Someone once said poverty is not lack of knowledge; it is the lack of opportunity.” These were the words of Emmanuel Olawale, a Nigerian practising law in the United States. He spoke at a recent conversation he had with journalists to explain the motivation for his new book, The Flavor of Favor: Quest for the American Dream. A Memoir.
Olawale, who left Nigeria as a teenager, struggled through immense hardship in land of his dreams before attaining a measure of success. The book is his story of grass to grace, of how dire poverty in Nigeria fueled his American dream and how he eventually arrived to pursue it. Having gone through the furnace of hardship, having also competed with white children in their own schools and beating them to top the class, Olawale reveals how he began to shed his inferiority complex, to finally claim his place in his adopted homeland even when he still has his roots firmly planted back in Nigeria.
Also, having lived through two experiences in two diverse societies – Nigeria and the U.S. – Olawale has plenty of insights to give on why success seems to be an American thing as everyone is co-opted into it irrespective of where you come from, so long you have something to offer. He explained reasons for the disparity in prosperity among western countries in comparison to African countries, saying the system here does not encourage competition or innovation that could right the rot in the system for a better country.
Olawale also noted that he did not attain his current level of success by being lazy or discountenancing the importance of starting small and having a strong foundation.
According to him: “My first job was when I was about 14 years old. My parents did not even know about it. I left home early in the morning to go and lift ‘ponpon,’ the kind of labour you do at construction site. What I see in a lot of Nigerians is that we don’t have that sense of dignity in labour; we look down on some kind of things that can build our character.”
Adding, he said, “I did law in the U.S. after my ND in Nigeria in mass communication. They saw that I was at the top of my class at university. So, law schools were sending letters, trying to recruit me as if I was a professional footballer. So, I had over a dozen offers. Some of them were willing to pay the plane ticket and pay hotel bills just to consider me getting into their schools.
“You have to come from a very good background to be recognised, because without people like us, America won’t be America. What they do is, they get people from all over the world, which is why they seem to be the most powerful country. It is not because of the hegemony of the species that are there, but because they ‘pick pocket’ people from most countries and they actually liberate them from everywhere.
“If we do that here, we will see the benefit of it. We have to invest in time; we have to invest in our hearts; we have to invest in education. Because of the mentality that we have that white people are always better; I had that, too, coming from Africa but I discovered that, ‘no, they are not better’ and from then, I took off that mentality that they are not better than us. Because if we can compete on the same platform and I am beating you, then what makes you the better? We need to start appreciating the genius within us. What they normally do over there is that, when they see that someone has potentials, they invest in you without considering where you come from because they know that whatever invention you come up with would still benefit everyone.”
On how he was able to keep his head above waters in his new environment, to study and become what he is, Olawale said, “I would say it was the upbringing that my parents gave me. Teach a child the way he should go, and when he grows up he will not depart from it. I was very practical with the kind of friendships that I kept. I would hang out with the good, the bad and the ugly, but that saying, ‘remember the son of whom you are’ is what has kept me.
“I just had that foundational thought, that you know what? No matter how far away I go, I would always still end up at the top. This was what kept me, knowing where I am from and knowing that there are some things that are expected of me.”
Olawale, who was the first non-American to be nominated as a candidate for judge in Delaware Country, Ohio, said it pays to always remain authentic, adding that people should not lose site of their core values and African culture.
According to him, “We need to hold our culture dear to our hearts and not lose it. An English man is not Yoruba. So going over there, I had that edge over them. I am literate in two languages; I can read and write Yoruba fluently, just as I can read and write English fluently. So, I am better than an average America in that respect. After seeing that, I started embracing my culture and telling others more about where I am from.”