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Wale Bakare

My friend Kunle told me a story recently that upped my admiration for him a couple of notches. He was parked around the Secretariat waiting for some fellow to meet up and hand over some documents to him. In typical Nigerian fashion, “I am just round the corner. Please give me 2 minutes” was dragging into 20 minutes. I really don’t now why we do that. Someone has an appointment with you and is running late. When you manage to get him/her on the phone, you don’t get the truth about their status. You are waiting for someone in Ikeja and instead of telling you they are still on Lagos Island, you hear “I am on 3rd Mainland bridge. Will be there in 10 minutes”. You are unable to properly adjust your activities to accommodate for the person’s tardiness. Meanwhile, whatever the person has to deliver to you might be crucial to how the rest of your day goes. The number of Printers and Estate Agents that will make heaven can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Oh, and yes, DSTV Technicians too, but I will come back to those ones another time.

So, Kunle was waiting in his car for the Printer who was on his 3rd instalment of “I’ll be there in 10 minutes Sah” when he noticed a young man in a rather tired suit having an animated discussion with a Shoemaker by the side of the road. He had one shoe in his hand which looked about ready to disintegrate and set the various components free to go their separate ways. The one he had on his foot seemed to be of a totally different design and not necessarily in much better shape. Long story short: the Shoemaker was trying to make the fellow understand that he wasn’t skilled enough to save the shoe. His glue just coudnt do the job and he was getting tired of explaining why. The gentleman wanted him to coax one last hurrah out of the shoe. Stalemate. Kunle moved over to them to see what the issue was. Turns out the young man was unemployed and going for an interview for a job. He had thought the only pair of shoes he had would make it through just one more day. Alas, it wasn’t to be. Someone had stepped on the heel as he got out of the Danfo at Alausa. The sole of the shoe was now hanging by the biblical thread.

He looked at the shoe the young man was holding. The suit he had on had been ironed so many times that it now had a glossy sheen to it. It had obviously seen much better days and it was likely the wearer was not the first owner. To combine that with the shoes was testing the elasticity of faith a little too much. The fellow kept looking at the cheap, plastic watch on his wrist and it was clear he was worried about arriving late for the interview. Kunle took a snap decision. He asked him to come over to his car. He got in behind the wheel and took off his own shoes and handed them over. The chap was totally confused as to what was going on. “Put them on” Kunle said to him. He stood there, holding the shoes, mouth open in confusion. “Go on. Put them on and hurry up for your interview” he said to him. The shoes were a size bigger than the ones he had taken off but they would do quite nicely. He tried to say thank you but couldn’t find the words so his eyes came to the rescue and let out a stream of tears. Luckily for Kunle, Mr. Printer showed up at the same time to save him from joining in the cryfest!

Empathy is an emotion that I have found is quite scarce in these parts. We are brilliant with sympathy and when it comes to throwing pity-parties, we cant be beaten. We know how to “feel for you”! Our problem is how to ‘feel with you’! The Oxford Language dictionary defines Sympathy as “feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune”! A friend who lives in the UK told me once that Nigerians in the UK are very sympathetic when you tell them you have a problem and need some money to solve it urgently. The immediate response would be “Eeyah! Sorry o. This is serious. If only you had come yesterday. What will you do now?” When you have sympathy for someone facing a situation, you feel sad for the person for the moment but you don’t see it as your problem. You are not moved to do something about it. You can very easily move on with your life. Get back to the bottle of beer you were attending to before it gets warm. Or maybe it’s the Arsenal versus Manchester United match which you put on pause, or worse still, which had continued to run while this situation had intruded into your consciousness. So you make the appropriate noises, pull out your sad face and don it for the appropriate length of time and as soon as you turn your back, that’s it. You really have turned your back on that matter.

Empathy is the ability to understand the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of someone else. It comes from the German word Einfuhlung which means ‘feeling into’. It requires the ability to feel what the other person is feeling unlike merely understanding what the other person is going through. When you empathise with the other person, you are moved to do something about the situation as if you are the person facing the challenge. You don’t think of getting a camera phone to record yourself for the purpose of putting it on Social Media. Truth is, like Kunle in the story above, you just do what is in your power to do without thinking too much about it. You want to ease the other person’s pain because it is your pain. You know what it feels like. ‘It is well’ is not what the starving man wants to hear. He wants you to give up some of your food so he can eat. Kunle never saw the Interviewee again and didn’t even take his name or number. He just gave him the shoes and told him to hurry. A million ‘it is well’ or ‘God is in control’ would not have solved that problem at that time. Sometimes, it is even better to just keep quiet if you have nothing useful to say instead of repeating arcane platitudes.

When someone has suffered a loss, telling him ‘everything happens for a reason’ might sound good in your ears and make you feel you are saying something wise. The truth is the person will probably struggle to understand what good reason there could be for his house getting burnt down. Someone loses a loved one and your consolation to him or her is ‘We cant question God’! You think the person doesn’t know that? Will that stop him from asking “God, why me?” If there is nothing you can do to help the situation (you can’t bring a lost one back, can you), it is better you just acknowledge the pain the person is in. “I can only imagine how much this must hurt”. “I wish there was something I could say to make this easier/better/less difficult for you. Encourage people with words that are real to them in the situation, human words, especially if you don’t share the same faith. The time of loss is not the time to engage in any guerilla evangelism.


Most of all, take action. Do whatever you can to show the person you are there for them. Help them take care of things they would have had to do themselves. It could be taking the children to go stay with you (if you are that close) or offering to pick them to and from school. You want to make food and bring or help go to the market and do the shopping. It could be just sitting and holding the person’s hand. You want to communicate the most important thing: I am here for you.

– Bakare is a public commentator


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