My colleague made a remark stating that Africans are ‘naturally friendly’ which led to a debate over if such an attribute is innately African or if it’s simply a result of our environment. Growing up in Aguda, Lagos, we knew all our neighbors; we watched TV, played and dined in their houses. Our neighbors were a crucial part of our social network. Contrastingly, interactions with the neighbors were rare during our time in Washington DC. I could count the number of times I saw them. Given my experience in both continents, I could understand why she would see Africans as innately friendly compared to others in the Western World.
However, being a skeptic of general biologically inherent social attributes, I argued on the side of environmental influence. Simply put, no ethnic group or race is inherently friendly, evil, generous, corrupt etc. One can find a warm Briton as well as find a frosty Nigerian. If it isn’t completely innate, then environmental factors must influence our behaviors; specifically our ‘neighborly’ interactions.
Surely, several socioeconomic factors create structures that frame the extent to which we interact with other individuals, specifically our neighbors. As an average citizen in a developing nation, the chance that one needs something from others is high. One goes to one’s neighbors when one needs something: money, food, malaria tablets, etc. Such needs force a certain level of interaction to occur. In terms of physical proximity, the close-space nature of living quarters instigates interaction. When your neighbor’s door is a foot away from yours, you’re forced to interact. It’s hard to imagine not engaging with one’s neighbor in face-me-I-face-you apartments: it would be particularly awkward…
Conversely, the framework of an affluent society stifles interaction. Rich individuals do not need to request basic amenities from their neighbors as they can easily provide for themselves. Consequently, a frame to pressure one into neighborly fraternizing does not exists. Also, there seems to be a correlation between the wealth of an individual and the size of his/her house. Given the high fences and wide compound of houses in affluent areas, easily running into one’s neighbor is not an option. Several Economists have observed this decline in social capital at a period of economic growth. Halpern (2005) stated that “by almost all measures, social capital declined in the USA over the period from 1960 to 2000…this decline follows an earlier period of growth in US social capital stretching back to the beginning of the twentieth century”. Currently, nations like the US are not known for their neighborly chumminess.
If such a correlation exists, what might we do to hold on to the culture of interaction as we find economic growth? First, make these neighborly values an integral part of culture and it stands a better chance of survival. Why? because we Nigerians are vociferous in our defense of culture; for good and for bad. Hence, when neighborly interaction becomes a norm, it becomes hard to break.
Another solution is the provision of avenues where common interests in an activity serve as the magnet that pulls strangers together: book clubs, hiking clubs. Also, yearly events like Comic Con in San Diego, USA serve as avenues for interaction…In our case, religious bodies –wittingly or unwittingly — also serve as our most frequented social venues. Given our penchant for celebrating every single event, we’re not yet in danger of losing our character of interaction. (Still, the quality of interactions in such celebratory events is up for subjective reviews.) Overall, the quality of life in a developing nation is highly dependent on how individuals aid one another. Since charity begins at home, I’d imagine that it continues to the home next to ours: our neighbor’s. Neighborly interaction as a unitary benchmark of interaction shows that we’re doing good. The question is, for how long?
NB: (Another influential factor is the contrast in time valuation between a developed and developing nation, but that’s a topic for another day.)