Sunday, April 26, 2015

Gwoza: After Liberation

Photo: Nigeria Defense Forces
It’s been a month since the Nigerian Army launched an offensive in Gwoza that freed roughly 400 woman and girls, who had been held captive by Boko Haram militants. Yet, even with the heavy army presence, fear remains pervasive and ever present in the faces of residents.

Boko Haram’s reign in the area seems to have robbed children of their care-free innocence, for none can be found playing in the vast sandy outdoors.

Silence lurks at every corner. Gwoza is virtually a ghost town.

It is here, in the home of her best friend, that 21 year-old Aisha Lawal retells a story she’d rather forget. She speaks in clipped, frightened whispers, like she fears the walls would reveal her story to her assailants.

“They did things to me that were inhumane – things you wouldn’t even do to a goat,” she says with sadness in her voice. “I was in the market buying some foodstuff the day they arrived. We were ambushed, the men slaughtered, then they gathered all the women and girls. Those who resisted were killed without any hesitation.

“Then they went from house to house shooting indiscriminately, before finally taking us to a large compound with several huts.”

Asked if the Chibok girls were in the compound, she says she wasn’t sure, but that there were some women and girls tied to a tree when she arrived.

“I guess they were from neighboring villages, because they weren’t faces I recognized.”

Aisha’s 3 month ordeal began in this compound. She said on the evening she was captured, she and several women in her group were married off to the militants.

“It didn’t seem real at first, until I was dragged into one of the huts and raped. Initially, I resisted, but gave up after he hit me several times in the head,” she mumbles amid tears.

Aisha’s best friend, Miriam, is now holding her friend’s hands. She is one of the lucky ones who wasn’t kidnapped, though her mum wasn’t lucky.

“When they came to my house, I hid in chicken barn at the back. My mom was in the market, and was taken with the rest of them,” she says. 

These are the only words Miriam speaks, and it wasn’t until moments later that her uncle Husein Ibrahim, volunteers that her mom was among the dead found in a shallow well.

“I doubt she believes it, but it’s true,” Husein remarks almost inaudibly, holding back tears. I was the one who identified my sister. Why would anyone do such a horrible thing to a human being?”

So far, some families have reported missing relatives, who may or may not be dead. And with bodies rapidly decomposing as a result of the sweltering heat, the identification process for the dead may take a while.

Life is at a standstill in Gwoza as schools and businesses remain closed, while the market is virtually deserted.

“We can’t teach if parents are afraid their children will be targeted by Boko Haram,” laments Peter Ade, a primary school teacher. “At the moment, I sell drinks and food to the Nigerian soldiers. They are the only ones who have money to spend. I don’t have to go to the market to sell – it’s too dangerous - instead they come to me.”

A government official, speaking under the cover of anonymity, says he is disappointed and frustrated by the administration’s response to the insurgency.

“The Nigerian government abandoned us. They only thought to launch an offensive six weeks before the presidential election. Is that how to govern a nation? This is what I call bolting the stable after the horses have left. It’s all too little, too late. Too little, too late.”

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Rewarding Mediocrity

There’s a warped relationship between reward and work in Nigeria. It is a place where little or no effort needs to be exerted to yield huge rewards - and this is accepted as the norm. In other words, the quality of services and goods offered doesn’t have to be commensurate with the amount charged.

Take for instance DSTV, the popular cable network provider. Most channels on their bouquets repeat programs, with exception of the news (but even that gets replayed until there’s breaking news to upend the news cycle), that you could forgo renewing your subscription for 2 months, and not miss much.

In fact, the internet provides a raft of interesting programs than DSTV ever will. But because internet in Nigeria is slow and expensive, DSTV can afford to screw Nigerians big time - so much so that they want to increase monthly subscription fees by 20%. Never mind that Nigeria is notorious for power cuts that last for days on end, which could translate to some subscribers viewing one week worth of TV every month. What stops DSTV from charging subscribers per view?

Speaking of power cuts, electricity companies are just as guilty as DSTV in billing their customers. Each month, they brazenly present customers with exorbitant bills for power that wasn’t supplied, or if it was, the voltage was dangerously low/high that you’d have to resort to using your generator to save home appliances from impending destruction.

Additionally, mobile phone networks provide egregious services, but are happy to charge customers through the roof. This is the reason Nigerians on average own two phones, each for a different network provider. However, that doesn’t remedy the problem of poor network, because there’s no better alternative. Yet, mobile network providers make a killing here.

Incidentally, earlier this year, I ordered and paid for two items from Nigeria’s so-called number 1 online retailer, and received one defective item (which was returned), while the other never made its way to my house. Now, why would Jumia sell sub-par products online and charge the same amount as the authentic version? What’s more, common sense dictates that the success of an online retailing business relies on consumer trust - which emanates from the guarantee that goods sold on its website are of sound quality.

That said, I doubt Jumia’s plan is to improve and thrive, because if it is, then nothing stops them from studying Amazon. But if it is anything like most businesses in Nigeria (a perfect example is Nigeria’s show business), then they’re just happy to exist and make a quick buck.

Photo: uoftjazz.ca

At what point will consumers demand better services and goods from companies they patronize?

Recently, I engaged a web designer to build a website. We agreed half of total amount would be paid at the beginning of the project, and the remainder upon completion. For the first 2 weeks, he didn’t do any work. But after meeting with him in week 3, he sent an email asking I transfer money so he could renew his modem subscription to complete the job. Needless to say, I was furious, and replied saying his request was unacceptable and unprofessional, especially since he had nothing tangible to show to me during our meeting. After some back and forth email exchanges, I fired him, asking for a refund.

How can you not feel ashamed for asking to be rewarded, when you haven’t even worked? Even monkeys used in experiments know to complete a task before they can earn a banana.

There are certain attitudes that should be awry and not be tolerated, considering Nigerians are so religious. You’d expect religious teachings like - don’t reap where you did not sow – to be a common mantra, but it’s not. Nigerians are quite happy to reap way where they have not sown. We won’t work hard but want to be rewarded handsomely. 

If in doubt, how do we explain the attitude of some students days before their exams? During the term, they play hooky and spend countless hours frolicking about, while their serious counterparts have their noses buried in books. But a week or so to exams, the indolent become soberer than monks, so much so that attendance at midweek and Sunday church services becomes unusually high.

This is the period they begin harassing God to walk on water for them. They remind him that he promised to help anyone who asked for anything in his name. In short, they expect nothing short of a miracle that entails his writing their exam for them.

Also, it is around this period that they remember there’s a building called the library.  

In my years as a student, I always considered these people strange – and sometimes thought them insane.

This same uncanny attitude towards work is pervasive among our lawmakers. Nigerian lawmakers are the highest paid in the world, yet we cannot vouch that they do more work than their counterparts elsewhere. In fact, I wonder if they even do any work at all, other than pay themselves enormous salaries and allowances – which is the reason politics is such an appealing profession in Nigeria.

President Reagan once compared politics to prostitution. While that may be true in some regard, I doubt prostitutes in Nigeria would be pleased with the comparison, since it implies they do not work for their money.

Personally, I have no problem with companies charging premium rates for goods and services, however I want to get my money’s worth. Don’t offer me a chicken’s egg and expect me to pay like it’s caviar, or produce a rhinestone ring, and tell me it’s 14 carat diamond. That’s just daylight robbery.

Also, there’s a need to learn to stop accepting shoddy services and dubious goods, and shun laziness and mediocrity. I know it’s difficult to do, especially as our government is asleep. However, life must go on. Therefore, the onus is on us to protect ourselves and demand better quality - and I suggest we start with our purse strings.

Surely a month of no DSTV won’t kill us. 

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Border

It was 7pm when they finally arrived at the border. Several cars had already made their home in the wide, open, sandy space.

Adanna descended from the minibus she’d boarded from the city with her little suitcase, while fiercely clutching her handbag. A random guy tugged at her suitcase, offering to carry it for her.

“Leave it,” she said firmly. Several people had gathered in little groups, and were either chatting or eating. 

“You have to be careful,” Seyi, her friend had warned. “This is Africa.”

Adanna was convinced crossing the border wouldn’t be much of a hassle for her. “Relax. If I can live and thrive in the madness and chaos that is Lagos, I survive anywhere,” she’d joked.

“Hmm, don’t be too sure, oh,” replied Seyi. “You know how they hate us Nigerians. It doesn’t matter if you are Mother Theresa, the minute you show that green passport or tell them you’re from here, their friendliness quickly transforms into hostility.”

It was cold and her dress danced to the whims of the wind. Luckily she’d packed her cardigan, which she yanked from her handbag and wore.

She approached a group of women chatting animatedly and asked, in broken Portuguese, where the immigration office was. They pointed to a block of rectangular buildings that reminded her of her classrooms in secondary school.

“Good evening,” she said to the two men seated at the entrance of an office that had ‘Immigration’ painted at the top of the door post.

“We’re closed,” one of the men replied brusquely. “Come back tomorrow.”

“Ok. Thanks,” she mumbled.

Somewhere. Photo: Shayera

She walked back to the parking space where travellers had accepted their lot and made themselves comfortable in the buses and cars that littered the border. She searched her bag for her phone and tried calling the hotel to inform them she wouldn’t be checking in that night, but there’s no signal.

“Not good,” she said, then looked around for a store to buy some snacks and a drink.

The store was small and poorly lit by the flickering flame of a lone candle. She scoured the scanty supplies for familiar biscuits, but when she found none, she took a chance on a pack of chocolate-filled biscuits.

After the 12 hour plus journey, her body was craving a massive sugar boost, and she was going to honor its request extravagantly.

She opened the freezer packed with chunks of melting ice, in search of a dangerously cold can of soda, and chose the coldest Sprite.

She paid for her items and was putting her change in her bag when she stepped on a white foot. “Oops! I’m so sorry,” she apologized instinctively in English, before she caught herself and reverted to Portuguese.

“It’s alright,” replied a tall, dark haired man that looked anything between 30 and 40 years old. “Thank goodness you’re wearing flats. You saved my toes from agonizing pain,” he said in perfect English, smiling.

“Yes, for your sake, I’m glad I’m not,” she laughed then exited the store, starting towards a vacant bench.

“Hey.” Adanna ignored the greeting, unsure the voice was calling out to her.

“Hey. Hi. Excuse me,” the voice caught up with her.

“Hi.” It was the dark-haired stranger from the store.

“Hi, sorry to bother you. I’m Dante,” he said, stretching out his hand to shake her.

“It’s ok. I’m Adanna,” she said, shaking him. It feels very soft, like the hands of someone accustomed to an easy lifestyle.

“Adanna? You’re Igbo?” Dante said not so much as a question than as a statement.

“Yes, I am,” she said, watching him closely for a negative reaction and waiting to give him a stinging reply if he so much as mentioned corruption or online scams. She was tired and in no mood to hear a sanctimonious foreigner talk about corruption, while managing to be perfectly oblivious to the albatross that was foreign aid.

“Kedu?”

“O di nma. I’m fine,” Adanna replied with a chuckle. “Where did you learn that?”

“I dated a Nigerian a few years ago. Her name was Chinwe. I learned a few Igbo words from her before we broke up.”

“Oh really? Nice.”

Dante looked at her with inquiring eyes.

“No, no, I meant nice that you learned some Igbo from her. So, you’re Italian?”

“I know what you meant,” Dante said, smiling. “I’m half-Norwegian, half Italian.”

“Ah, I see. So the height’s from Norway and your dark hair is made in Italy.”

“Hmm, I wouldn’t say that because both my parents are tall, so I could have easily inherited my height from my mom, who’s Italian. My mom likes to tease my dad about me not inheriting any of his physical features.”

By now both of them were sharing a wooden bench. Adanna opened her can of soda and greedily took a long gulp before letting out a satisfied ‘ah’.

“You must have been very thirsty.”

“Thirsty is an understatement. I was parched,” she replied, taking another gulp. “So what happened to Chinwe?”

“She went back to Nigeria after her PhD. I was devastated when she delivered the news because I was about proposing to her.” Dante paused and looked into the distance, like he was watching a flash back of the moment she’d told him she was leaving. “I had secretly visited various jewellery shops in Oslo weeks before she dropped the bombshell.”

“I begged her to stay, but she was adamant about going back to Nigeria. I think part of the reason - actually a huge chunk of it - was parental pressures. Her parents never wanted an oyigbo atheist for an in-law, and threatened to disown her if she married a non-Igbo or a non-Catholic,” he concluded with a vague smile.

Dante’s answer immediately caused Adanna to regret the question.

“Are you OK?” Dante asked, looking concerned.

“Me? Yes, I am,” lied Adanna.

Of course she wasn’t. Dante’s confession had reminded her of her 4 year relationship with Lumumba, whom she’d met during her Master’s program in Scotland. She’d been drinking in the grad bar with her classmate Natalie, when he’d passed by to say hello to his flatmate.

“Hey Nat.”

“Hey” Nat replied, pecking him on the cheek. “Lumumba, Adanna. Adanna, Lumumba.”

“Adanna – what does it mean?”

“It means father’s daughter in Igbo.”

“Oh, so you’re Nigerian?” he said almost disappointingly. 

“Yes, I am.” Adanna replied, not noticing the change in tone of his voice. “And you’re Congolese?”

“Nah, I’m from Angola. My mom named me after Patrice Lumumba who, according to my mom, was the greatest Pan Africanist,” he said rolling his eyes.

“You don’t sound thrilled about it.”

“I’m indifferent. Not about the name or him, but about the way Africans talk about Pan-Africanism, and yet do nothing to advance the idea. Traveling from one African country to another is a nightmare. We fight each other and rarely offer help. Every time there’s an emergency in Africa, we run to the UN, US and our former colonial masters. What the hell is the AU for? So no, Pan-Africanism doesn’t thrill me.”

They would have several arguments and discussions about Africa, its artificially imposed borders and foreign interference. And it was during one of such arguments he’d stopped mid-sentence and asked her out. It was incredibly incongruous - an unusual segue - that Adanna didn’t take him seriously at first until he asked the third time. But that was Lumumba’s style. He never believed there was a right time or place to say how or what he thought.

And that was exactly how he handled their break-up.

Adanna had booked a table for them in a plush restaurant to celebrate his recently acquired doctorate degree, and secretly hoped he’d pop the question that night, since ten months earlier they’d gotten matching tattoos on their ring fingers that read ‘LA’.

“It’s our little secret, and soon enough…” he paused, as if in pain.

“Soon enough what?” Adanna prodded.

He said nothing, but kissed her deeply.

 Lumumba arrived at the restaurant 10 minutes late, looking irritated. It was unlike him to arrive a minute late to an event or appointment. Adanna often joked about his obsession with punctuality, calling him a defective African.  

“Sorry, I’m late. You won’t believe I’ve been talking to my mom in my car for 20 minutes,” he said annoyed.

An eager waiter appeared to take their order, and minutes later swept by with their entree.

“Adanna,” Lumumba paused for a few seconds, causing her stomach to tighten, “we can’t do this,” he said finally.

“Do what?” she eyed him suspiciously.
                                                                                     
“Look, my parents have never been happy with our relationship. They, especially my mom, have always been suspicious of Nigerians, even though I’ve tried convincing them you’re not typical.”

“Not typical? What does that even mean?” Adanna demanded, eyes enflamed voice rising. “And since you knew they were against us from the get-go, why didn’t you say anything to me? Was it easier to lead me on, keep me in the dark, when you knew it was never going to work out? And to think I remained in the UK after school because of you.

By now, hot tears were streaming down her face.

“You’re creating a scene, Adanna,” Lumumbu whispered coldly with clenched teeth. He found displayed emotions abhorrent, saying they were a sign of incontinence.

“I’m sorry, but I had no choice,” he said coolly.

“Bastard,” Adanna muttered and ran out of the restaurant.

Three weeks later, she resigned from her job at Goldman Sachs and returned to Lagos with a broken heart and a sore, angry finger.

“I found true love at 35 and lost it at 39 – all because of I was the wrong nationality and religion. Or in my case, no religion.”

“Welcome to the club,” Adanna said drily, and immediately bit her the tongue.

“You too? You’re atheist? ” Dante asked.

“No. I was referring to the nationality part. However, I don’t want to talk about it,” added Adanna quickly to deter further questions. “Still too fresh.”

“How fresh?”

“6 weeks. You?”

“One week. We visited here a lot when we were together. There’s a calmness to this place that I’ve not been able to find anywhere else.”

“It’s my first time here.”

“Where will you be getting off?” She told him, putting the rest of the biscuit in her bag. “Oh really? Same here. And where will you be lodging?”

“Atlantis hotel.”

“What a coincidence, or should I call it serendipity? If you like I could show you around.”

“Thank you,” Adanna replied, neither accepting nor rejecting his offer. Then she rose from the bench, “I should go to sleep. It was nice chatting with you.”

“Same here,” he said, rising as well. “Good night, Adanna.”

“Good night, Dante.” She shook his hand, then slowly walked back to the minibus.