First Generation review
I would like to start out on this review in an unconventional manner considering the unconventional decision Jonah Solomon made in braving the publication of his book, FIRST GENERATION—a material I reckon aptly as a ‘midterm autobiography’ but which he rather calls “A fresh graduate’s perfect guide to starting a career in an emerging market.”
Somehow, I share in Jonah’s life story as articulated in the book and I want to add to the narrative by recounting a piece of that part he must have forgotten.
One night while we were undergraduates at the University of Nigeria, Nsụka, an armed thief broke into our apartment tucked away outside the University environ, in an area overgrown with grasses and with no neighbouring homes apart from a Pentecostal church building that opened thrice a week to pummel our ears with loud songs and shouts.
There were up to 10 rooms in the compound. Jonah occupied one while I put up with a classmate in another. The armed thief robbed our room first and took away our phones without any resistance. He then quickly went over to Jonah’s. There, Jonah resisted him and they both spent some time struggling with his phone. We could hear the thuds of their bodies and arms on the walls and door as they struggled. We seriously feared a bullet might go off against the robbed.
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Thoughtfully, Jonah realized he was unarmed and fighting an armed person and he gave it up. Other rooms were robbed but no one else put up any resistance or delayed the thief in his room as Jonah. From that night, Jonah became a secret hero whom I admired deeply for his sheer courage even by impulse.
This ugly event happened over 13 years ago and I have forgotten it. However, reading Jonah’s midterm autobiography in FIRST GENERATION and seeing the great odds he has braved in his short life reminded me of my first witness of his grit and uncommon bravery.
In fact, the whole content of FIRST GENERATION can be summarized under the theme: Bravery with thoughtfulness. Indeed, for Jonah, it is not enough to be brave and it is not enough to be thoughtful; you have to be both! That’s all I could read from his advice to first-generation graduates of different Nigerian communities who want to start a career in this present-day highly competitive world. Bravery with thoughtfulness. Jonah already lived it out before starting his career. Like a pathfinder, he has offered lessons learnt from practising this theme to encourage neophytes to practice it better than he has done.
Let me quickly emphasize that midterm autobiographical writings such as FIRST GENERATION are very rare to come by in Nigeria. At most, they may appear as fictional writings but barely as non-fictions. This is why Jonah’s book is a milestone and deserves the status of a leading reference in contemporary Nigerian midterm autobiographies.
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As a family historian, I know and appreciate immensely the challenges of writing histories in small-scale (family, individual, office, business histories) as against large-scale (communal, town, national, ethnic, societies’ histories). A lot of important histories and historical data are wasted in Nigeria because small-scale history writing/documentation is not encouraged or supported. Instead, the large-scale is given all the attention, ignoring the fact that an impeccable and detailed large-scale history is accumulated from a dedicated small-scale history writing and documentation.
I am personally grateful to Jonah Solomon for contributing to the small-scale history writing with his FIRST GENERATION. Sadly, the step he has taken as a first-generation graduate of his community by writing a midterm autobiography in his 30s and in the 21st century was missed by many of the first-generation graduates from communities that had a head-start in university education as at last [20th] century and in their 30s.
The book, FIRST GENERATION is a 156-page true-life nugget of advice in 10 chapters. Its prose is lush and lucid and appeals to both a secondary school student and a university professor. The book’s capacity, I contest, is beyond that of “A fresh graduate’s perfect guide.” It is every sensible person’s guide, especially one who considers and appreciates the overall theme running through it: Bravery with thoughtfulness.
The first two chapters—The Tough Beginning and Experience over Salary—gulp more than 50 pages of the book, offering us privileged access to the inner workings and backgrounds that forged the person and character of Jonah, the author. It is from this formation, hewn from sweat and ruthless experiences, that he drew the moral capital that afforded him to carry on against the harsh wind of life, as could be seen in the subsequent chapters. I am especially caught by these words of Jonah in the first chapter (and which formed the theme of this review):
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“Always remember that sending you to the university was not for any validation. It was a purely economic decision.” (p.29)
Behind those words are the fallouts of British colonization and European Christianization. These subjects have been sufficiently explored and examined by our historians. The Western education that was bequeathed to us through colonization and Christianization was principally an economic move that benefitted those who thrust it upon us. The end was to make us fall in line with the global economy they have created and have kept reordering to serve them first before others.
In the end, we, the colonized peoples, rushed to obtain university education (the seemingly advanced level of Western education) not to develop our societies and reduce poverty as the colonizers had done in theirs but to pursue personal glories and escape from the ever-widening poverty trap mechanized from the greed of our elite class. In such a sense and condition, university education is and has to be a hustle—a survival of the fittest in the jungle that is Nigeria. This is miseducation, in its proper definition. But, in the meantime, Jonah still offers hope, a way out of the tangle, because as the Nigerian saying goes, “I/we can’t come and kill myself/ourselves.”
Jonah bluntly warns that having a university degree no longer guarantees a fresh graduate dream employment in the Nigerian jungle—and even beyond. His revelation is brutal and unequivocal:
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“…in the ideal world, if you have a degree and you need a good-paying job, employers will demand years of experience. That’s the way it works. That’s why, believing you were very smart, you spent your NYSC service year writing all those funny cover letters and CVs to many companies who didn’t get back to you because they trashed it the day it arrived.” (p.52)
Going forward, Jonah recommends pragmatism over passion since university education in Nigeria is mostly an economic decision and not mere pursuit of passion. He warns that no matter your passion and your pursuit of it, “You could still end the journey on an empty stomach.” He advises that passions be done “on the side, stay focused on your day job” (p.62). Of course, Nigerians dread that expression: empty stomach. It implies crushing poverty and humiliating lack. And Jonah smartly deployed it to drive the message harder and clearer.
In the middle chapters, the submissions and recommendations are advanced based on lived experiences. The titles of the chapters carry the advice/messages and they include: (3) Get yourself a mentor (4) You are naïve, admit it (5) Where you live matters (6) Who is in your company? (7) What moves the needle?
In those middle chapters, Jonah impressively supports his arguments and positions, like the media professional he is, with facts and rare statistical data. For example, I would never have known that “only 6.7 per cent of the world population has Bachelor’s degree” (p.118).
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On the other hand, he has an ample amount of analytical information on the economic geography of Lagos and strongly recommends it over other Nigerian cities as a place to start a career despite its maddening and suffocating life. His submissions at this point reflect the experiences of climbing the ladder of success after it has taken so much to find or get to that ladder.
Notably, many Nigerians now detest inspirational speakers and their many impracticable writings that do not come from lived experiences. Jonah’s nuggets’ titles may appear like typical Nigerian inspirational lines but their contents are cold-blooded, brutal, harsh and direct truths because they are from lived and tested experiences. This is why—I would re-echo—the material is more a midterm autobiography than anything else.
Jonah concludes with his last 3 chapters: (8) You are a sacrifice generation (9) Ditch superstition & stereotypes and (10) Gratitude pays. These messages convey what should and must be done to sustain and improve on this found success as well as in climbing higher and further on the ladder.
“There is no other way to lift yourself from where you are,” Jonah preaches, “except to see the glass always as half-full. This will help you to track your small but incremental progress and know that progress is certain no matter how slow” (p.151).
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FIRST GENERATION, in my opinion, is an uncommon book and a valid midterm autobiography of a life lived in one generation, or less than 4 decades, if you like. It critically matters to have the book around knowing that humans today can only live meaningfully in about 3–4 generations or less than 12 decades. If Jonah lives up to 3 generations or over 9 decades, he would be left to write 2 more midterm autobiographies to supplement FIRST GENERATION, thereby incrementally aiding younger people to live better, safer and more purposeful lives. There is no other way of becoming a useful elder other than this way if we widen the meaning of elderliness beyond being biologically older than others.
Finally, I look forward to Jonah’s next midterm autobiography taking on the challenging subject of how to reverse the heavy migration of his educated Ebọnyị people, for example, to Lagos when they have the most fertile of lands in Igboland with huge deposits of limestone and lead, in addition to the current governor (Dave Umahi)’s revolutionary construction of roads in the State.
In the pre-colonial Igboland, as the late Professor Adịele Afịgbo has magisterially investigated and taught, the Ebọnyị area was the economic hub of the Igbo as it was not only involved in sufficient and surplus agricultural production but manufacturing and trade (See Ropes of Sand by A. E. Afịgbo, pp.123–44). With the colonization and Christianization of Igboland beginning with Ọnịcha (present-day Anambra areas) and trumping the indigenous Igbo economic structures, the Ebọnyị (Abankaleke) area was geographically disadvantaged in terms of early mass Western education and other social capitals that came with it.
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Yes, Lagos is made. But Ebọnyị can be made too or returned to its dignified precolonial economic status. That cannot be effectively done if Ebọnyị State’s first-generation graduates who did not have a geographical head-start like their Igbo brethren from Delta, Anambra or the Imo States keep migrating in droves to Lagos and elsewhere rather than stay home to create wealth from their already wealthy environment.
I strongly recommend FIRST GENERATION to every sensible person.
Chijioke Ngobili is a family and music historian and teaches music at the University of Nigeria.