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Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Telling a Story He Can't Tell: 3


Sam’s dad died of heart failure caused by hypertension. Hypertension has been responsible for numerous deaths Sam’s country yet not enough advocacies have been made on the dangers of this deadly disease. Public health education in Sam’s country is zero and spongy. Health facilities are deficient. Sam’s dad had hypertension that was classified among the primary or essential hypertension, accounting for about 90-95% cases with no obvious medical cause. This is what the medical practitioners always tell the public. His dad’s hypertension was caused by excessive stress. Ever since his dad retired from public service, where he served for 30 years, his pensions were paid once in a blue moon. It’s a truism that when you retire from public service in Sam’s country it takes eternity before you receive your pension. Sam grew up knowing a pension system where pensioners lived in abject poverty waiting for their pensions to be paid and they died without getting paid; where there was high incidence of “ghost pensioners”- people impersonating in connivance with the government officials to receive benefits meant for others; where people falsified their age and remained younger year-on-year because they were afraid of retiring and facing poverty; where government regard pensioners as old woods; where a lot things went the wrong way and people saw nothing wrong with the system. Now Sam is a grown man, he still see a pension scheme where pensioners are compelled to give out hand out to government officials to facilitate payment of their benefits; where pensioners are ridiculed in the name of accreditation- pensioners who are frail and poor in health are forced into an exercise where they are exposed to physical dangers and some die queuing up for accreditation; where it still takes eternity before pensions are paid; where “ghost pensioners” have increased in numbers and have their tactics refined; where top government officials in the pension commission siphon pension funds for personal aggrandizement while pensioners wait for “never will come” benefits; where everything about the pension scheme is messy and squishy and people see no cause for alarm. Not even the 2004 pension reform act has changed anything!

All Sam sees is a new wine in an old bottle; a better opportunity for government officials and pension administrators to steal in a way they didn’t know before; an enhanced way for government officials and their cohorts to perfect their dodgy acts to be in tune with the 21 century stealing spree.

Sam’s dad fell seriously ill on the brink when his pension was not coming forth. His dad was a strong and hard working man; people who came across him attested to his zealousness and resilience. He refused to die when death called. He was stressed all his life; everybody’s problems were his problems. He believed so much in their country, this was evident in his 30 years of selfless service to the country as a public servant; he retired with nothing to his name except his only bank account which was always in the red.

But the country he showed much honesty and allegiance failed him when he needed her most. If only his pensions were paid he wouldn’t have died, at least there would have been money to send him to the hospital as often as his health condition demanded; if only his pensions were paid there would have been money to purchase his drugs and provide him with basic necessities he needed to live longer; if only his pensions were paid the doctors wouldn’t have kicked him out of the hospital for not paying hospital bills, at least he would have died in a hospital receiving treatment and not at home in a bug-inflicted bed; if only the health care system was not moribund he wouldn’t have suffered such an agony in receiving treatments; if only the medical system was not porous and there were no quacks he wouldn’t have taken fake drugs sold in numerous pharmacy shops in the streets, at least those shops wouldn’t have been in existence; if only the government was purposeful and sustainable everything would have been working fine. All these were running through Sam’s mind swiftly as he sat beside his dad’s grave and ruminate over his death. All his dad’s friends developed similar sickness and died similarly. Sam lives every day in great awe of what the future holds for the pensioners! 

Telling a Story He Can't Tell: 2


1999 was a remarkable year not only for Sam but also for the entire country. It was a year his country (Nigeria) transited to democratic government, after a prolonged military regime. With the adoption of a democratic system of government and imbibing of democratic principles, most people were full of hopes and expectations. The ecstasy with which his fellow country men and women ushered in the nascent democracy did not surprise anyone because of the obvious psychic damages and a great deal of sufferings people claimed they had gone through under the military regime. The euphoria which greeted the leadership in Nigeria made most people think that it would unite people and give everyone equal sense of belonging. But after a decade of democratic practice, the people have not yet felt what it means to be in a democratic government. Nigerians still leave like they are in a military government. There is no freedom of information. Journalists are sliced to death everyday like chickens for publishing the truth. People are harassed for expressing their views. Nigerians still live in a country where you see the truth and cover it because you want to live the next day. Everyone is afraid of dying for telling the truth! 

There is no respect for human dignity. It has become unfortunate that when Nigerians look at themselves in the face all they see is intolerance. An Igbo man sees in the face of an Hausa man religious bigotry and insecurity; and in the face of a Yoruba man, he sees betrayal and hypocrisy. An Hausa man sees in an Igbo man’s face ethnicity and ethnic minority; and in the face of a Yoruba man, he sees nepotism and indignation. A Yoruba man sees in the face of an Igbo man ravenousness and distinctiveness; and in the face of an Hausa man he sees extremism and indifference. There is high sense of ethnocentrism and tribalism among different ethnic groups. Commonality has gone into obsolescence. The leadership has become more confused and porous than it was before. There is high rate of poverty in the country; hardship has quadrupled.

Sam grew up in a very poor and backward environment where attainment of university degree is a feat; where the only hope of a young man or woman who wants to break away from the recyclable poverty is education; where they celebrated electricity like the coming of messiah because they were used to living in the dark; where women give birth at home because there were no health facilities; where women get pummeled by men for refusing to have sex and men get a pat on the back and women rebuked afterwards; and where a lot of things go wrong and people live like everything is normal. After 30 years of Sam’s existence in this part of the world, he still lives in the same circumstances he grew up with. It has even become worse. Sam still see over 70% of his population who live under $1 per day; poverty has been recycled to the extent that it has become recalcitrant; he still read the same headlines he read as a growing kid on high rate of unemployment and inflation; he still see kids running up and down the streets butt naked during school hours because their parents cannot afford school fees; he still see women being chased out of the hospitals after fortnight of delivery because they cannot afford the bills; Sam still read the same stories of a poor man sentenced to jail for stealing his neighbour’s cocoyam and stories about how charges against a rich man who defiled a teenager was dismissed; he still read the same headlines about how the society lynch young men and women who were caught pilfering and celebrate high net worth criminals when they are acquitted after stealing public funds; he still see children die every day of hunger, malaria, cholera, and the list continues; he still read reports of people being sent to jail, tortured and put to death because their opinions are in opposition to the government; Sam still live in a country where the poor are sliced every day by the institutions of government that are supposed to serve as havens and the rich live in glamorous houses, drive flashy cars and dress swanky; he still live in a country where nothing works and people pretend everything works fine.  Not even the transition to democracy has changed anything.

Telling a Story He Can't Tell: 1

It was 5:45 am; he had just woken up and had gone to the balcony to have a fag. Having a fag early in the morning was a routine for him and the balcony was idyllic. No one in his family knew he was a chain smoker, except his elder sister. November was the month and 1999 was the year. He was in one of his solitudes. He lit the first cigarette and had the first puff; he watched the smokes make a random movement up the sky. He loved the way the smokes moved each time he puffed. They moved like missiles en route to their targets. The first fag was finished; the second, finished; he was on the third fag when he heard some sounds, like some people were crying. On the first thought, he didn’t believe it was a sound of cry because to him there was no reason whatsoever someone should be crying at that time. But he was wrong. The sound kept reverberating in his head as he moved further into his thoughts; this time it was more real than surreal. He was compelled by the tone of the voice that screamed, so he abandoned his fag and whatever he was ruminating. The voice was his mother’s. Everyone was crying, his mother was screaming on top of her voice like one of these Pentecostal pastors calling upon God, and tearing up her clothes like an angry fighter waiting to meet his opponent. He looked around the room in awe of what was going on; and there he saw his father lying lifeless on the bed. He couldn’t cry because ever since his father had been sick he had been crying. Probably, all the tears in his eyes had dried up. He went closer to his father’s dead body; kissed his fore head and uttered: 'RIP dad, I loved you, I still love you and I will always love you.'

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

God loves a cheeerful giver

I grew up in a very decent and religious background. I have read quite a great deal of the bible. But there is this particular book in the bible that keeps resonating in my mind each time I come in contact with people. It is called the book of Corinthians. In this book I find 2 Corinthian verses 7 quite appealing for a reason I do not know; maybe I need a supernatural being to explain that to me. And it reads: ‘every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him given; not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver.’ Men of God love this verse so much. It is always handy when the church is in need of funds and is soliciting for our financial support. So, the man of God doesn’t need to waste much saliva in preaching us into giving hugely; series of readings from the book of Corinthians does the magic. Even if you’re the stingiest person on earth your heart will melt at the mention of ‘God loves a cheerful giver’ such that you don’t even know when you give. Street beggars often feed into this verse to remind us in case we have forgotten that God loves us and convince us to give. This verse has been misconstrued and often times exploited adversely by those who want to extort something from us. Most of us are guilty of it. I have fallen several times a victim of that gimmick. Now my story goes.

My pretty friend, who I admire so much, invited me to their Sunday service (it is one of these new generation Pentecostal church). As a guy you never say no when a girl invites you to her church for the first time especially when you’re nursing some kind of intimacy towards her. In fact you will feel extremely happy to attend even if you’re an atheist. And then I honoured the invitation. We sat together. It was time for offering and series of collection went on in the name of ‘God loves a cheerful giver’ and I became a prey to the gimmicks that I had to empty my wallet in consonant with the scripture. I dare not fail to collect offertory envelope at each offertory session as failure to do so will definitely raise a question mark on my self-acclaimed ‘big boy’ status. I wasn’t sure of the number of times the offertory went on but I was sure that I exhausted the money in my wallet that I had to play pranks in the final session. What I did was smart and horrible. I picked up an envelope, with the mental torture that there was no money left in my wallet, I borrowed a piece of paper and a biro and there I wrote something.

I was in a tight corner. She was sitting beside me. You see that was why I could not dodge any of the offertory sessions. I gave and gave until I gave all. When I asked her for a piece of paper and a biro, she asked if I wanted to write a check to the church, I chuckled and uttered, ‘I could, if I had my cheque book, but you see I was just thrilled by the pastor’s sermon so I wanted to copy down the verses so I can revisit them when I get home. She was really pleased to hear that. If only she knew what I was skimming she wouldn’t be that pleased. Then I borrowed a paper and a biro from another brother behind us and I wrote in bold letters: GOD YOU LOVE A CHEERFUL GIVER, SO I PUT MYSELF IN THIS ENVELOPE AND I GIVE TO YOU. I put in the offertory envelope like every other person put money in the envelope and I dropped it in the offertory box. I liked doing crazy things; and that was one of such crazy things.

The service ended and people were going out slowly, exchanging greetings and chin-wagging. In this process I lost view of my friend who invited me to church. I thought the best thing to do was to stand at the front door to the exit; there I can have a clear view of who has come or gone out. While I was there I had the chance to observe the various interactions, especially the children having a good time among them and smiling. On the corner was an old woman; seemed like she was in her sixties but was actually an octogenarian. I noticed she was quite secluded and nobody seemed to notice her. How I managed to catch a glimpse of her I didn’t know. I was pushed by some unforeseen forces to walk towards her. On getting closer to her I noticed she was shivering a tad bit and she clasped her hands around her with her head bent down like she was cold. Then I started with those questions I learnt from health and safety training, like are you alright? Are you cold or something? Can you raise your hands? Do you need any help? But all seemed to have fallen on deaf ears. I went closer and touched her on the back to catch her attention and she jolted like she heard a bomb blast. And swiftly she got up and uttered “oh my God, the service is ended….. I’m finished….” and headed for one of the rooms in the church building. I became curious, so I abandoned looking for the where about of my friend and went after the woman.

Inside the room were chairs, tables and debris that easily revealed that foods were shared in the room without being told. Then I saw the woman sitting on the chair with her hands folded like someone whose world has crumbled. I walked up to her. This time she didn’t wait for me to ask anything before she uttered, ‘my son, I’m finished; I want to die.’ I had no memory of the last time I heard someone beckoning death to come and take him/her like the woman did. As scary as I was with the woman’s utterances I didn’t hesitate to calm her down with words of reassurance and conviction that everything would be alright. It was in the process that I found that the reason the woman was crying out her heart and beckoning death to come and take her was that she had missed her share of the foods that were shared in the room. The church normally call together paupers every Sunday at a specific time (which they were all aware of) to hand out foods and clothing people have contributed. According to my friend, 'this is what the church does every Sunday to help people who can’t afford food to at least feed on a day of rest.' She never missed any sharing session nor ever had she been late. But this time she missed the session because she had been sitting outside sleeping; that was because she was so cold that she went closer to the heater which was situated in the place I found her sitting; and there she fell asleep. All my consoling and heartwarming words fell on deaf ears. All she wanted was food to eat and take home for her two kids. I offered her my leather jacket to help keep her warm a tad bit. Phone call away, inside the church building, was a fast food stall run privately by the church.

There we were in the stall, I walked up to one of the staff and explained the woman’s situation to her and the response I got made me cringe. She made me understand how impossible it was to offer the woman any food. 'Pastor wouldn’t find it funny to see the woman hanging around the premises for food,’ I was told. Thank God I was with my debit card. I ordered foods; as much as she could eat and take home for her kids. There we sat, like every other person, on my insistent that she eats before she heads for home. I was feeding her as her hands were shaky like someone who suffers from Parkinson's disease. She fed to her taste like she never did before. She told me stories of her ordeal in life; how she was sexually assaulted severally by men; how she was betrayed by her highly trusted friends and family; how she was frequently battered and pummeled by her husband; how she was racially abused and ill-treated because of the colour of her skin and accent; and the story continued. As the meal exited, she thanked me, blessed me and wished me the best in my endeavours. She was really affected by my gesture; and she placed her hands on mine and uttered, ‘thank you for feeding me.’ My hand went straight to my heart and I was wordless. For some minutes I couldn’t speak. After a while, all I could muster up was, ‘thank you for letting me feed you and thank God.’ I escorted her out of the building and she headed home. I forgot to collect back my leather jacket and she didn’t even remember to give me back.

There I stood for quite a few minutes musing over the gravity of her words: ‘thank you for feeding me.’ I pondered about how the cold weather was biting hard and awed if she would have a place to warm herself when she got home. I couldn’t help my innermost feelings, but on a second thought I felt restored sense of gratefulness for the everyday things we so often take for granted. I remembered those words she uttered in the course of our conversation while we were sitting eating. For her, ‘it was not about the food like she pointed out initially; it was about spending time with her.’ She is homeless. Her home is slum. There are so many of them in the world. We often times assume bad things about them and talk down on them, but we do not know how they got there and we fail to listen to their stories. As humans we all have different stories. For that woman, it was important for her to feed her kids and also important for her and her kids to associate with the people. As she said, ‘you know my son; this is a good experience for me, but most importantly for my two kids. I do not wish them to grow older this way and experience what I have experienced in life.’ In the course of our interactions I tried to make a joke with the crazy thing I did in the service and to my surprise she brought out a little book and read out a quote from Khalil Gibran, Lebanese born American Philosophical Essayist, Novelist and Poet, and she read: “You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.” We both smiled over it.

Monday, 24 September 2012

I Want To Come First With You

Every morning I walk pass through this ‘little’ lady
I make a mental picture of a heart shaped flower
Held in my hands; close to my heart; am willing to offer her
I make every eye contact count like every dance a street of my heart
I seem to have that dim; dreadful silly obscure look
Each time I see her from afar coming
Every time we work pass by; and I fail to be a man; to speak
I hear the music banging in my brain; then I conjecture good moments to come
When I will stop playing someone else’ part; a part alien to me
I think of holding her hands like we are standing on the mountain soil and saying
You’re my work set; I want to come first with you
In my soul and brains I feel a cabin fever for not being a man
She is like a lover my heart seeks; someone to make a promise to
In the wonderland where two lovers make vows knowing they are too closely knitted.

I rather speak of our problems than bask in euphoria of endowments.

I have always enjoyed Sylva Ifedigbo’s column on Daily Times, but his recent column made me think of reconsidering my likeness for his column. I found his arguments quite questionable. He made reference to Ian Birrells’ article (which I think was the premise on which he based his line of reasoning) in Guardian, UK. In my opinion as a trained development economist I found most of the things said by Ian and Sylva as misplaced and full of blunders. Majority of economists don’t like speaking in normative terms because such perspective often times conceals the realities in the real world. Focusing on Sylva’s column, he painted a nice picture of growth in African countries (making specific reference to Nigeria) with figures in percentages, which would make any reader who doesn’t think in real terms believe him. What I find funny when people like him give those percentage figures is that they fail to tell their audience how those figures have translated into changing people’s living standard, like how many people those figures have moved out of poverty; how those figures have given access to basic human necessities such as food, shelter, health care, security of life and so on; how many infrastructural development that have taken place as a result of those figures. He alluded to some figures from AFDB but failed to recognize the fact (which is the most important part of argument on growth) that those figures are arrant nonsense when growth is not inclusive. It is totally ridiculous to bask in euphoria of rhetoric given by pundits that Africa’s economic growth has been growing remarkably when the link between Africa’s growth performance and poverty reduction is weak and porous. It is even shameful to be excited that Nigeria’s economic growth (which is often doctored to present a good image of the economy) has been steadily at 7.5% even when over 70% of our national population wallow in abject poverty and our dear country contribute over 5% to global hunger. However, painting a general picture that success story of commendable growth performance spreads across African countries is highly misplaced and flawed. In as much as I reckon that some countries like South Africa and Botswana for example have made remarkable progress given their ability to put into resourceful use their domestic resources and maintain robust macroeconomic framework, I wouldn’t say the same for countries (like Nigeria) that have failed woefully despite their abundant natural resources.
Frankly speaking, we should be wary of these writers who preach good messages about Africa with little concern about the serious challenges we face in Africa. They turn deaf ears to serious problems that threaten our progress towards development in pretense that they are highly patriotic. I find quite absurd that these writers de-emphasize the need for African countries to form a competitive and robust alliance so we can break away from undue exploitation we face from the west and end repatriation of our resources to the other side. When I read statements such as “like every other society, we have evolved, overcoming our many challenges and rewriting our history. The result and the reality of our time are that quietly, a new Africa has emerged powered by capitalism, embracing democracy and tearing down stereotypes” I became worried about the kind of message this guy is forcing us to imbibe. Anyone who knows exactly the realities we face in Africa today wouldn’t hesitate to perceive such statements as wonky and cobblers. Such statements hid under the disguise that we are on the brink of massive economic progress when in essence we are far away from the truth; such statements uphold the ideals of capitalism (a scenario where 99% of the population struggle at the bottom and 1% live grandiosely and glamorously at the top) and are ideal formula for fattening the pockets of capitalists; such statements, though seem quite appealing, may be hard to justify given the current situations we have in Africa. For example the war ravaged zones like Congo DR, Sudan, Mali, etc, followed by religious intolerant and violent Nigeria, Egypt, etc, backed by uprising in Rwanda, Somalia, Uganda, and persecution of LGBT’s in Uganda, Nigeria, etc. National security in these countries are threatened and security agents are unfocused with such emergence, and this feeds into the proliferation of militia, banditry and general bedlam blowing like a breeze around African region, leading to the highest levels of internally displaced people ever in history. These evidence are enough to invalidate his line of reasoning.
We are often times captivated by stories that tell us how beautiful and lovely Africa looks; enthralled by articles that remind us of how naturally endowed our dear continent is; and fascinated by rhetoric that always paint good image of our polity and economy, that we always ignore real issues and fail to take serious efforts to solve our problems. This is part of the story that makes a big difference between Africa and other regions like Asia and Latin America and Caribbean. In Africa we dwell so much on the resources we are endowed with that we fail to get control of these resources and put them into productive use that benefits everybody. I’m not any way cynical about our potentials as a continent endowed with good qualities one can hardly find elsewhere on earth, but I’m underscoring the point that the time has come when we stop being unnecessarily mawkish about how we are perceived by the west. We have serious challenges we face in Africa and the progress we make in overcoming these challenges does not in any way depend on how we are perceived by the west or how the western media report us. Over the past decades we have faced the same challenges as regions like Asia, but now we are nothing closer to them in terms of development. If the truth must be told, the argument that our progresses in Africa are misrepresented by the west is misguided, and I find it hard to accept such flimsy excuse. Not in this 21st century. Our concern should be to make progress and gauge our progress by how we perceive our progress within ourselves and not how the west identify us.
No matter how we try to hide the truth it will always stare us in the face. I found arguments in his column too generalized more than I would appreciate. Arguments there-in are indeed colour blind and as such are dead duck. In as much as I would love to portray the great potentials and good qualities that abound in Africa I wouldn’t do that when these potentials and good qualities have been bungled by few set of inconsiderate people in the sit of leadership who always want us to say that everything is alright even when we are slapped severally in the face by their adverse policies. They want Africa’s image to be painted as angelic because that creates a better chance for aids/grants, especially now that donors lay more emphasis on economic progress before aids can be granted. I would rather devout more energy into exposing poverty and hunger; religious intolerance; persecution of people because of their sexual orientation; and all that is alien to human existence because I do not want to live in Africa where everything goes wrong and we pretend everything is alright; I do not want to live in Africa where 1% lives comfortably at the top and 99% others struggle at the bottom; I do not want to live in Africa where we praise 7.5% of growth in GDP while over 70% of our national population live in abject poverty; I do not want to spread a message about beautiful and lovely Africa looks when one in eight children die before the age of five; I won’t spread the message that Africa is on the brink of breakthrough when millions of Africans go to bed every night with hunger; I would rather speak of problems and challenges that have kept us moribund for decades rather than bask in euphoria of natural endowments.  
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