What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About

Longreads

Michele Filgate | Longreads | October 2017 | 10 minutes (2,501 words)

Lacuna: an unfilled space or interval; a gap.

Our mothers are our first homes, and that’s why we’re always trying to return to them. To know what it was like to have one place where we belonged. Where we fit.

My mother is hard to know. Or rather, I know her and don’t know her at the same time. I can imagine her long, grayish-brown hair that she refuses to chop off, the vodka and ice in her hand. But if I try to conjure her face, I’m met instead by her laugh, a fake laugh, the kind of laugh that is trying to prove something, a forced happiness.

Several times a week, she posts tempting photos of food on her Facebook page. Achiote pork tacos with pickled red onions, strips of beef jerky just out of the…

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A TRIBUTE FOR TOPE

We all called her Aunty Tope.

In 2013, I rented a shop beside hers in one of the ‘modern’ markets in Lagos State. At that time I was moving back and forth between Lagos and Abuja and needed storage for some of my things. The shop also served as a workshop so my tailors could work whenever they wanted to. I left one set of keys with her so the tailors could have access to the shop. She, therefore, became the informal caretaker of my shop, my eyes and ears in the market.

It was a respectful, unobtrusive relationship, marked by long absences, sometimes of up to five months, on my part. I would send my monthly bills to her and she would pay them diligently and even when I forgot to do so she’d remind me they were due.

Each time I came back to Lagos, I would clean out my shop and throw out things, and leave them by my door. I assumed there were people who cleaned the market at the beginning or end of each day. Unknown to me Aunty Tope was the one throwing out my trash and keeping the front of my shop clean whenever I wasn’t around. She did it all without complaining. When I found out there were no cleaners in the market I was remorseful and grateful at the same time. I expressed my gratitude to her but she told me not to worry, that it didn’t matter.

She was reserved yet friendly and accommodating, and so her shop was a constant going and coming of people, some to buy things and others just to sit, refresh and talk. She would call out greetings and she would reply to greetings in turn. She had none of that ‘pepper bodi’ that we associate with market women. I never saw or heard that she had an altercation with anybody.

Two years ago, a certain fracas had come up in our national space with Igbos at the centre of it. I was in Lagos at that time and as I walked into the market, there were people in Tope’s shop, as was usual. I was acquainted and even friends with some of them, but they were all saying things that drove a knife through my heart, things that were at best wild assumptions and generalizations. But I noticed that Tope did not join the conversation. She must have known it would hurt my feelings if she joined the others in castigating Igbos. Most importantly, she must have known that sometimes it is best to maintain a silence no matter how many words you have in your mouth.

I didn’t know the details of her personal life and she didn’t know much about mine, but in all our interactions she was well spoken and came across as educated. I would later find out she had an HND from one of the polytechnics in the West yet while some of us chased our dreams and pursued the bright lights, she was content to sit in her shop, day after day, week after week, year after year, selling biscuits and drinks, stationery, garri, sugar, razor blades and such items. She was the first to arrive every day and one of the last to leave.

In the past couple of years, the local government had been issuing notices that it wanted to demolish and rebuild the market. This year the call became stronger so, on the 10th of August, I travelled to Lagos to arrange for my things to be moved out. As I walked towards our line, there she was, sitting in her usual place. She sighted me and screamed, “See Aunty Vivian o!” That was her usual reaction whenever she saw me. The next would be, “You have added o.”

With the demolition of the market drawing closer, she was said to have become very anxious. She confided in a friend that she had no money to rent another shop and didn’t know where to start from. This may have triggered a series of health-related issues which culminated in her developing a high blood pressure.

This calls to mind the arbitrary demolitions that go on in Nigeria. From public libraries and parks, estates and markets, our state governments exhibit the highest forms of executive high-handedness when they demolish and rebuild public infrastructure, with no other aim than to enrich themselves and their cronies. They eventually become the new owners of these ‘improved’ properties with rents pegged at prices that are too exorbitant for the former occupiers, most times men and women from lower income groups.

I was told Tope had attended a party where she looked forward to re-uniting with old friends and class mates. Right there, she slumped and the battle to save her life began. Her blood pressure was more than 300 when she was brought in to the hospital. She went in and out of coma. She was eventually moved from the private hospital where she was to a government-owned one. With the quality of health care available in our country it was inevitable that Tope would die.

And so on Wednesday 20th of September, one more star was extinguished from our galaxy. She was buried the following day, in a shallow grave, shrouded in white cloth. Those who attended the interment said her grave was not more than three feet deep, in one of the small, less-known cemeteries on the Lagos mainland where grave robbery is not uncommon. That is how the one who gathered men and women to herself was buried. Even as I type this, her body may have been carved up already, its parts harvested and sold to the highest bidders, her large heart taken by people who have no heart.

Tope, you deserved to be buried like a queen.

But I understand her family had no money again after paying her hospital bills for almost a week. So there was no coffin, no obsequies, no entertainment, just a lot of tears and a pastor standing at the edge of the grave, intoning prayers to the dead.

I still see her in my mind’s eye. She was always well dressed and well made-up, and during my January-February visit, she wore a turban on most days, a different one to match her outfits. She loved ‘native’ and each time I was to travel to Lagos I would plan to buy Ankara for her from Wuse market, even if it was one piece. Obviously, I postponed it too many times.

I regret that I did not appreciate her as much as she deserved.

We are all sad – all who knew her. But we will not mourn like those who have no hope. We will exchange our tears for memories of her.

She is a queen, always.

 

Two Days in Athens

In the beginning.

In March 2017 I had seen a post on Facebook announcing a conference called ‘Biafra’s Children, A Gathering of Survivors.’ I sent a message to the convener telling him about the project I started to document eye witness accounts of the Nigeria-Biafra war. All I wanted was visibility for the project through their website and any related publications. But a couple of emails and days later, I was invited to participate at the conference. It was a memorable two days in Athens.

Wednesday 28th June, 2017.

I am sitting alone at the departure lounge waiting to board my flight to Istanbul, my feelings wavering between excitement and apprehension. The flight is scheduled for 11.40 pm but we eventually leave an hour later.

There are no dramas on board, except that the seat next to me has been taken over by a pregnant woman with a different seat number. The rightful owner of the seat is not very happy but the Air Hostess settles it quickly and we are assigned new seats.

It is morning, and a different world, when we arrive in Turkey. While looking for my boarding gate, I get acquainted with three Nigerians travelling to Belarus. Afterwards, I look for a place where I can rest and observe the world.

I’m captivated by the way Turkish women dress. I notice there are many groups of children and I wonder where they are all headed to. There are many Muslims too, all clothed in white. I think they are going to perform the Hajj. It’s a long wait and I find myself seated opposite a group of French Muslims – some black, others Arab – travelling together. They speak little English and I speak little French, but we make conversation, clumsily, with a lot of hand gestures. The young man beside me says he wants to marry me. We both laugh. I think he’s just teasing. We all talk some more and I eventually take my leave to locate my gate. I am glad I took my leave because my flight is almost boarding. I have been looking at my phone which is still indicating Nigerian time.

Thursday, June 29, 2017.

Two hours later we are in Athens.

A stocky man with a prominent nose is holding up a piece of white paper with my name on it. I flash a smile and he smiles back.

Are you George, I ask.

I already know his name from the mail I was sent with a list of contact and support persons for the conference. He loads my suitcase in his car and as we drive away he apologises about the weather. There’s a heat wave in Athens and temperatures are above 35 degrees today. We talk about their economy and the refugee crisis. I feel as though I’ve been here before – the roads, the plants and hedges, the ‘Okada’ and its rider at the traffic junction are all familiar.

I ask him about the island of Corfu, a magical place I had read about in ‘My Family and Other Animals,’ by Gerald Durrell. He says his father is from Corfu and he can take me there if I want. I want to but I can’t. The conference schedule is tight.

I ask him about Skopios, Aristotle Onassis’s island. He lets out a laugh. You know Onassis? Yes, I say, I have read a lot about him – his stupendous wealth, his famous yatch named after his daughter, Cristina and especially, his marriage to Jackie Kennedy. George’s smile grows wider as I speak.

He points out landmarks and even parks on the highway for me to take photographs of the city – a sea of white buildings with brown roofs. He drops me off at President Hotel, still smiling and waving.

The Greeks are warm and friendly.

***

I try to nap but I can’t. So I go down to the lobby where I recognize some of the other participants. We get acquainted.

An event has been fixed for this evening. It’s a visit to the Museum of Contemporary Art to see Olu Oguibe’s Time Capsule of books and memorabilia from the Nigeria -Biafra war. He’s the convener of the Biafran Children’s Conference and one of the artists participating in documenta14.

I am tired and my ears are aching. But I’m glad I attended. There are jaw-dropping installations by other artists. It’s incredible what the human mind can conceive.

Afterwards we climb to the roof top. The sun is setting but we can see the city spread out before us. The Acropolis is in the distance and on the walls of a building somebody has written, ‘Welcome and Enjoy the ruins.’

Dinner turns out to be a spread of salads, bread, sardines, olive oil and other fare I barely recognize. There’s wine too. The Greeks love their wine. Afterwards, others want to go to a Nigerian restaurant. I even hear somebody mention Isi Ewu. It sounds interesting but all I want to do is nurse the ache in my left ear.

Faith and I take a taxi back to the hotel.

Sleep comes easily.

****

Friday, June 30, 2017.

Nigerians will say, ‘Traveling without sight-seeing, is that one traveling?’

I am determined to make the most of the two days, so after breakfast, I disappear. First, to documenta14 Press Office, to edit my presentation. And then to the tourist area around the Kidathineon and Adrianou. Tourists are milling about. The paved, narrow streets are lined on both sides by faded white buildings housing shops and cafes. There’s planting everywhere. Artefacts, clothes, books, jewellery, house hold items and much more are on sale. The ambience is traditional and modern all at once.

I hurry from shop to shop, taking in the sights, taking photos, asking questions. This particular shop keeper has a toothy smile. He’s tanned a dark brown and has an accent that sounds American. I am curious. He says the British think he’s American while the Americans thinks he’s British. We both laugh. English is my default language, perhaps that’s why you sound American to me, I say. He tells me he’s Greek, grew up in South Africa and lived in the US. He wraps my purchase while we chat some more.

The entire tour takes me about one hour. The conference starts in a couple of hours.

I head out to the taxi stand but first, something cold to drink. And a selfie.

Tonight’s speakers are Olu Oguibe, Okey Ndibe, EC Osondu,  Philip Effiong, Faith Adiele and Obi Okigbo.

****

Saturday, July 1, 2017.

Butterflies are fluttering in my stomach. I will them to stop.

We have planned to see some of Greece’s cultural and historical sights, and after breakfast we set off for the Acropolis, an ancient citadel that sits above the city of Athens. It’s one of Athens’ most popular tourist attractions and houses the ruins of ancient temples some of which were built in 473 BC. The most popular is the Pathernon which is dedicated to Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, war and crafts.

The ruins are engineering and architectural wonders.

Tourists are warned to thread carefully because the path leading to the ruins are worn smooth by human traffic. The sun is scorching but the place is teeming with tourists.

I am in awe the whole time.

The day flies by. The butterflies in my stomach are quiet. I think the tour of the acropolis has helped to dispel my anxiety.

***

This evening, I and Emeka Kupenski Okereke, Berlin-based visual artist, photographer and film maker will talk about the work we are doing to preserve the memories of Biafra, mine through stories and his, through images and films. Our session is called ‘Generations and Legacies; Retrieving Biafra’s Memories.’

We arrive at Parko Eleftherias. Group photos are taken. Sound checks and everything else in order.

“Who is going first?” I ask.

“You,” Emeka says.

“No, you,” I say.

We both laugh.

I take my place, reluctant to make eye contact with the audience lest I see the disappointment on their faces. I start to speak, telling them how it all started in 2016 – the Facebook posts that ignited my interest and my resolve to look for survivors, to document their experiences, to help break the silence about Biafra.

I talk about some of the stories in the collection, about the brave men and women who embody them, who bear the emotional and physical scars of war, whose lives demonstrate the resilience of the human spirit.

When I finish, I hear applause. There are questions from the audience and Emeka takes his turn.

It wasn’t as scary as I thought.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Afterwards, as we interact with the audience, two ladies walk past me on their way out. I thank them for coming and give each of them a hug. A few minutes later, I see them back in the hall and walking towards me. One of them says they have something to tell me. We find a seat.

She tells me their family had lived in Lagos but when the war started they fled. They say their father is still alive and would be delighted to talk to me. I am leaving the next day but I ask if I can come over in the morning. They won’t be in, she says, so we exchange phone and Skype numbers. I thank them for reaching out and promise to call.

Dinner was a big deal – so much food and laughter. Afterwards, those who had early flights to catch left. The rest of us strolled back to the hotel which was close by. The lobby was empty of guests so we sat there, gisting, till about 3.00 am. We were all tired and sleepy, but ‘goodbye’ is a difficult word.

****

Sunday; July 2, 2017.

My head is foggy but I drag myself to the bathroom.

My flight is by 3.35 pm.

Most of the others have left, so it’s just me and Faith. She’s a teacher and memoirist and the first day we arrived I told her about my journey into writing.

Breakfast is the usual spread – varieties of breads, cakes, cheese, butters, eggs, bacons, fruits, cold and warm beverages. I’m happy to see Faith at the restaurant and we agree to meet at the swimming pool in an hour’s time.

The pool is located on the 21st floor and a few people are lounging around on deck chairs. Others are in the water. Coming from the tropics, I am used to high temperatures, but this is extreme. In spite of it, I wonder why anybody would want to sit or swim under such intense heat. Then I remember they may be coming from places where sun is a luxury.

Faith and I chat a bit and I take photographs. The height is dizzying but the view is great – buildings look clustered, streets are barely-discernible, awnings provide dashes of color to a landscape of mostly-white houses and brown roofs.

We say our good byes.

                                                                           ***

Back in my room, my suitcase is packed. I have a few more hours on my hands and I contemplate dashing out to explore the neighborhood. But I realize I am still sleepy. I fall into bed fully clothed. Sometime later I jump up in a panic. It’s almost 1.00 pm and George will be here by 1.30pm.

A quick look around the room confirms that everything is packed. My travel documents are in a purse slung across my body.

I’m in the lobby sending a mail when the entrance door swings open and George bounds in. He’s beaming as he approaches me. Is this all, he asks, grabbing my suitcase. I say yes and he heads out to the car. A few minutes later, we’re racing to the airport.

Did you enjoy your trip, he asks. I said I did but it was too brief. We talk some more and 30 minutes later we drive up to the lot in front of Turkish Airlines. He brings out my luggage and we shake hands. Please come back another time, he says, and bring your children with you. I tell him I will.

He enters his car and pulls away, still smiling and waving.

 

TRAIN RIDES AND DOG BITES

Abroad people,

Oya come and see o!

It’s not only you people that have nice trains. See our own here. Kaduna to Abuja. We’re not easy. I entered it this morning. Life!! In fact, Federal government of Nigeria wanted to finish us today.

At Kaduna airport, there were free buses conveying people to Abuja. Many buses like that. Come and see people boarding. But me, I wanted to experience the train service as I never enter train for Naija before.

As I lingered at the exit, unsure of what to do, a man in uniform asked where I was going. When I said I wanted to take the train to Abuja, he said there were free buses conveying people to the station but it had already left with passengers. Another man approached me and said he was a cab driver. I asked him how far the station was. He said not too much. This was about 8.20am and ‘not too much’ could turn out to be a one hour ride. We argued back and forth, then I said, “Let’s go.” His name was Mohammed and his car was a small, black Golf car. He was speeding as though he was on a race track, while at the same time cussing other drivers for driving too fast. The road became very gravel-ly at a point and I feared he’d lose control of the steering. I kept exclaiming, “Take it easy o, take it easy o,” and he kept replying, “Don’t worry madam. I know the road very well.”

We arrived at the station in one piece. A man in a kaftan with a green apron over it [great fashion sense there!] grabbed my suitcase and we ran up the stairs. I thrust out my ticket, they waved me through and I ran into the coach that was reserved for passengers coming from the airport. At exactly 9.09 a.m. the train pulled off.

Clean, spacious coaches. Air conditioned. Television sets. Windows with nice blinds. Two ladies selling snacks [even though I was hungry and wanted food]. Nice scenery outside. But, sha, the train was slow. Two whole hours, same amount of time it would have taken to go by road. I forgot to mention the heavy presence of gun-toting security personnel – Mopol, Police, Army, Civil Defence, sniffing dogs. Every coach had about two security personnel manning it, all looking professional and non-threatening.

A lovely experience altogether but a sharp contrast to the Port Harcourt-Aba service which a friend had used in December, 2016. According to the account which she posted on her Facebook timeline, what would have been a comfortable ride was marred by over-crowded coaches and smelly toilets! There was also no first class coach. It had been moved to Enugu because there was more money to be made on that route.

We arrived Kubwa in Abuja at about 11.00 am.

But it won’t be Naija if there had been no drama to cap the day. No be us again? We no dey carry last naa. As we alighted at Kubwa, a scream rang out. Shouts. Loud voices. Hurried movements. A young woman was lying on the ground, un-speaking, eyes wide, one leg bleeding. It turns out that a dog owned by the Civil Defence had pushed her down and sunk its teeth into her leg. You could see the set of teeth marks against her flesh. The dog and its handler stood close by, with the handler looking surprised? shocked? afraid? I can’t give words to the look on his face. The dog – a black and brown mix whose breed I can’t put a name to – was…well…just being a dog – straining against its leash, tongue out, barking, perhaps angry that it wasn’t allowed to finish what it started. A girl of about five years old, who seemed to have witnessed the attack, was crying softly as she clutched her father’s hand. I heard somebody say, “This is the second time…” He didn’t continue but I put two and two together. Seems like the Civil Defence has very exuberant dogs. Or maybe, as my sister said when I narrated the incident to her, the dog hadn’t been fed!

A crowd had gathered around the young lady and in typical Naija way, advice about what she should do or not do was flying around for free. A day of freebies indeed. But that is one of the things I love about us – the way we rally round people in need even if they’re strangers. At such times, you can bet there’d be a pick pocket hovering around but there would be many other people offering help and comfort. Me sef, I follow put mouth. I approached a man who looked like the oga and told him they needed to take her to a hospital for anti-tetanus injection. But an elderly Hausa man, who was visibly upset at the incident, didn’t quite agree. “Not tetanus,” he said vehemently. “Let her take anti-rabid, if not, it will enter her head and she will start barking like a dog.” It wasn’t funny but I smiled.

Back to the lady, a Mobile Police man was massaging the bleeding leg. Then, he started to wipe the blood off with a dirty rag. I expected somebody to appear with a sachet of pure water, bite off the tip and give the lady to drink. You know us nau. When people have been involved in accidents or similar situations, somebody go just take small water wash their face, come pour the rest for their head. Sigh! Dear fellow Nigerians, water is not first aid. When people are going through trauma, please keep them warm so they don’t go into shock.

I fished out my almost-finished roll of tissue paper and gave the girl’s mother/aunt. [Thank God for the contents of a woman’s bag.] The Mopol asked for tissue to wipe the blood off his hands. I said, “No. You don’t need tissue. You need to wash your hands thoroughly.” He went away but not before looking at me one-kind. Soon, a woman in a green apron appeared with a first-aid kit and set to work. Oga-looking bros was appealing to the crowd for calm. People started to disperse. I picked up my luggage and waked away.

 

 

 

THE LANGUAGE OF LOVE

First Published February 14, 2016.

The language of love has changed in so many ways. In the past it was spoken with subtlety and something close to reverence. Now, it is loud and brash, and begs to be heard.

In the conservative society where I grew up in South Eastern Nigeria, public expressions of affection were uncommon. Hugs and kisses were private affairs, even among the married. Judging by their dedication and commitment to each other, there was no doubt in anybody’s mind that most couples loved each other. They just didn’t expressed those feelings openly. When I think back now, I remember only two couples who didn’t appear inhibited around each other, even in public. The first were the parents of my sister’s friend; the second, in-laws. I remember how, after I’d seen the later at a wedding, smiling and holding hands, I had regaled my sisters with the details of this unusual behaviour. These in-laws became a reference point for me for a long time afterwards.

In many homes, friendships were censored and friends of the opposite sex were not encouraged to visit.  Therefore, for most teenagers and young adults, even the most casual of such friendships involved a lot of ducking and dodging, cultivated via a number of ingenious ways such as letters smuggled through a younger sibling or coded cat calls bidding a girl to come to the back yard. This, of course, depended on the layout of your house and most of the ones in my neighbourhood were 60’s-style bungalows set in large compounds bordered by hedges of cherries, fruit trees and, sometimes, vegetable gardens. This provided the ideal cover for such outings.

Visits were planned with a lot of secrecy and executed with stealth. If your beau was a big boy – read: one of those allowed to drive their daddy’s Peugeot 404, 405, Passat or any of the models in vogue at the time – he’d be parked at a pre-arranged place, usually on a quiet street where the chances of being seen were slim. Before you got to the rendezvous, you’d make all kinds of detours, look over your shoulder a million times, your heart thumping with both the pain and sweetness of anxiety and excitement. You’d get in the car and sit down, praying that nobody would see you. There would be no holding of hands and no touching, just some bland conversations about school and your siblings and “are your parents at home?”

There were not as many entertainment centers in town as they are now and cinema halls, those ugly buildings whose walls were always a collage of peeling paint and posters of Indian films, were not the kind of places kids like us wanted to, or even dared to, be seen at. Besides there were no mobile phones, Facebook and other forms of social media – mediums that encourage and proliferate the expression of thoughts and feelings. So, apart from parties, holiday lessons and church, we teenagers had few virtual or real spaces where we could mingle and socialize. We were indeed stifled, but it wasn’t by choice.

Our world has evolved and every Valentine’s Day provides a new opportunity to wear our affections on our sleeves. The chocolates, cakes and flowers; the expensive and not-so-expensive gifts; the hugs and kisses in public places; the romantic get-aways; the man who fell on his knees at a shopping mall, as he presented his female companion with an engagement ring – these are all testimonies that the language of love now roars.

As the proud owner of a fresh flower business in the early 2000’s, I was naturally sucked into this social and cultural evolution in Nigeria, and Lagos in particular. I was a willing participant in the dramas that played out on the turf, doing most deliveries myself, an assistant in tow. So, every year, unfazed by the crazy traffic snarls that always almost marred the day, my team and I would deliver bouquets of gorgeous, long-stem roses to individuals and organisations.

It was risky business. I got my supply locally, from people who bought from farms in Jos, Kenya and South Africa. Sometimes the flights came late; sometimes not at all. And, because I would already have received orders from clients, I would be rushing all over town looking for somebody, anybody at all, who’d sell roses to me. In spite of the madness, I loved every minute of it.

It’s been a long time now and I’m no longer in that line of business, but a few memories from those days remain with me. I remember delivering a bouquet of flowers to a female student of the University of Lagos Medical School, courtesy of a young man who was wooing her. Very early that morning we stood in front of her door with the bouquet. Speechless, she stared at us while her roommates squealed and cheered. It was a novelty at the time – this gifting of flowers by a Naija man.

For many years, the Commissary of the American Embassy Recreation Association ordered our flowers. The day I delivered my first order, the manager – a woman called Lilian – was standing in front of the shop as we drove in, beaming. Days later, she’d tell me, “You made a lot of people happy.” That made me happy too.

We sold roses to La Scala Restaurant at the Muson Centre, Onikan. We supplied single stems to advertising agencies who, in those days, used to organise valentine gigs for their clients. Every lady at the show would receive a stem wrapped in red ribbon. One year, we had a stand at Frenchies on Akin Adesola Street, Victoria Island. Another year, we were at Big Treat on Opebi Road. Men bought flowers for their wives and girlfriends. A woman I know bought a few stems for her husband. I thought that was odd but hey! everybody has their unique language for the season.

These days, if the celebration falls on a week day, pupils and students wear a touch of red to school. They come with gifts for friends. Church sermons focus on love, marriage and sex. Radio stations play love songs the whole day. Boutiques and shops make brisk sales in clothes, underwear, shoes, perfumes, Teddy bears and all manner of gifts. Restaurants, bars and clubs woo prospective customers with juicy offers. Singles-Only parties give hope to the unattached. Celebrities spend the day with orphans and the less privileged. Hotels and Tour companies advertise romantic get-aways for two.

Last year, I hung out with two of my female friends at a bar that was bursting at the seams with people. We sat in a corner of its dim, but plush, interiors, watching couples – young and old, married and un-married – come and go. It was election period so we talked politics, ate chips and chicken, had some drinks and took selfies.

And all the time, I kept thinking of how much we’ve made the acts associated with love more important than love itself; how, in spite of all the efforts people make to keep marriages alive, recent sociological studies still claim that many do not survive the first ten years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A CLOSE BRUSH WITH DEATH

No, it wasn’t my own death but it may as well have been because it shook me up badly.

On the 28th of October, 2016, around 3.00 pm, I was in my office on the second floor of an office complex near the Uthako Modern Market in Abuja, when I started to hear shouting. It sounded jubilant – with a rise and fall to it – the sort of noise men make when their favourite football club is winning a match. I was curious but I was busy. Twenty minutes later and the noise hadn’t died down. I got apprehensive and decided to go downstairs and explore.

A mob was in action and I had never seen one before. Made up mostly of traders from the nearby market and other small businesses in the vicinity, they were booing, jeering and pushing a young lady around. Some were beating her and attempting to tear off her clothes. Their grouse? She was wearing a short dress that had the extra audacity of being slit at the sides. They decided to shame her and may have done worse if luck wasn’t on her side.

In front of me, a man paced up and down as he ran a commentary about girls of nowadays. Other people stood in small groups, gesticulating wildly, talking and analysing the situation, but offering no help, in that way that is typical of Nigerian spectators. “It’s good for her. Next time she won’t wear that rubbish again,” someone said. “All these ashawo girls,” another person concluded.

For about three minutes I looked around helplessly, then I saw two policemen standing in front of the Zenith Bank located opposite the market. They were watching the spectacle, unperturbed. I walked over to them and, with my voice lowered, pleaded with them to go after the girl. Without hesitating, as though they were waiting for an order, they went after the mob which had, by then, surged down the road with the hapless girl in their midst. I followed behind the policemen, trying to look un-obtrusive. Somehow, the girl broke free of her captors and ran into Royal Tropicana Hotel, two blocks away. By the time we got there, the security men at the hotel said she was safely inside. I turned back, close to tears.

On my way back, I ran into one of the cleaners at my office complex. She had witnessed everything and this is what she told me: she’d been waiting to make a withdrawal from the ATM machine in front of Zenith Bank when the scantily-dressed lady joined the queue. Apparently offended by her dressing, a man started to abuse her verbally and threatened to beat her up. Other people at the ATM intervened but the noise had already attracted more people. The girl tried to escape to safety but she was out- numbered. As the crowd bore her away, the cleaner ran after the crowd and threw her scarf over the young lady.

Back in my office, I was filled with a mixture of anger, fear and sadness. I couldn’t concentrate any longer. I remembered a video I’d seen on Facebook two days previously. It had caught my attention because some of the men in it were speaking my Owerri dialect. The video showed a woman being paraded by a mob. She was completely naked and there was blood on her face and breasts. She also had a black eye which she kept touching. Somebody was trying to put a tyre over her head but she kept pushing it away. They pushed her down on her back, spread her legs and some of them brought out their phones. I couldn’t watch any longer. I started to imagine, again, how Madam Bridget was stoned to death by a mob of Muslim fanatics in Kano. I remembered the Aluu 4. Even though I’d refused to watch the video of their murder, I had heard that people were watching and recording while it went on.

It’s a shame that cultural and religious sentiments influence people’s understanding and demands for justice. It is also hypocritical that people compartmentalize morality; that traders, who usually sell fake products to customers [among other sharp practices] would bristle with moral indignation at what they consider inappropriate dressing. It is important to note that in markets in most parts of Nigeria, Christians start to pray by 12.00 pm. Muslims are also known to observe prayers several times a day. I hate to think that those supposedly “righteous” traders, who made up the bulk of that mob, would have maimed or killed that young lady, washed the blood off their hands and gone back to their businesses, justified that they’d done the right thing. I have since wondered if their reactions would be the same if a man walks down that same street, dressed in only shorts. I doubt that, except for some sneering and snide remarks, anybody would challenge him.

I hate what many Nigerians have become. Even animals show an abhorrence for certain behaviour towards their own kind.

It is sad that these barbaric incidents recounted here are not isolated cases. It’s a very sad commentary on Nigeria – a reflection of a people’s frustration at the inefficiency and nonchalance of those employed to protect them. Government’s claims at Police reforms have not translated to a Police force that is maximally trained and equipped to protect lives and property, and preserve the rights and dignities of Nigerian citizens. Most of all, they have not translated to a Police force that is well remunerated. Therefore, what Nigerians have to contend with is a corruption-ridden, ill-equipped, grossly underpaid, in-disciplined force, policing an angry, disenchanted people who consider jungle justice swifter and surer than traditional routes.

While it is futile, and even foolhardy, for an un-armed person to attempt to argue with an angry mob, we can decide to, collectively, step up agitation for Police reforms.

#StopTheMobs

#NoToJungleJustice

#ReformThePolice

#Re-orientateThePolice

#StopPoliceNonchalance

#SaveOurLives

You don get alert?

Yesterday evening, I entered a keke in front of Uthako market, Abuja and, emblazoned in gold letters on the operator’s white, long-sleeve top were the words, ‘I DONE GET ALERT.’ Immediately, I whipped out my phone and took a photograph because one doesn’t see these funny sights everyday.

It was a five minute ride to my stop but I smiled all the way, not just because of the  words printed on the fabric, but because the said fabric was padded and quilted and had a rubbery look to it and all I could think about at that moment was space suits!

For a moment, I wondered if the young man was literate and knew the meaning of those words, but I needn’t have worried because when I got down and saw the same words printed across his chest, I pointed and smiled. He beamed back and I knew that he knew. Which Nigerian wouldn’t, anyway?

Thanks to our dear Korede Bello, his song with the same title got the whole country dancing a couple of years ago. These same words must be the wish and prayer of many in Nigeria today, what with the current economic situation.

As uncomfortable as it is, there’s nothing like public transportation to expose you to the sights and sounds of a town. But then, who would have thought that tricycles would become so popular in Nigeria? When they made their debut on our roads, we scoffed at them and said they were too unsafe and how could we be caught dead in them, seeing as they were used by the very poor in India and other third-world countries. But guess what? They have almost completely displaced the okadas, those arrogant menaces that rule our roads. [If you haven’t had an encounter with an okada man before, you won’t understand this part, so just waka pass!]

However, the difference between the keke drivers and their okada counterparts, is that kekes are hampered by technology and so, are unable to exhibit the kind of speed and dare-devilry that is the trade mark of their okada brothers. Instead, they just lumber along on those three tiny tyres, looking as though they’ll topple over the next moment. Like okada riders, Keke operators range from the young to the middle-aged, from the uncouth to the gentle and well behaved, from the illiterate to the educated. They tell you the craziest, most out-of-the-world stories and when they’re in a good mood, you can actually have the most illuminating conversations with them.

So, you don get alert today? Me, I never get o.

keke napep 2

THE UN-ENDING DEBATES ABOUT WRITING

Vivian Ogbonna's Blog

Writing is scary, even if fulfilling, and many writers – emerging and established – will attest to this. To further burden this apprehension with do’s and dont’s about how and what writing should be seems like such a waste of time and energy. Is it possible that every writer will perceive the world the same way? And write about it in the same way? And what way would be the best way, anyway? That we don’t find a book enjoyable should not, in any way, detract from its literary merits.  This is what Chukwudi Peter Eboka has to say.

“We need to put to rest this tired literary debate about writing style and theme that continuously plagues African literature. In the first place what exactly is African literature? As far as I am concerned there is only literature. On the one hand Noviolet writes a book and it is poverty…

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THE UN-ENDING DEBATES ABOUT WRITING

Writing is scary, even if fulfilling, and many writers – emerging and established – will attest to this. To further burden this apprehension with do’s and dont’s about how and what writing should be seems like such a waste of time and energy. Is it possible that every writer will perceive the world the same way? And write about it in the same way? And what way would be the best way, anyway? That we don’t find a book enjoyable should not, in any way, detract from its literary merits.  This is what Chukwudi Peter Eboka has to say.

“We need to put to rest this tired literary debate about writing style and theme that continuously plagues African literature. In the first place what exactly is African literature? As far as I am concerned there is only literature. On the one hand Noviolet writes a book and it is poverty porn, they roll out the drums and say our stories have too many mud huts and bicycles and mention Harmattan once too often, do something else and they gong about calling it eurocentric prose, western mimicry. Biko please what is it that you people want. A writer writes spare they say it is uninspiring, another writes purple and they say if your grandmother cannot understand you are being false. You italicize they scream and they shout, and yet i’m reading Annie Proulxs’ Barkskins and its native Indian is heavily italicized. Sometimes a strange word is just a strange word, an italic merely hinting at that. It doesn’t have to be a socio-political statement, the decision to italicize or not.

Why do we burden creatives, African creatives in particular with these singular ideas of what good writing is. Why do we set them in this jig with our oftentimes rather contradictory opinions? How about we just let writers write. I just read Boyi, Gloria Minages’ writivism story with its heavily italicized vernacular and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I read Coetzee who rarely engages these devices just as pleasurably. Are these not two African writers, or is Coetzee two time Booker winner not African because he is white? Have they both not given me great joy with their art?

I’ve read Pnin and Lolita, Nabokovs densely written books at least twice each, delirious every time from his artful wield of the language. This takes nothing away from Chimamanda or Khaled Hosseini with their lighter airier styles.

Every writer has a history, a pool of experiences and reading backgrounds that has forged their craft and set their voices. It is a disservice to our collective enjoyment to insist that one must write as the other. Or to tag one as authentically african and the other as not.

Good writing announces itself just as loudly as bad writing does. Its usually quite easy to tell the difference. This should be the only distinction allowed, though in itself is rather subjective.

You can’t read all the books already written, and written only in your lifetime if you had two lifetimes.

If you don’t like an authors voice, theme, or style, please go back to the bookstore and buy another book.”

Juliane Okot Bitek: 100 Days of hell’s anomie

Ikhide

History matters. There are many ways to commemorate, to memorialize communal horror. All over the world, memorials and museums stand sentry to history, to various times when the darkness within seemed to overwhelm humanity and throw up the unmentionable like the holocaust, Biafra, Bosnia, and now Rwanda. Yes, over twenty years ago, in 1994, beginning in April, within a span of 100 horrible, blood-drenched days, the Hutu took machetes and other crude implements of savagery and hatred and hacked down approximately one million Tutsis (and moderate Hutus). Those who are strangely not familiar with this sordid aspect of world history should read this primer by the BBC on the genocide. The thinker Wandia Njoya (@wmnjoya on Twitter) also has an incisive piece that situates the genocide in its proper context and assigns appropriate responsibility to all the players in this horror of horrors.

 History matters. There are many ways…

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