Between Italy’s “L’Arte D’Arrangiarsi” and Nigeria’s “Live Within Your Means”
When Elizabeth Gilbert talks about the art of arranging oneself, getting by, or of making do with what is available in her book Eat, Pray, Love, I pause to take in the simplicity and no-worries approach she depicts on the browning pages I hold.
“There’s [a] wonderful Italian expression: l’arte d’arrangiarsi — the art of making something out of nothing,” she writes. “The art of turning a few simple ingredients into a feast, or a few gathered friends into a festival. Anyone with a talent for happiness can do this…” For Italians, the use and popularity of this cultural term finds its place historically in South Italy which was stricken by poverty after the 1861 unification of Italy, its cultural significance evolving as society too evolved. Cucina povera, which literally means “poor cooking” — taking local ingredients and scarce resources to make tasty meals, was common during this period as Italians had to resort to ingenious strategies to meet often many mouths to feed.
The art of making do as its relates to Nigeria is not a strange concept. Everywhere you look, there’s an image of a person or a group making do: the man who goes about occasionally peeping into waste bins for the occasional item that he can sell off; the danfo driver, turning his wheel this way and that in almost-impossible circumstances, trying to make the best time and the most profit; the bread and akara seller whose consistency is one envied by the gods. Except: it is not so much an art, as it is a necessity. No focus lies in the taste and quality one can whip up but in the filling of one’s stomach and how much one can get.
A reality which you would expect to lie in contrast to increasing happiness ratings of Nigerians in the past five years. The World Happiness Report rates the subjective well-being of Nigerians as happier than they were progressively from 2015 at 103 to the latest in 2019 at 85 from a previous ranking of 91. This, despite Nigeria, in 2018, overtaking India — with a population seven times larger than Nigeria — as the country with the most extreme poor people in the world with 6 people falling into poverty every minute.
I immediately recall the President’s call for those found within the geographical confines of the country to “live within your means,” a call that was rightfully met with hostility and the calling out of the hypocrisy present from someone who takes his medical treatments abroad, and successive Nigerian leaders and governments which have mismanaged the country’s vast oil riches through incompetence and corruption.
Arrangiarsi would not find a hard time adapting to the Nigerian lexicon. The phrase is a chameleon, Martha Canneri writes in an article on Popula, often “associated with entrepreneurship, innovation, fashion, cuisine, and art.”
A little bit of Gilbert’s romanticism with this well-quipped Italian phrase is lost as Canneri’s grandma reminds her that this dogged way of being, in harsh circumstances, this way of making do in times of lack also gives way— as the plot of the 1955 film made after this cultural reference also suggests — to “opportunism,” “cunning,” and “disregard for authority”. “Watch it,” she said, “arrangiarsi also means breaking the rules, doing things illegally, finding ways to get around your obligations.”
Bad policies and even worse leadership contribute to give life to the commonly used phrase “Nigeria is actively trying to kill you.” And so in the moments when its president boldly stated in early February (on Valentine’s day for that matter) that “the most comfortable thing is to live within your means and damn the consequences,” in addition to a disregard for the current situation many Nigerians face, Arrangiarsi — assuming it made its way down to Nigeria — just like South Africa’s o jewa ke eng, a phrase which means “what’s bothering you in the local Sesotho dialect but which has been transformed to the meaningless “o kewa je eng” and unpopular opinions, is transformed like everything the country touches. Cucina povera in this state would become less an art in managing unfavourable circumstances and more of an embrace of hardship and sweat which many have now become accustomed to, and rather than recognising coping mechanisms in admitted harsh conditions, it becomes the ideal predicament to live in.
L’arte d’arrangiarsi is a philosophy. But the thing about philosophies here is that they become written in stone and punishments accorded to those who dare pick up a bag to form their own. L’arte d’arrangiarsi is also personal. The person who decides not to make do will not survive and will continue to rain down suffering upon himself and those unfortunate enough to be under his care. It does not serve the country or concern the officials what the business of one is, so long as there are policies make life easier for its citizens, unless motivational speaking is the way things eventually get done, in which case I await a government-endorsed “10 Steps to Financial Freedom”.