An Evening with Chris Gardner In Abuja

The hype was high but not a few people wondered why MTN was bringing an American millionaire stockbroker to Nigeria. The instruction was to register online for one of the limited free seats reserved for young and upwardly-mobile professionals and entrepreneurs; the target of the Xtra Pro service package which seem not to have hit box office like the Xtra Cool and Xtra Connect packages that provided free all night calls. MTN ostensibly had brought Chris Gardner to improve not just their profile as a socially-responsive firm but also had a target market to capture at the fore of their capitalist agenda. But I had come to listen to Chris Gardner, and had forgotten that in a capitalist milieu like ours, nothing really comes free as we are meant to believe. Hence I paid scant attention to all the seeming self-conceiting talks by MTN’s well-paid marketing executives who took the podium at various points to sell their products and service packages to the enthusiastic crowd of young professionals and business owners.

My ‘first encounter’ with Chris Gardner was by mere chance. I was browsing online sometime in December 2006 when I saw clips of a newly-premiered film “The Pursuit of Happyness” that featured Will Smith and his 4year old son . I was gripped instantly by the emotional bond between the little boy and his dad. Since am not a fan of science fictional films through which Will Smith had become popular in recent times, Will Smith captured my heart in this enactment of the melodrama of another man’s real life experiences. I later bought the month’s edition of Ebony magazine with “Pursuit of Happyness’ as the cover story with excerpts of interviews which featured Will Smith and Chris Gardner respectively. And only a week ago, I had bought a new DVD of Pursuit of Happyness and had watched it with a friend, and had a fruitful and inspiring analysis of the themes that were obviously portrayed in the story.

So when I realized Chris Gardner’s trip to Abuja was no fable after all, I was all the more excited. I registered online and for a couple other friends. Saturday, the 2nd of August is one that I won’t forget in hurry .The weather was cool and the air salubrious and very welcoming. The Infinity Band of the Olori Oko fame thrilled the crowd with a live performance of their award winning songs and a couple other inspiring songs. At some point, I couldn’t help shaking and swaying to the smooth African rhythms they played, but was cautious to not go over the top since it was a gathering of urbane and serious-minded ladies and gentlemen, and not just a show. There was a fashion show with klieg lights of camera flashes intermingling with the yellow hue of MTN to form a perfect backdrop for the eventual entrance of Chris Gardner. And when he indeed stepped up to the podium, everyone forgot about the fine music the Infinity Band had played, and the eclectic fashion designs we had seen earlier.

Dressed in well-fitted suit, Chris Gardner cut the picture of a self-satisfied and confident man. He stood tall and exuded a contagious air of courage and confidence which no one can disparage as being fluke. His well-built frame was an evidence of rigors of exercises to keep trim and fit. His shoulders were broad, his chest bulged out considerably, and the curly ripples of his hypertrophied arm muscles were palpable and visible to all who listened and looked on as he spoke. The good-looking middle-aged man is already a grandfather, yet had the looks and carriage of a fashion model.

Unlike some motivational speakers who dwell on their power of oratory and personal charm, Chris Gardner made no calculated efforts to stir our emotions and lift us to the realm where we believe everything was possible. Rather he shared from his real-life experiences; his travails as a young and unemployed father who battled with working for the sustenance of his wife and 14-month old son, and pursuing his dream of working at Wall Strict. He shared about the pain of not having his biologic father shape his personality and was forced to live with a seemingly irresponsible step-father who repeatedly reminded him that ‘I aint your dad’. The pain of fatherlessness made him resolve to break the ‘cycle of absent fathers’ which is pervasive among the black communities in America. His passion for change are encapsulated in this quote of his; “When I grow up and become a man, I’ll let my kids know who their father is.”

Life is unfair in most parts. We often watch helplessly as our lofty dreams crumble when the avalanche of ill luck, unforeseen circumstances, and misfortune hit our path of destiny. By no fault of his, Chris Gardner dropped from being the assistant of a renowned medical scientist and successful salesman of scientific equipment to a pauper who hardly could pay his rent. His dogged drive to break into Wall Street saw him attend numerous job interviews for a whole year without a success. Yet he had no college degree to tilt the aces to his side in the highly competitive Wall Street he had hoped to break into. Along the line, he accumulated fines for parking at the wrong places and had to choose between paying house rents and bills at the home front, and settling fines for breaking traffic rules. But he would pay dearly in due course.

Chris Gardner warns that unemployment and lack of money are a major threat that make people break their marriage vows. It’s as though ‘love is not enough’ when marriage and raising a family is concerned. He would watch helplessly as his beloved dentist wife turned into a nagging, grouchy, name-calling and ego-deflating woman who mocked and reprimanded him at will, and this resulted to scuffles and unnecessary quarrels that neighbours were privy to. They once called in the police to settle the feuding couple, and following a spot check, the cop discovered the huge and outstanding traffic fines Chris had accumulated. That was enough to earn him a 10-day sojourn in jail which nearly truncated his Wall Street dream. But providence worked in his favour by way of an understanding prison warder who helped him put a call through to a potential employer who agreed to reschedule a job interview internship in a brokerage firm the day he was released from prison. He literally raced to the interview in his ‘prison clothes’ without feeling too embarrassed and told the interview panel the whole truth, and became the first and only black intern among the 20 interns; out of which only one will be selected at the end of the competitive program.

The $1000 monthly salary helped to meet the basic needs of the young family, but not enough to pay the rent, and no sooner he became homeless. To add to his travail, his wife who had chosen to go her own way left him and the burden of catering for a 14-month old son. But he was determined to go the long haul for the sake of the son he loved dearly. Though homeless, he was not hopeless. He and he son slept at ‘rest rooms’ of train stations, at the lounge of airports, until they got a ‘permanent slot’ at the daily “Homeless People Hotel’ which a reverend gentleman ran. He was the only man among numerous women that stood on the queue to get food ration and each day, they trudged around town with their bag stuffed with all their personal effects and assets. While Chris left his son under the care of nannies at the daycare centre, his fingers made repeated circles of dialing to reach potential customers, at the rate of 200 calls per day. The rigours of making the calls to some degree disfigured his two index fingers which acquired a mild valgus deformity like the classical k-leg deformity of the knees. At night, he had to study books on stock broking in order to sit and pass the licensing since he had no college degree to start his career with. Sometimes he studied with lamps and candles when the electricity cut off his light source due to mounting and unsettled bills.

Overwhelmed by the challenges that fate had thrust his way, despair at some point almost began to set in. It was as though his 2 yrs old son at that point had picked up the signals and needed to do something significant to stir hope in the heart of his discouraged dad. The little boy looked into his dad’s eyes and said, ‘Papa, you what? You’re a good papa!” and those words sent Chris Gardner into what he called a state of ‘parental paranoia’ which fired him back to his feet upon realizing that his self-sacrifice was being appreciated by his toddler-son! At some point during their homeless, ladies of the night at the red districts seeing him and the son, out of pity, daily offered his son candies and $5 dollar bills which came as useful lifelines. He found the prostitutes as compassionate and empathic set of people who were sensitive to the needs of his son whose mother had abandoned when the chips were down!

His outstanding performance and hard work as an intern eventually paid off, and he made it as the best intern and was eventually hired. He had displayed the atypical “PSD trait” that Wall Street executives looked out for in potential employees. Chris Gardner was Poor, Smart and had a Desire to succeed and be wealthy. Following his employment, the salary was raised, with 15% commission on deals he was able to seal for the firm. With the new lease of life, he was able to rent an apartment in a ghetto where roses thrived, and with the assistance of a couple of friends, the place was filled with household items with which they made their home a habitable one. His son, who had only known the migratory lifestyle of nomads couldn’t come to terms with the reality and would often ask his dad why they wouldn’t carry their ‘mobile home’ around like they always did. Chris Gardner gradually rode the corporate ladder to become a top figure in Wall Street and a CEO of his Stock Broking Firm with branches in other cities in the US.

Though a successful businessman, Chris Gardner says his greatest achievement is not measured in his net worth or the assets he had garnered over the years. Though his autobiography has sold in thousands of copies in 15 language translations across the world, and the $70m budget movie version of Pursuit of Happyness has raked in millions in royalty and sales. Yet his greatest joy is in breaking the cycle of ‘absent fatherhood’ and in promoting family values; raising sons and daughters who grow up as whole and emotionally sound individuals who know how to be responsible. Chris Gardner has raised a 27years old son who joyfully changes the diapers of his grandchild. To Chris, the most important thing that young men need to be taught about being a man is being responsible. According to him, “sometimes, the best father is a good mother” especially when one has no biological father to look up to like he had experienced.

His mother made so much positive impact in his life that he felt had altered his ‘spiritual genetics’ which helped him break the cycle of poverty and irresponsible fatherhood he was born into. He credits Dr. Maya Angelo as being a positive influence in his life, as well as the reverend who ran the “Homeless Hotel’ who saw Chris as ‘homeless but not hopeless”. The young man who passionately played trumpet hoping to be another Miles Davies never looked back after realizing through his mom that there can only be one Miles Davies in this world. He thus faced his Wall Street passion and dropped the trumpet aside to become a leading stock broker. Now he dines and wines with Will Smith, the highest paid Hollywood actor who gave him a jaw-breaking cheque as a birthday present in recent months. Beyond the stardom and fame that Pursuit of Happiness had brought Chris Gardner’s way, his is a typology of the power of endless possibilities for which the human spirit is able to re-enact when vision is matched with determination to succeed and accompanying hard work. Chris Gardner represents the triumph of hope amidst despair!

At the end of his speech, Chris Gardner took some questions from the audience. But the one question he was wary of answering was on the where about of his ex-wife. And he quipped, “who cares?” and that response to me kind of masked the pain he must have felt about her leaving him when he needed her most in his life. Maybe they would’ve lived happily ever after, had she known that Chris would someday become a celebrity whose life has inspired thousands across the world. We participants had a cocktail afterwards and the deft touches of Nigeria‘s ace producer, pianist and singer, Cobhams Asuquo on the grand piano helped us soak in the life lessons that Chris Gardner had shared with us. And it not be a surprise if a couple of years to come, Cobhams is recongnized as a legend that he truly is. I watched his fingers waltz and glide smoothly from one end of the piano to the other striking pure notes and chords that show he’s a maverick that is in the ilk of Stevie Wonder! Yet he’s blind!

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