with more land wished they had more hands. Mother apes now had to join the father apes in the fields while the little apes were busied at home with counting exercises that was to prepare them for their future. The apes with smaller lands finished early from the fields and had some spare time to spend at home, but this was considered a total waste of time. They had come to understand that time was bananas, and to waste time was to waste bananas. Yet time used to be more than just bananas in Ajasha; before Saka the Man arrived, time used to be clans, time used to be strength, time used to be life; but now time was bananas and it couldn’t be wasted on those other things. Wives urged their husbands to work twice as hard so they could get two bunches—one for Wife and the other for Husband. Young apes desired that their parents got enough bunches to make them all humans, and if that was not possible, each sibling desired that at least they found a third bunch for him or her.
Noticing the idleness of the apes who had smaller lands, as they spent the evenings at home with their wives and children, the apes with larger lands made them an offer: they could come till their lands, on the agreement that the second bunch found would be theirs. This was a great offer for the apes with smaller lands; they no longer had to waste time at home telling stories to their young or sharing jokes with their wives; all apes were now fully employed. Ajasha never brought forth more bananas in all the years gone by than she did in these thriving times of productive activity.
Many full moons passed than the apes could count, and the long sought-after bunch that mattered was still not obtained, but every bunch they harvested gave them hope that they were closer to their goal. If they were to plot a graph of their harvest every harvest time, it would certainly be very similar to those crooked lines that go upward and forward on our spreadsheets and make investors happy. The previous year, an orangutan harvested a bunch with four hundred and forty-eight bananas. Dayo the patriarch chimp harvested a bunch of four hundred and seventy-six. Bayo harvested a bunch of four hundred and eighty-two. Many apes had recorded similar figures, but of what good was it, they just were not good enough. Yet the increasing figures was a flicker of hope.
Many, many full moons passed and there was no breakthrough in Ajasha; none had found the bunch that mattered. Another harvest season arrived and the apes went out with all the hope they had always gone out with, their optimism had not dropped one bit despite all the near wins. Ayo sat at a corner on his plantation, by a hip of harvested bananas, his wife and many children sat at several other hips scattered at different corners of the plantation. It was business as usual, till the counting grew louder from one of the hips,
“Five hundred and one, five hundred and two, five hundred and three…” It got louder with each count, and all the apes abandoned their hips for the hip from where the counting came. One of Ayo’s children had harvested a bunch of six hundred and five bananas! It was counted and recounted over and over again to be sure there was no mistake, and sure enough there was none. The bunch was handed over to Ayo as the head of the clan. An ape had finally succeeded! The jubilation ended fast and all the apes hurriedly returned to their hips. Not long afterwards, loud countings came from many hips across Ajasha.
“Five hundred and sixty-seven!”
“Six hundred and two!”
“Five hundred and eighty-four!”
“Five hundred and ninety-two!”
The excitement kept increasing from hip to hip, from plantation to plantation.
The harvest had smiled on them, and almost every plantation had several bunches with over five hundred bananas on them.
Bayo, Ayo and Dayo called for a meeting that day, and it was announced that, since they had found the bunch that mattered, it had to be saved for the day the ape god appeared. A signal was given that was to be noised through the entire jungle by whoever it was that first saw the ape god when he arrived.
Time went by, and many harvests kept yielding bunches with over five hundred bananas on them, to the point that it was almost certain every ape in Ajasha will become human when the time came. Thus the competition between the apes disappeared and the unity they once enjoyed slowly returned back to the Jungle again.
A good place to end the story, but my mother didn’t end it there. Shuttling between the frying stew and the boiling rice, she warmly continued her story…
One day, Saka the Man came visiting to see how the apes were doing.
Ayo, Bayo and Dayo gave him a full briefing of all that had happened. They told him they all were now ready and waiting for the ape god to come. He inquired about the provisions they had made for their lives as humans, but the apes didn’t have a clue what he was talking about, so Saka went on to explain.
“Once you become men, you can’t go on living as apes do. You!” He said, pointing to Bayo, “The minute you become a man you are going to be needing clothes. You can’t go on naked as you’ve always done; you will be needing clothes. And the better your clothes the higher you are esteemed among men. You wouldn’t want to go about in cheap clothes, would you? You wouldn’t want to be treated like a scum by other men.
“And you!” He pointed at Bayo, “Where would you live when you become a man? You can’t go on living on trees; the minute you become a man you would be needing a house. And the bigger your house the higher you are esteemed by other men. You wouldn’t want to live in a little run-down apartment, would you? You wouldn’t want to be treated like a miserable pauper by other men.
“And you!” He pointed at Ayo. “How are you going to get around? The minute you become a man you are going to be needing something to take you from place to place. You can’t go on walking on foot and swinging on trees. You will be needing a car. And the bigger your car the higher you are esteemed by other men, and you must have lots of them, not just one. You wouldn’t want to be treated like a beggar by other men, would you?
“And what about your children? You can’t just have them sit at home all day. They will have to be taught by other men, and you will have to pay for that, and the more money you have to pay the better schools your children will get to attend, and the better schools they get to attend the better their chances of growing up to have good clothes and big houses and big cars and to send their own children to big schools too!
“And that’s not even a half of it! You apes must understand that everything changes the minute you become men, and you will have to be very prepared for that change. That’s how it goes, the humans who fail to become rich will end up as servants to the humans who refused to remain poor!
“So what do we do?” The patriarchs asked.
“Bananas are very expensive where I come from. You must gather as much of it as you can while you are still apes. When you become men, they will be your life-saver. You will sell them, and you will be paid good money for them. You must know that the more bananas you gather the more money you make, and the more money you make the better clothes you wear, the bigger houses you buy, the bigger cars you drive, and the higher honour you get. If I had not known what I now share with you while I was still an ape, I would have made the same mistake you now make and I would have ended up a poor miserable man.
“Gather as much bananas as you can, and when you become men, they will be your greatest capital for your new life.”
Saka the Man left that night, and the patriarchs called for an emergency meeting.
Ayo addressed the congregation of cheerful apes.
“I don’t mean to dampen your joy,” he said, “but I have to announce to you that our job is not yet done. As you are all aware, the Wandering Man came around today, and he brought to our notice a few things we had never given thought to.”
Ayo went on to explain to them how everything would change as soon as they became humans, and how some humans would be treated as scum by other humans, and how some of them would end up as servants to other humans, spending the rest of their human lives cleaning their homes and attending to their petty needs; he explained to them how they would be needing a whole lot of things the minute they became humans.
The only hope they had of living the life they all desired, he explained, was to start gathering as much bananas as they could while they were yet apes so they could sell them as soon as they became men, and have all the money they would be needing for their new life.
And so the apes went back to work again, each ape, once again, focusing on every inch of what was his—tilling, planting, harvesting and storing all the bananas they could. The apes built large barns with mud and sticks, and stored as much bananas as they could in them. When their barns got full, they built more barns to take in the increasing harvest. They toiled, they tilled, they piled, father ape, mother ape and young apes. The harvest kept booming, with each harvest bringing more bananas than the previous. The apes could see themselves living the best lives humans could ever dream of, they saw themselves having the best of things that men could have, they even saw themselves having servants that would attend to their petty needs.
So once again Ajasha became a beehive of activities, the apes could not have prayed for better times; though they missed those days when apes woke up in the mornings and spent time with each other like it was a jungle ritual, they missed those days when they visited each other and strengthened family ties, they missed those days when they played with their young and told them the stories their own parents had told them when they were young. They missed those days, but they had to do what they had to do. Everybody understood that. When they became men, they could take life easy, but for now, this was the price they had to pay.
My mother always told me the best things in life are free, and I should be wary whenever I have to pay for them. Whenever I asked her what the best things in life were, she always smiled and said, “Son, the best things in life are not things at all. Always start from there and you will be sure to find them.”
Many full moons passed and the apes had stored up more bananas than you can possibly imagine. But they began to notice a trend that they couldn’t explain—the harvest got smaller successively. Each harvest was now smaller than the previous harvest, and the trend continued that way. If they were to plot a graph of their harvest, it would be like those narrow lines that descend down the axis on our spreadsheets and cause investors to panic as they watch them drop. Each year the harvest got smaller and smaller, and that was enough for the apes to worry about. They lost sleep. Father apes came home feeling depressed after each harvest. Mother apes were worried that they would end up as servants if the father apes didn’t do something fast. Young apes were at the receiving end of the combination of depressed fathers and worried mothers. Apes began to suspect apes of stealing their harvest. The gorillas pointed fingers at the orangutans and the orangutans pointed fingers at the chimps and the chimps pointed fingers at the drills and the drills pointed fingers at the baboons, and there was no end to the pointing of fingers.
Ayo, Bayo and Dayo set out to investigate what was happening. They had to resolve the matter as fast as they could and return to booming business as usual, so they could amass more as fast as they could before the ape god arrived—and they suspected he would arrive soon. They spent hours every day discussing the situation; they set guard at night watching to see if there was a thief among them. They dunged the soil; they checked the rainfall; they checked the streams that flowed through the jungle, but they couldn’t find anything. The harvest kept declining and the apes were helpless about it, then one day Saka the Man came visiting again. Ayo, Bayo and Dayo explained what was happening to Saka.
“Just after you left,” said Ayo, “we swung into action and started storing bananas. The harvest was great and we had to build large barns to contain them. The harvest got bigger each season and we built larger barns to store them. Each harvest called for larger barns, and the least among us now has barns large enough to hold more bananas than an ape could ever wish for. We have grown rich indeed, Wandering Man, and we are almost ready for all you told us. But recently, we started experiencing a trend that has troubled us; our harvest has been declining with each cycle, and this has happened for so many full moons, we fear there will soon be no harvest at all.”
Saka the Man asked to see their barns, and they took him round to see them. It took the whole day to go through the barns; night fell and they were not done, and Saka had to spend the night in Ajasha. The next day they completed their exploration of the barns, and then Saka asked to see their plantations. They took him round to see their farms, and within a few hours they were done.
“That’s the problem!” Saka exclaimed. “You have built bigger barns over bigger barns over bigger barns, and you have been trading farm space for barn space, and now you no longer have as much farm space as you used to have; and every harvest you build another barn to take in the harvest, and you lose more farm ground and gain more barn ground, and the next harvest you do the same thing and you lose more farm ground and gain more barn ground, and your harvest keeps getting smaller and smaller, and it has happened for such an extended period that you apes now have in your hands one of the biggest problems humans ever face.”
“And what is that?” Bayo asked.
“A recession…” They chorused.
“Declined production over two cycles of harvest is bad enough,” Saka explained, “you have had it go on unchecked over many cycles, and now I am afraid you might soon plunge into a depression.”
“Here is what to do. You need to set up a committee very fast.”
“Yes, a committee. Gather the best apes among you, the wisest apes, the smartest apes, the noble apes. You must sit and discuss what must be done to reverse the situation. As soon as you decide what must be done, you must gather the strongest apes among you to get to work! Take the next month to discuss this, and swing into action afterwards.”
The patriarchs thanked Saka for his counsel and they got to work as soon as he left. They gathered other old apes who they felt were wise enough to think through matters and make sound judgements. The team of grey-haired apes, consisting of gorillas, drills, chimps and orangutans, and headed by the three patriarch apes, did nothing all day but discuss what could be done to reverse the trend. They spent many hours deliberating and thinking and talking and arguing. Other apes patiently waited for their final conclusion, which they believed would solve the problem and bring Ajasha back to its flourishing days, but nothing came from them. Days passed, worry increased, harvest decreased, deliberations increased, and hope decreased; the apes of Ajasha had never been as downcast as they now were.
The team of wise apes decided it was best to start reassigning lands and aggregating them. A new evaluation was to be carried out to decide which apes would have to give up their lands for others.
They reasoned that if they retrieved lands from less productive, weaker apes, and reassigned them to more productive, stronger apes, the harvest of the stronger apes would go up, and the stronger apes could give a portion of their harvest to the apes from which lands were withdrawn. They believed this to be a fair interim solution, while they waited for Saka the Man to come help them find a way out of their dilemma.
Many of the smaller apes lost their lands in this arrangement, and had to depend on handouts from the stronger apes. They were promised that it was going to be a very short and temporal arrangement, and that everything was under control and things would soon return to normal.
The apes who lost their lands stayed at home all day, hoping to one day hear the call to assemble at the Ground of the Patriarchs and receive their lands back, but that call never came. Their only hope was for Saka the Man to return with a solution. And Saka the Man was sure soon to come, but he wasn’t coming with a solution.
After Saka left the jungle from his last visit and returned to his village, he gathered his fellow hunters and told them about his banana plantation in Ajasha. He told them how he had been cultivating the jungle for a very long time and storing his harvest in very large barns, and how he now had more bananas than they could ever possibly imagine.
“But,” said he, “my barns have been invaded by some wild monkeys and I need your help to drive them off and reclaim my property before it gets too late. As it stands, I fear those miserable apes would have eaten half of my fortune already. Come with me, and I will give each of you a truck load of the best bananas you have ever seen.”
Saka was such a poor hunter, and it took a lot to convince other hunters to follow him on the recovery of his so called fortune. They eventually agreed to follow him, and they set out the next day with their guns and bows and arrows and invaded the jungle of Ajasha. All the apes fled at the sound of gunfire, running as far and as fast as they could, till not an ape was left in sight. Saka led his team to all the barns, and they spent many days conveying his fortune back to the village.
And so it became that Saka moved from being a poor shabby hunter to being the richest man in the village of Otun; and eventually, he was made king and reigned happily ever after.
[Professor Williams pauses for a while and observes his audience then continues his speech]
After the raid was over, Ayo, Bayo and Dayo led the apes back to Ajasha. They found their barns empty and their plantations stripped of every single fruit.
Once upon a time in Ajasha lived the happiest apes ever to be seen on the face of the earth, but not anymore; now in Ajasha lived the most miserable apes ever to be seen on the face of the earth. They stood in the ruins and couldn’t believe their eyes; all they had worked for all their lives was gone, and there was nothing they could do to get it back. All the apes turned to Ayo, Bayo and Dayo, hoping to find some hope from them. The ape god could come at any moment, and they would lose their only chance of ever becoming men. There was no time to waste.
“Tomorrow, fellow apes,” said Ayo quite wearily, “we begin again. We start from the search for the bunch that matters. We have found it before, and we will find it again. Take your rest now, dear apes, tomorrow will be a busy day.”
Now, for many years I wondered what that story had to do with my missing eggs and bacons. I understood my country was passing through what my father called a recession, and my mother told me a story of apes who had bananas and lost them, but at six years old my missing bacon was more important to me than the economy of my country and some missing bananas in a faraway jungle. My mother ended her story with a question she never answered. She stooped and looked into my eyes, smiled warmly at me and asked very softly,
“Was there a problem with their economy or was there a problem with them?”
Then she returned to the stove and dinner was ready—boiled rice and palm oil stew, no eggs, no bacon.
Well, my mother’s story didn’t mean much to me at that time, but like I said, I held on to it till wisdom came, and today I am very glad I did. I will share with you some lessons I learnt from the story, which I believe are very pertinent to us tonight.
I agree we are going through a recession right now, I just don’t agree on what a recession has been defined to be. Over the years I have found more accurate definitions of a recession from my mother’s story than I have from all the books on economics I’ve read.
That is truly what a recession is; a dwindling economy is not a recession, but just an after effect of a recession. The real recession is when we begin pursue what we don’t have at the expense of what we have; when apes begin to seek the life of men so much that they fail to live the lives of apes; when they begin to pursue the complexity of men at the expense of the simplicity of apes.
In that old jungle far away in my mother’s story, that was when the recession began, and that is when a recession begins for us.
Have you ever wondered why we have so little and want so much, believing that if we have so much we would want so little? Our lives have become one big pursuit of what we don’t have, at the ultimate cost of what we have. And that’s because . The problem is not that we have so little, but that we know so little of the value of what we really have.
A young farmer was working on his farm when a travelling stranger stopped by for a drink of water. The farmer gladly gave him a drink, and asked him to stay for the night, as he was going far into the city, and evening was already falling. The traveller gladly obliged and spent the night with the farmer on his farm. As they sat by the fireplace that night under the starry sky, drinking coffee and roasting steak, the traveller said to the farmer, “You are such a kind man, and I will show you something I have here with me.” Then he reached for his worn burlap bag and brought out a golden egg. It was the purest gold the farmer had ever seen—smooth, oval, pure solid gold.
“I’m on a journey to sell this golden egg,” the stranger said, “It is the purest gold you can ever find anywhere.” The farmer stretched forth his hand to touch it; his finger on his hand touched his finger in the gold, and for a moment he felt what he saw in the gold was more than just a reflection of himself, but a very tangible part of him that he needed to reunite with.
“The farther you travel eastwards, away from its source, the more expensive it becomes,” the traveller continued, “I have been on this journey for many months now, and it should be worth an inestimable fortune here in this village. I was thinking of going just one more village away and then into the city to sell it there.”
The farmer’s eyes were fixed on the oval mass in the traveller’s hand, as he heard the traveller speak.
“But you are a very kind man,” the traveller continued, “And I am willing to sell this to you.”
“I can’t afford that,” the farmer said, “I’m just a poor farmer with a few chickens and two geese.”
“I can see that,” said the traveller, “but I would do you a favour, as you have also done me one. Just so that you appreciate how much it’s worth, let it cost you all you have.”
And that was it; the deal was sealed. That night the farmer handed over his farm to the traveller in exchange for the solid egg of gold, and from there, the next day, his journey began. He determined to travel as far as he possibly could eastwards till the worth of his treasure reached its ultimate price.
In each village or city he arrived, he checked to see the worth of his treasure, and sure enough it was worth more than he imagined. In the course his journey he met a company of two hundred and forty men in Andalusia who were setting out to travel as far as they could eastward; the farmer asked if he could join the band and he was gladly accepted.
They set to sail from Seville and headed east on the Atlantic Ocean. Several times they anchored in one city or the other and dwelt for a while before continuing their voyage. Days turned into weeks, weeks turned into months, and months turned into years. The farmer had stopped confirming the price of his gold from city to city for he knew it was worth far more than he could ever imagine at that point.
As they continued their voyage east, one day they anchored at a village that looked familiar to the farmer; it was his village, the point from which he had set out on his journey. It dawned on him that he had succeeded in circumnavigating and was now back to where he started from. So while they broke camp and spread into the village to explore the land an trade with the locals, the farmer decided to visit what used to be his farm.
He could almost not recognize the place when he got there; there was a beehive of activities going on, thousands of chickens and hundreds of geese were everywhere, there were pigs and sheep and goats and cows and different animals all on the farm. Young men and women were busy with various activities—milking cows, picking eggs, feeding sheep, packing cheese. They were all so busy he could hardly get anyone’s attention. Then finally the traveller emerged from one of the pens.
“Hey! Welcome, my friend! I see you are back. Did you get to sell your gold?”
“Well, that’s why I am here,” the farmer replied, and he dipped his hand into his burlap bag and brought out the golden egg. “I want to sell it to you.”
“How much?” The traveller asked.
“You know its worth,” replied the farmer.
“I’m afraid it’s not worth much anymore. You’ve been away for a while now, and a lot has happened in your absence. Gold, far more purer than this, has been discovered in this village and other neighbouring villages, and no goldsmith would offer much for the egg anymore. But if you insist on selling, I’ll give you five buckets of milk for it.”
The farmer couldn’t believe his ears. He went around the village to check the worth of his treasure, and he discovered the traveller was indeed generous to have offered him five buckets of milk!
That night he went back to the farm and sat by the fire with the traveller, except that this time he was now the traveller and the traveller was now the farmer.
“From where did you get all these chickens and geese and animals?” He asked the traveller, as they drank coffee and roasted steak under the starry sky.
“From you,” the traveller replied, “I got them all from you. Everything you see here was all in those few chickens and two geese you gave to me that night.”
Eventually, the farmer ended up spending the rest of his life working on a farm that he once owned.
What was the young farmer’s problem? He knew so much about the price of what he didn’t have, and so little about the value of what he had. So he was ready to sacrifice what he had in pursuit of what he didn’t have.
A recession is when we are so busy pursuing what we don’t have that we hardly pause to take stock and evaluate what we have. Never has God’s earth had to accommodate more dissatisfied people than it now does. No generation has had as much as this generation, yet no generation has been as dissatisfied as it. The speed of the rat race is now so supersonic you really have to be a rat to keep up—small in thinking and big in appetite.
We have become so engrossed chasing the life we want that we hardly find time to live the life we have, and the result of that is that the life we have depreciates in value, and when that starts happening, every other thing goes down with it. The life we have, in its most simplest form, doesn’t look like much to us; we have seen the golden egg we don’t have, and we are willing to give up the geese we have. So our lives have become one hollow journey, and we keep at it, believing that when we arrive at the next village we would get more. We are always journeying to the next village—the next job, the next house, the next city, the next marriage—and all this chasing after the life we don’t have is done at the expense of living the life we have. Picture a neighbourhood filled with this kind of people living this way, picture an organization filled with this kind of people living this way, picture an institution filled with this kind of people living this way, picture an entire state filled with this kind of people living this way, picture a whole nation filled with this kind of people living this way, picture that, and you would have pictured us. This high speed pursuit has thrown our lives into total disarray, and yet we think the problem is with our economy. I tell you the truth, my dear lady, the quality of your economy can never be better than the quality of your life. To every man and woman in this building tonight I say this very personally, don’t get so busy becoming who you want to be that you forget to be who you already are.
Tonight I intend to send you back home to your geese and chickens. Nigeria, go back home to your geese and chickens! America, go back home to your geese and chickens! France, go back home to your geese and chickens! Mr. Prime Minister, go back home to your geese and chickens! Mr. Congressman, go back home to your geese and chickens! Before it’s too late! There is nothing wrong with your economy! Like those apes in the jungle of Ajasha, . And we think the problem is with our economy. No sir, the problem is not with our economy, the problem is with us.
We should pause and rediscover the true simple value of the life we have before we set out in pursuit of another life. Maybe when we discover this, then we would finally come together to build the things we have which are of far greater value than the economy we seek to build. The problem is not with the economy, the problem is with us; if we realize this, we will turn our attention from fixing our economy to fixing ourselves.
Every man must decide what determines the bunch that matters for him; unfortunately, like those old apes in my mother’s story, we have come to the point where the bunch that matters is determined purely by numbers. And this sad plague has swept through our homes, our communities, our schools, our marketplaces and, most frightening, our hearts. The bunch that matters to us as individuals is determined by how many bananas we have hanging on it. I once heard a professor I respect so much say life is but a game of numbers. Now I think it is bad enough that life has been reduced to a game, much more worse that it has been reduced to a game of numbers. It’s a pathetic point to be where we let a bunch of numbers determine relative and absolute value for us—the value of people, the value of things, the value of our choices, the value of life—and that’s the point we have come to right now, yet the most valuable things in life can hardly be measured in numbers.
My father always repeated those words, “The worth of a man is not measured in the abundance of his possessions.” It was so easy for me to believe him; we didn’t own much, we had a red jalopy, lived in a modest rented apartment, and had nothing more than a few used toys, yet I would not trade growing up in my family for anything in the world. Within the love and joy and comfort of our home, it was easy for me to believe my father. Then I grew up and stepped out into a society where the bunch that matters is determined purely by numbers, and believing my father was a battle of life. It’s all about the numbers, and everyman sits at his hip counting his bananas to be sure everything is fine. Life is good once the numbers are good.
Why are we all here tonight? What drove us out of our homes and pushed us to fly hundreds of miles to all come here? Aren’t we all here because of some numbers that don’t look too good—the numbers in the stock exchange, the numbers in the real estate, the numbers in your bank account, the numbers on your paycheque—if you still have a job—the numbers on Wall Street, the numbers on the big board, the numbers, the numbers, the numbers! That’s why we are here; the writing on the wall isn’t good because it shows that the numbers that were once high up there are now way down here, and our hearts are down there with them too.
I beg you not to get me wrong. Am I saying these numbers shouldn’t get our attention? No, I’m only saying they shouldn’t get our lives.
Now in our imaginations I would want us to leave this hall and go back to our various homes. Let’s start from there, even in your home, the bunch that matters is determined purely by numbers. What determines whether your little daughter is a bright student at school or not? Numbers! And what determines whether your son is a great baseball player or not? Numbers! So your children slave and toil for the numbers, and you are behind them cheering and screaming and yelling at the top of your voice when the numbers are down or up, because the bunch that matters is determined by numbers and they must learn it early enough if they are to thrive in a society where worth and value is inextricably linked to numbers. I remember coming home from school as a teenager with my report card in my bag, scared to my bones because I knew the card had on it some numbers that will determine my parents’ mood for the rest of the holiday. And so I would stop over at someplace between school and home and see how I could tweak the numbers to save my life, because from such a young age I had already believed that honesty could be traded for numbers, and that everyone would be fine once the numbers were good.
Today I stand in shock at the things we trade for numbers—honesty is traded for numbers, integrity is traded for numbers, dreams are traded for numbers, life is traded for numbers. I had a friend who always wanted to become a school teacher, he nursed it from his childhood till he took his first step into the real world, then he began to understand that the numbers that come in at the end of the month for a school teacher is one-tenth that which comes in at the same time for an engineer. It was his dream versus the numbers—the numbers won, and our society has lost perhaps one of the finest teachers it could have had, and we are left with a dispassionate engineer who is now willing to trade many other crucial things for a bunch of numbers. That is a recession.
Why are we here tonight? We are here because numbers have become more important than many far more crucial things, and so these many crucial things have been traded for numbers. Over the years the numbers have gone up while these other things have gone down, and now there’s nothing beneath to sustain the numbers that were up, and they are simply falling to the level of the other things that were traded for them. Whether it’s a high school boy trading his honesty for the numbers in his report card, or a chief executive trading his integrity for the numbers on his bottom line, those numbers will rise and soar, but one day they will start dropping, and they won’t stop until they have gotten to the level of that which he traded for them.
I said at the beginning that we weren’t going to look at this situation as economists, or as investors, or as professors, but as people, and I hope I am still doing that; I myself have been a professor for so long that I sometimes find it hard to be anything else. My dear people, tonight I tell you that long before these numbers dropped, there were a whole lot of other things that dropped that should have gotten our attention, but because the bunch that matters is determined purely by numbers, those other things didn’t matter to us, as long as the numbers were up. Now what is happening today is that the numbers are going down to meet those other things that would have sustained them if we were careful enough to hold them up in the first place. The numbers are going down to meet our honesty, the numbers are going down to meet our character, the numbers are going down to meet our integrity, the numbers are going down to meet our sincerity; it is a natural decline, just as natural as gravity. If we had upheld these things and treated them as more important than the numbers, perhaps the numbers wouldn’t have had such a long fall to make, or they would never have had to fall at all.
, until the numbers begin to drop, then we start losing sleep trying to fix a broken down economy. The principles upon which we founded our economy and society as a whole were left unattended to; we were so busy watching the numbers and using complicated formulas to check if we were doing fine or not. The principles upon which families were once built and sustained were left unattended to, yet those were the very things that determined our worth as a people. Over the past few decades the goal has been purely to raise the numbers, to raise the GDP, to raise the per capita income, to raise the foreign reserves, and to raise all the numbers that have become all-important to us. We succeeded, but no one paid attention to the foundation upon which these numbers grew—the very virtues that once determine our strength as a people—and one fine morning we woke up to discover the neglected foundations had given way and the all-important numbers had crashed to nothing. Yet rather than rebuild the foundations, we are working round the clock to rebuild the numbers.
A recession is when worth and value are purely determined by numbers.
The story is told of a sunny Sabbath day in an old Jewish synagogue many years ago. People brought their gifts to the Synagogue as their custom was. Many rich people came with lots of money and threw it in the box, each trying to outdo the other in giving, much to the pleasure of the leaders of the synagogue. Then came this old widow with two mites as her gift, she dropped them in the box and went her way. The insignificance of her gift was not only noticed by all, it was displeasing to all. But present there was a young Jewish man with very unusual wisdom, to whom the people always turned for answers; he turned to those present and said, “This widow has given much more than all these rich merchants.” Some thought he must have had it all mixed up, while others simply concluded he was just being sarcastic, but those who knew him well knew he was about to speak immortal words of wisdom. “These rich men have given all this as a tiny, costless fraction of their abundance,” he said, “but this widow, out of her poverty, has given away all she had to live on.”
That day, love and sacrifice determined value over numbers.
I’m sure we are all familiar with the story; we grew up hearing old stories like these, and they shaped us, they shaped our thinking, they shaped our lives.
I remember a time when the worth of a person was never quantified in numbers. My mother would say to us, “Mr. James is such a great man; you can always take his word when he gives it.” And I knew Mr. James, he was a school teacher who lived a few blocks away from us. He rode an old bicycle that begged for change to no avail, the number of clothes he had was less than the number of days in a week, and that meant you were sure to see him wear them twice. Apparently he didn’t have the numbers, but everyone saw Mr. James as a great man. Integrity determined value over numbers.
I remember a time when national character was of far more importance than national income; and my, did national income so easily thrive on national character!
I remember a time when a nation was considered great based on the values upon which she was founded and governed—honesty, hard work, rectitude, faith, hope, truth—not on GDPs and foreign reserves. I always wanted to go to America because of these very things that couldn’t be quantified in numbers; today everyone goes there in pursuit of numbers. The numbers are now failing us the world over and we are calling for summits to save our crashing economies; but again I say, the problem is not with the economy, the problem is with us.
The next lesson I learnt from my mother’s story is this:
Unlike what Saka explained to the apes in Ajasha, a recession is not when banana production declines over a protracted period; that is simply one of the results of a recession. A recession is when bananas become more important than apes; it is when money becomes more important than men, and I tell you we have a very serious recession in our hands today.
Just before I came up here tonight, during the break, a young man from EPN News must have mistaken me to have had more free time in my hands than all the other speakers, as I sat at a coffee table in the lobby simply doing nothing. So he came up to me and asked me some “off the record questions”—as he called it. He is from an underdeveloped country and wanted to know what I thought was the fate of his homeland in these turbulent times. He said his government had set some very precise goals to build their economy to lofty heights, to be debt free, and to have multiple billions of dollars in foreign reserve by the year 2030, but somehow, a global financial meltdown wasn’t factored into the equation when the planning was done. Now he was concerned his country might simply be chasing a pie in the sky in the face of all that is happening; so he wanted to know if I thought his country and her government still stand a chance of achieving their set goals. Well, I told him I wasn’t an economic prophet—and sure enough I’m not—but seeing the genuineness of his concerns, I didn’t allow him leave disappointed, so I drew his attention to the things I felt were more serious that he should be worrying about. I said to him, I know a little bit about your country; I’ve been there a couple of times and I follow the news on what’s happening there. For me, the nine-year-old girl hawking on the streets of your capital city, 6AM to 9PM Mondays through Sundays, is a far greater loss to your country than all her fluctuating dollars in foreign reserve. The homeless and hopeless boys sleeping under the interchange in your capital city should be more troubling to you and your government than the declining value of your currency. But from all I gather, your government has responded to the plights of these people by sitting on a leather chair and signing whitepapers; yet the recent meltdown which has affected the prices of your export has gotten your government flying round the globe in frantic solicitation for help and support. Over the years, I have seen your government set up committees and set up monitoring committees to monitor the committees, and monitoring committees to monitor the monitoring committees which monitor the committees to look into the situation of the child on the street. But now the problem encroaches upon their dollars and pounds and they have adopted a fire-fighting urgency to protect their economy. Your country has been sloppy about treating her cancer, but now she catches dandruff and she springs to her feet in search of help.
That’s what I told him, and he was quick to respond that it’s because the economy is bad that the people are in that state, and that’s exactly why the government is trying to fix the economy. I told him I think it’s because the people are in that state that the economy is bad. You can’t fix the people by fixing the economy; you fix the economy by fixing the people. .
But this young man wouldn’t swallow the medicine I was dropping in his palm. “You can’t separate the economy or the money from the people,” he asserted. Yes, and I think that’s just why we’re in the sorry state we’re in today; we have retrogressed to such a deplorable state that we can’t separate flesh and blood from dollars and pounds.
Any country that wants to build a vibrant economy must take its eye off dollars and pounds and place it on people. And I’m not just talking about this young man’s country here; I’m talking about all of us. Now I know any fine president of any fine country can confidently get up and say to me, “Well, I’m different, Professor; I put my eyes on the people.” Yes Mr. President, you put your eyes on the people, but then what do you see? What do you figure out? Don’t you figure out how you can build and inspire them to work for the growth of the economy? The people are no more than work horses trained and harnessed to drive up the dollars and pounds. When you see the people what do you see? You don’t see beyond the economy, do you? You don’t see friends to be comforted; you don’t see sisters to be loved; you don’t see children to be held closely. You see people who, if you rightly invest in, can build the enterprise and keep the machineries running. This has become who we are, from the least to the greatest, from peasants to princes; this has become who we are. The emphasis of life for us as individuals has slowly shifted to paycheques, stocks and bonds and cash flows. Bananas have become more important than apes.
While at Somalia two weeks ago, I was speaking with twenty-two-year-old Zumuli, and for some deliberate reasons, I tried to explain the recession to her, based on our general understanding of a recession. I asked her if she knew what it felt like to lose your money, your home, your job, and everything else. And she said to me, “No. I don’t. I don’t know what it feels like to lose them; I have never known what it feels like to own them in the first place.” Indeed you know nothing about losing what you know nothing about owning. She said she had never really owned such things of her own right from the day of her birth up till that day I spoke with her in the tent. She said she was born naked, just like all of us were, but, unlike all of us, a few committees had to sit and hold a few meetings in a faraway country, and the results of these meetings were going to determine whether she was going to wear clothes or not; and while they held these meetings, she grew up naked. Her mother, she said, never had strength enough to cuddle her in her bony arms or rest her tiny face against her dried-up ribs. As pathetic as her story was, I didn’t see her worry about not having shillings, but I saw her worry about the children around her who had not eaten in days, I saw her worry about the ailing old women in the tent, I saw people worry more about people than they did about money, yet they didn’t have much of money. I learnt that people are still more important than money, especially when all they have is each other.
If only we had spent as much time as we spent watching the stock markets in watching out for ourselves as brothers and sisters, I don’t think the stock market would have been in the bad shape it is today. If only we had spent as much time as we spent watching the foreign exchange in watching after ourselves as people bounded together by breath and blood, I don’t think forex would have been in the bad shape it is in today. If only we had prioritized our hearts above our pockets, I don’t think our pockets would have been in the bad state they’re in today. But no, we haven’t done that, instead we have established a bizarre link between our hearts and our purses, and as a result we are slowly losing them both; we are left with broken hearts and leaking purses, downcast souls and downsized companies. And this error has moulded itself into an ugly monster that makes us conclude there is a problem with the economy—fix the economy and we would be fine. But, my dear friends, the problem is not with the economy, the problem is with us. We have exalted the love of money above the love of our fellowman. We make greater sacrifices for money than we do for people, we are comfortable with using people as a means to get more money. The man who can show us how to make more money is sure to get our attention more readily than the man who can show us how to live more worthily. We have exalted paper and ink above flesh and blood. It is absolutely impossible to love money and love people at the same time. The man who loves money doesn’t mind using people to get it, and the man who loves people doesn’t mind using money to help them. The money you love can’t do much good for the people you love, and that is because you can’t love them both.
A very wealthy young man walked up to a wise teacher one day and asked if he could become one of his students. He had seen how much good the wise teacher and his students were doing in the towns and villages; the news of their good works had travelled far to provinces they had never been to, and this wealthy man wanted to become a student himself. He believed he could do much more good with his money if he followed the teacher than he could if he didn’t, so he walked up to the teacher and asked to become one of his students. The teacher looked at him and said, “Take all your possessions and sell them, then take all the money and give to the poor, then come follow me.” And the wealthy young man went away sad, because he had lots of money indeed. One would wonder why he didn’t do as he was instructed, after all, he wanted to do good in the first place. He wanted to do as much good as possible to people around, so why did he walk away when he was asked to do the very thing he wanted to do? Well, that is the moral of the story—the money you love can’t do much good for the people you love because you can’t really love them both. When money becomes more important than people to you, then you are not of much good to people no matter how much money you eventually acquire.
The sooner we stop deceiving ourselves the quicker we would get out of this mess. The problem is not with our money, the problem is with us. Can we re-evaluate our priorities and put men and women above dollars and pounds? When we do, we commence our journey to total recovery.
I believe time is the greatest asset ever given to man; it is that with which he does every other thing he aspires to do. Indeed there are things you can do without money, but there is nothing you can do without time. You don’t need money to look out that window and admire the fountain out there, but you need time to do that. You don’t need money to take a walk through the city park—you can take the walk without spending money, but you can’t take it without spending time.
I believe every man is potentially rich who has as much as twenty-four hours given to him each day. But men are not poor by what they don’t have but by what they do with what they have; nor are men rich by what they have but by what they do with what they have. And I pray you don’t think I am only talking about money in the bank when I talk about being rich, if you still do at this point then I assume you must have slept through half of my speech and only woke up now when you heard me say rich. Every man is potentially rich who has as much as twenty-four hours given to him each day; they could be twenty-four golden hours or twenty-four hours of dust and wind depending on what is done with them. And I see the lot of us trapped with twenty-four hours of dust and wind. We have set up systems that have become our own undoings, yet we don’t realize it. We are like spiders who are now trapped in the webs we spent whole nights spinning. These systems were designed to build our economy, but little did we know that they will take our lives. I pondered over my mother’s story, and I began to see what I call the deadly trap of the farm and barn. It’s a perfect formula to build an economy, and a superb recipe to ruin our lives. The deadly trap of the farm and barn.
A recession is not when the farm is dry and the barn is empty; a recession is when the farm is green and the barns are full, but our lives are dry and our hearts are empty because we have devoted all of it to tilling the farm and building the barns. And that is the system we have in place—it’s a farm and barn system—and it appears to be our most brilliant approach for saving the economy—increase the harvest and expand the barns, work more, invest more, save more. I have seen a lot of literature lately that are meant to teach people how to live a recession-proof life in the midst of the meltdown, and all of them say the same thing—work more, have more farms, grow more crops, plant perennial crops and biannual crops, plant in the dry season and irrigate your farm, have multiple streams of income, then spend less and save more, build more barns, expand the old barns, have barns for your tubers and barns for your grains, save and invest, develop your retirement plan, till the farms and build the barns. And these experts are writing huge volumes on this and calling it recession-free living! I call it recession-filled living! That is exactly what a recession is, when our whole lives are devoted to tilling the farms and building the barns and nothing more.
There’s a lot of activities around today, we are running around and brushing shoulders like ants in a colony, and all these activities are tied to the farm and barn. Some are off to the train station to catch a train to the farm, others are alighting the train heading for the barn, Mr. A is on a plane to check on his farm at Chicago, Mrs. B is on a plane to check her barn in Berlin, Mr. Y is off to a meeting where they are to discuss new ways of preserving his tomatoes, and Mrs. Z is off to a meeting where she is to teach Mr. Y and others like him the new ways to preserve their tomatoes. The children are off to an Ivy League school where they would be taught how to help people manage their farms and barns while building theirs along the way. And the father is glad that his son would soon be done with college so he could come take over the running of the farm he had spent his whole life tilling. And we literarily devote our entire lives to nothing else but the farm and barn—that is a recession.
Whatever takes all our time, takes all our lives. I believe most of us are very much familiar with my Theory of Time Conversion. Well, I’ll tell you how I came up with the theory; it was for me just a simple way of organizing my life. I would get up each day and say I want to convert two hours of my life to a presentation for students at Harvard, and after the time passes, I would have converted two hours of my life into some slides and notes on a computer ready for delivery. I called it my Time Conversion Plan. I wonder if you know that whatever you spend your time doing is what you are literarily converting your life into. Have you ever taken time to think about that? And we have set up a system that converts our lives into nothing but farms and barns. So when we come to the end of our lives, our barns are full but our lives are empty, and that’s what we call retirement. That’s a recession.
We are worried when the harvest is low, we are worried when the barns are down, we are troubled when the east wind comes, and we panic when the locusts arrive; these are the days of our lives. I have said this in different ways before and I will still say it again, the wealth of a nation is not determined by the size of its farm and barn; it is determined by the quality of the lives of its people. And when that life is devoted to nothing else but building the farm and the barn, then it is of the most deplorable quality ever to be seen on the face of the earth. And these are the days of our lives. If I was the king of a little village, I wouldn’t want my people to live that way anymore than I would want the members of my family to live that way. If I were the president of a civilized society, I wouldn’t want my people to live that way anymore than I would want my wife and children to live that way. The very things we pride ourselves in are the very things that destroy us. We want to take our friends on a tour around our barn and show them how well we are doing, and that’s because there’s nothing else to show; we have so devoted our entire lives to tilling the farm and building the barn that we haven’t built much else but that.
I want to ask you a very personal question tonight, I take for granted that I am permitted to ask personal questions here, and so I’ll go ahead and ask one: What really are you devoting your life to? Do a self-assessment and answer for yourself. What really are you devoting your life to? What are we devoting our lives to? That is what determines the quality of our lives. If our entire lives are devoted to the farm and barn—up at five, off to the farm, back at nine, off to the barn, back at two, catch some sleep, up at five, off to the farm, back at nine and off to the barn—then the quality of our lives would be so pathetic indeed. And we think the harder we do this, the more we would better our economies, but again I say, the problem is not with the economy, the problem is with us. We can’t change our lives by changing the economy, but we can change the economy by changing our lives.
One might wonder if I am suggesting that we simply abandon our farms and barns; no, as a matter of fact, you should work hard to build your farm and barn, but it’s a bad day when the size of your barn gets bigger than the size of your heart because you have spent more time on the former than on the latter; it is a bad day when the crops on your farm are greener than the crops in your life because you have spent more time working on the former than on the latter; it is a bad day when your life insurance is bigger than your life itself, because you had spent more time working on the former than on the latter. It doesn’t matter what the figures say, it doesn’t matter what the charts say, it doesn’t matter what the graphs say, once this is true of us, then we have a recession indeed.
A man worked very hard in building his farm; he had many acres of crops of all sorts and many acres of barns. He had spent many years growing and expanding, and his field was a testimony to him that all his labours were not in vain. In a particular year he had an unprecedented harvest, he built more barns and stored his grains. That same year he died and left the farm to his son. The son worked much harder than his father, built more barns, expanded the farms, planted more crops, and hired more workers. He became one of the richest men in the province. A certain year this man’s farm brought forth much harvest, much more than his barn could hold. He had spent that whole year toiling, and now he had a harvest that was by every standard unprecedented, even bigger than his father ever saw in his lifetime. He thought of what best to do with it, and then he came up with a great idea. He pulled down his barns and built bigger ones, and stacked his harvest up in them, then said to himself, “Relax, my soul, and enjoy your retirement. Sit back and live happily ever after.” He went to bed that night, but didn’t wake up the next morning. He had left a bigger farm to his son, to continue from where he stopped. If this man’s heart was bigger than his barn, he would have found a better use of his harvest than building bigger barns.
I am getting old, my friends, and as the days go by you know one of the things I dread the most? That after I am done here, all I would leave for my children is a farm and a barn because that’s all I did with my life.
As a people what are we going to leave for our children coming after us? What is America going to leave for her children? What is China going to leave for her children? What is Russia going to leave for her children? What is France going to leave for her children? What is Spain going to leave for her children? What is Nigeria going to leave for her children? What is Ukraine going to leave for her children? What is Switzerland going to leave for her children? A farm and a barn? If that is all we leave, then we have left them a recession indeed.
I’ll share with you one last lesson I learnt from my mother’s story and my job here will be done.
This, for me, is the biggest recession a people could ever find themselves in. You are in the worst form of recession when you live by trading the things money can’t buy in exchange for the things money can buy.
You know, I never realized how rich I was until I decided to take an inventory of the things I have that money can’t buy, and which I wouldn’t sell for all the money in the world. It was a long deliberate exercise that never left me the same. There are things in life that money can buy and there are things in life that money can’t buy. Many of us live by trading the things in life that money can’t buy to gain the things in life that money can buy. You might say, “But only a fool will do that.” Well, I advise you be not so quick to insult yourself. When I first took inventory of the things I have that money can’t buy, it was both a delight and a shocker for me; I was delighted that I still had most of those things, and I was shocked that I had been more deliberate in building and growing other things than I had been in growing these. I had to come up with a sure plan for course correction.
My mother always told me that the best things in life are free, and I should be wary whenever I am asked to pay for them; and whenever I asked her what the best things in life were, she would always reply, “The best things in life are not things at all, son; start from there and you will be sure to find them.” That is where we should all start from—the best things in life are not things at all. The things money can’t buy are really not things in themselves, and the things money can buy are really nothing but things in themselves; and every day we are faced with the choice of trading the things money can’t buy in exchange for the things money can buy without even knowing the full details of the transaction. This inevitable choice faces us daily, as individuals, as families, as communities, as nations, as people.
There are things in life that money can buy and there are things in life that money can’t buy; my formula for calculating net worth, which I also recommend to you, is this: The things in your life that money can’t buy less the things in your life that money can buy; use that formula to measure your net worth and you just might be surprised to find your net worth in negative.
Now when I start talking like this the tendency to be misunderstood is very high. Many would suppose I am downplaying the importance of the things money can buy, that I am suggesting that men and women should not work to acquire the things money can buy, nor bother to climb to lofty heights and reach for the moon, or that I am suggesting that nations should not harness their workforce and drill the earth in search of the things underneath which they can trade for profit. I pray you don’t understand me to mean any of that in any way. If I am advocating for commonplace mediocrity I wouldn’t be a professor of economics myself. But you see, I didn’t have to stop being a father to start being a professor. When I worked at Wall Street—and I don’t miss my days at Wall Street—I didn’t have to stop being a family man to start being a businessman. I guarded the things I had that money couldn’t buy, and I insisted I wasn’t going to sell them no matter what the offer was. I knew the value of an early evening meal with my wife and kids, I knew the worth of an unannounced visit from my next door neighbour, I knew the worth of a good night sleep, I knew the worth of talking with my daughter after her day at school, I knew the worth of serving donuts every Sunday at the poor community church not too far from where I lived, I knew the worth of doing the laundry at St. Peter’s Old People’s Home, for nothing but seeing the joy on the faces of those old folks, I knew the worth of inviting a 19-year-old homeless girl to spend one night with us, and another night, and another night, till we got her straightened out, I knew the worth of going to the basketball court almost every Saturday just to spend some time with that misguided teen—who, by the way, is now a medical doctor and runs little health centres in the inner cities—I knew the worth of planting a garden with my wife, I knew the worth of family, the worth of not having to wait till Thanksgiving to see my dad and mom, I knew the worth of people, I knew the worth of starting out as strangers and ending up as friends. I know the worth of the things in my life that money cannot buy, and I have guarded them so jealously, even by using the things in my life that money can buy. The norm today is to use—or lose—the things money can’t buy to get and protect the things money can buy. I use the things money can buy to protect the things money can’t buy, for those things that money can’t buy are truly indeed the best things in life, and they are free.
I don’t know of any nation that has made a list of the things it has that money can’t buy and circulated such list among its people, or integrated such list into its educational system to teach her children the real things that make them wealthy. I don’t know of a nation that has taken the pains to take inventory of the things they have as a nation that money can’t buy. We have large databases of commodities and resources and how each is doing on the international market, but there’s not even a pocket list of the things we have that money can’t buy. If you don’t have such a list as a person, then you probably have been trading some of the things you have that money can’t buy in exchange for the things you want that money can buy.
Junior grows up not knowing his father, and his father watches him grow not knowing who he is. Daddy leaves for work while Junior is still in bed, he kisses him goodbye and draws the blanket up him a little then leaves for work. He comes back when Junior is already tucked in bed, he kisses him good night and draws the blanket up him a little then goes to his room and does the same to his sleeping wife, then switches off the light and goes to sleep. The next day is not different. And Daddy doesn’t notice how fast Junior is growing—the boy is always lying in bed when he sees him—he doesn’t notice how fast Junior has grown and how far Junior has gone till they have their first big clash in the house and Junior pulls out a bat on him. This is one of the mildest results of trading one of the few things that money can’t buy in exchange for the many things that money can buy. Daddy was working at the office when he and Junior ought to have been walking at home. He rose to the top of his company, and sunk to the depths of his family.
These tradeoffs happen on a daily basis, and like I said, we don’t even know the full details of the transaction, we only know the economic benefits of it, but are almost absolutely clueless on the resulting personal and societal decadence, and as a result we have so many Juniors in our society and we don’t know what to do with them—that’s a recession. And that’s just a mild example.
There are things in life that money can buy and there are things in life that money can’t buy. Many times I get to see the lists of the world’s richest this and the world’s wealthiest that, and but for a few exceptions, most times what I see is a long list of poor people, people who are so poor they can only afford the things money can buy. They have so little of the things money can’t buy, and they are still in the business of trading that little away for a few more of the things money can buy. There are things in life that money can buy and there are things in life that money can’t buy. Some people are so poor that they can only afford the things money can buy.
At the end of the day, when we sit to add the price we have paid for the things we have, may we be wise enough to add those things we traded that money can’t buy. I don’t know of a worse recession than when the things money can’t buy are traded in for the things money can buy.
I still have my inventory with me. I carry it with me wherever I go; it reminds me of how rich I am, it reminds me of how priceless the best things in life are, yet how freely they come to each of us, it reminds me that things that should steal my heart are not really things at all, it keeps my eyes on the scoreboard where the points are not entered in numbers, it reminds me that there are things that I have that all the economic turmoil can’t alter their worth, and that that is what a recession-free life really is, it reminds me that one day I would be laid to rest, and the things that I would be remembered for would not in any way be things at all, and it reminds me that my mother’s story wasn’t really about apes but about us.
[Professor Williams pauses a while. The silence in the hall is deafening]
I must stop here now. I must stop here now. I hope all I have said tonight has been of more value to you than my anticipated tables and charts, and all the postulates I have ever written, and all the textbooks I have ever authored. I hope you would leave this place with more than just a story or a speech.
As it is said, there is no smoke without fire. The decline of our economies, the drop of the purchasing power of our currencies, the rapid closure of companies and high rise of unemployment, all that is smoke. The other issues I have raised here tonight—the decline of our common values, the over glorification of numbers, the prioritization of things over people—all these constitute the fire. So instead of putting all we have into blowing away the smoke, why not we come together and put out the fire?
Start with yourself right here, right now; decide resolutely to put out the fire, to start valuing people over things, to treasure the things in your life that money can’t buy above the things in your life that money can buy, to value the things you have above the things you lack, decide resolutely to put out the fire, first in your own heart. Then go home and put out the fire in your house, put out the fire in your neighbourhood. Let’s go back to our communities and put out the fire, let’s go back to our states and put out the fire, let’s go back to our countries and put out the fire, and very soon, the smoke we have gathered tonight to blow away will no longer be seen again, not because we fixed our economy, but because we fixed our lives.
Good night, Ayo.
Good night, Bayo.
Good night, Dayo.
Tomorrow will be a better day. God bless you.
BOOK IN PROGRESS
The year is 2076. In an old people’s home in Palm Beach, Florida, 92-year-old software developer, Benny Gilbert, 90-year-old award winning journalist, Simon Avner, and 94-year-old billionaire attorney, Ryan Fleming, spend a rainy day together to talk about their lives, chronicling from where they once were, to where they now are, and where they wish they were.
This is a story about three men and the five cardinal choices that life brings to all. You might never know when these choices come, but you would surely know when they’re gone. Find yourself in the story. Saving Tomorrow, Losing Today.
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At the peak of the global economic meltdown, veteran professor of economics, Ola Williams, is invited to address world leaders, economists, financial analysts and other pertinent experts at the World Economic Summit in Geneva. Known for his proven economic theories and brilliant postulates, expectations are high that his carefully researched data and in-depth analysis would chart a course that can be followed through to solve the looming economic problem that has swept through major economies of the world. It is 8:15PM and Professor Williams is welcomed to the podium with a rousing applause, that takes a little while to die down. The hall is soon in perfect silence. Professor Williams clenches the sides of the lectern with both hands; he has no notes, no slides, no charts, no graphs, just a warm smile on his 76-year-old face, and a heart that is ready to speak.