Our Kindness Deficit

Our Kindness Deficit

By Dele Agekameh

Sometime last week, I was amazed by an interview I saw on CNN. It was about a new, well-funded institute that has been created to further research and study into one simple facet of human behaviour – kindness. The Bedari Kindness Institute, housed in the prestigious University of California, Los Angeles, UCLA, is funded by a $20 million donation by the Bedari Foundation, a private family foundation co-founded by Mathew and Jennifer Harris. The significance of research of this type in today’s world is monumental.

If the idea seems unbelievable, or the funding, mind boggling, one only has to turn on the TV at any point in time to be reminded of the magnitude of strife and violence, poverty and disease, that burdens our world today. For the older generation, a trip down memory lane would also do the trick. That is, remembering a time when the world was a safer place to interact with others and form lasting friendships that endure for decades. Today, there is too much distrust and enmity, between countries, individuals and groups, across several dividing lines.

One of the first things that came to mind after seeing the CNN interview, titled Spreading Contagious Kindness,  is how Nigerians in particular can benefit from this kind of research. Our society is deeply divided, and our divisions are being emphasised every second of everyday, through our individual and group actions and that of people in leadership positions. The African continent is no different, despite the best efforts (which is not much) of associations like the African Union, AU, and the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS.

If it were possible to measure the instinct for self preservation in the mind of an average Nigerian, most Nigerians would score above 90%. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The negative part of this ‘selfish virtue’ is the cost, to inter-personal relationships and simple human kindness. Nigerians have been exposed to war, high level of crime and corruption and the stinging bite of extreme poverty, for years. The emotional trauma of fighting these evils has turned Nigerians into battle-hardened humans, with reduced emotional connections and a deficit of simple kindness.

I also discovered, from further reading, that scientific research has been conducted for decades, into the subject of kindness and its effects on populations. Kindness, as research shows, is truly contagious. Witnessing an act of kindness or charity immediately ignites an emotional response that some have termed ‘elevation’, that triggers a desire to replicate that act or a similar act. Findings around this topic were published by researchers from the University of California, San Diego and Harvard University in the online edition of  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2010. Similar studies have  also been carried out by researchers in Cambridge University and University of Plymouth in the United kingdom, with similar results.

In a country where it is considered a poor decision to offer a ride to a stranger stranded in the rain or scorching sun, mostly for security reasons, Nigeria may be a particularly interesting case study for the scholars in the new kindness institute at UCLA. As a dean of social sciences in the university puts it, the new institute seeks to be an antidote to the politics, violence and strife in the world today. In Nigeria, it was the politics, violence and strife that killed the historical kindness of Nigerians, and turned Nigerian society into an angry and impatient place that is unforgiving of the perceived weakness of even the slightest act of kindness and consideration.

In Nigeria, researchers will be confounded by a society that steals supplies from Internally Displaced Persons, IDPs, condemned to a life of neglect and toil in their disease-infested camps; public officials that divert public funds and leave tens of millions in poverty and ignorance while their relatives enjoy opulence likened to some of history’s most powerful monarchs; religious bodies with multi-billion dollar ‘empires’ accepting money from people on involuntary fasting. The list goes on and on.

Also, how does one encourage more kindness in a society that has been crippled by fear? For every act of kindness imaginable, Nigeria has a reason why it should not be done. For example, giving alms to beggars opens you to the danger of ritualists, as some will tell you. Here, turning the other cheek is not only a faux pas, it is a socially abhorrent behaviour that will be met with considerable disdain. The fear is always that, when you give an inch, the Nigerian society will likely take a mile, and continue taking until you go bust or join the band wagon of ‘”sharp” (selfish) Nigerians. The worst thing is, it is the truth.

In the midst of all that chaos, Nigerians have not completely lost their humanity. Kindness still resides in our hearts, even if stifled by fear and misery. One at least agrees with the researchers that only more kindness can create a mass reaction that can multiply and bring the human factor back into our daily lives. It is not inconceivable that the late Dr. Stella Adadevoh, could have chosen to be ‘sharp’ by protecting herself and warning her friends and relatives about a possible epidemic. She, and others, put their lives on the line and stemmed the spread of ebola, which ended with her paying the ultimate price. That is humanity in action.

Several tales of taxi drivers and airport attendants returning large sums of money, indigenous Non-Governmental Organisations, NGOs, stepping up to fill the void left by government, and even national leaders shelving ambition in the interest of Nigerians. This all means that there is hope. While progress may be slow in spreading community spirit and basic human consideration in a country of 200 million people, the research also  shows that the kindness contagion, once started, spreads organically. As such, we need our political and community leaders, school children and students of all ages to benefit from these new research and studies, so that we can kick-start our own deliberate kindness experiment that may heal our communities.

Billionaire Allen Onyema’s recent largesse, through Air Peace, where he provided free rides to help Nigerians escape violence in South Africa’s xenophobic attacks, is a case in point for spreading kindness. The man himself is a known philanthropist and a natural partner for the kindness institute in Nigeria, should the institute ever turn its focus on the country.  He founded the Foundation for Ethnic Harmony in Nigeria, FEHN, which has achieved the seemingly impossible by intervening in many conflict resolutions in Nigeria, including the de-escalation of Niger Delta militancy and subsequent training of ex-militants as part of the Amnesty programme of the Yar’Adua administration.

Perhaps, if the Almajiri could be confident that northern elites are truly interested and invested in the Almajiri’s place in modern society, with the benefits and privileges that come with it, they will not be so easily cajoled into criminality and destructive causes that have become a nightmare for the entire country. Same goes for “area boys” and political thugs all over the country. Being neglected and consigned to the fringes of society, these outcasts have, overtime, embodied the manifestation of our lack of empathy and ultra-selfishness as a nation.

Like the Allen Onyemas of Nigeria, Aliko Dangotes of Africa and Bill Gates’ of this world, if ordinary people can commit to promoting peaceful co-existence through random acts of kindness and material or emotional generosity, the world can truly be a better, more tolerable, place for billions of people. Where the kind gestures of billionaires can get lost in the maze of inter-personal suspicion and enmity at ‘ground level’, the missing piece of the puzzle may be our own emotional contributions and small material offerings as ordinary people, towards making a better life for ourselves. God knows that Nigerians need this, perhaps, more than any other group of people that I know.