Essays From Exile: Digital World, Analog Planet

I just got back from Nigeria, the land of my birth, pantheon that holds the bones of my brave ancestors. I have been away from that enigmatic cradle for what seems like a million moons but every so often like an unrelenting rhythm, I am pulled by a strange force back to Nigeria. I miss the sights, the smells, the color, the food, and the raw street theatre of a people born with an irrepressible spirit and energy. It does not help that I am the only sibling out of ten that has chosen exile as a way of life. My parents and my brothers and sisters tough it out there on a daily basis under conditions that on the surface of it should be unacceptable to human beings. The government ought to hang its thieving head in shame.

But my rage threatens to derail my thoughts. With the falling of the leaves came news that my mother, princess of my favorite bush path was ailing and I thought maybe I would hop on a plane home to Nigeria and drive the seven hours from the city to go see her. I was sure, once she spied my impish grin she would wake up. I would chant her praises, gentle princess of the bush path that houses my ancestors’ secrets and she would get up from her sick bed and dance the dance of joy with me if the polluted skies allow the moon to smile on us.

And so, I called my airline agent in downtown Washington DC to help me find a cheap ticket that would deposit me on my mother’s laps. He made some noises about the difficulty of finding a ticket under such short notice. Not to worry, he assured me, he would call me back. Later that evening, my friend stops by my townhouse and I share my predicament with him. He casually suggests that I go on the Internet and buy an air ticket myself. Don’t get me wrong, I am a technology junkie and I use the web to buy just about everything. I bank online and only stop by my local bank to perform quaint tasks like physically cashing a check from a cave man. However, six months ago, I tried to buy a ticket to Nigeria and the prices were astronomical compared to what I could get from my airline agent. So each time, I needed to travel, I would hop on the train to Washington DC to buy a ticket from my agent. This ritual is a most unpleasant undertaking that is made barely palatable only because of the thousands of dollars in savings involved. In any case, just to humor my friend, I powered up Cecilia, my trusty laptop, logged on wirelessly to the Net and wonders of all wonders, in fifteen minutes, I had purchased a round trip ticket to Nigeria for a thousand dollars and some change. In the digital world of the Internet, six months is an eternity. As for my ticket agent, I have been back from Nigeria and he is yet to return my call. I hope my good friend the ticket agent has other marketable skills. My laptop just stole his job.

Going to Nigeria is a journey that is so long, morning comes twice for me in one day and I pine for breakfast each time. But I am happy to be going home to the bread of my childhood. I am fleeing relationships that are unraveling in the cold, racing to the land that guards the umbilical cord that ties my spirit down in Africa. A darkness envelope the evening right behind me in America and the light of dawn awaits my sleepy head in Europe and Africa. This life is a mystery. How can the earth give birth at once to both day and night? But I shall not worry about esoteric thoughts. I am happy because I am racing home to my mother, princess of the stout bush that cannot be felled. She will get up from her bed and chant my praises. I will hold her close and tell her tales of America, the America she has visited and she doesn’t like. Come with me to America, I will tease her, knowing her answer. And she will smile and say, “Leave me here in my poverty and go back to America. Surround me with a few dollars and go back to that country of yours! I like it here. Money is not everything. You have everything over there but you are not happy. I have nothing here but I have everything. I am happy. Go back home to your America”

Exile for me is a frustrating experience. Sometimes in my darkest moments, I think that exile is a kind of death in which the exile is painfully aware of an inertia that is akin to purgatory. You are neither here nor there. My friends exclaim in gentle exasperation that my memories of Africa are frozen in time that fled when I fled Africa. They say Africa has moved on in search of her fortunes, while I remain like a spurned lover waiting for her return. And so each time I visit, I come back to America feeling like Africa gave me a bear hug and bit me. Nigeria has changed since I have been gone. My people have forgotten the music that I remember, the food no longer tastes the same, and the children that were napping on their mothers’ back when I boarded the plane for America, they now have their own children. And I know now that I must stop buying them children’s toys. They are now men and women but my memories of them are fossilized in the blur of my childhood memories.

This is exile: After a week of visiting Nigeria, I begin to pine for the order, the cleanliness of my home in suburban Maryland. I actually look forward to preparing food for my kids with the precision and order that one normally reserves for laboratory animals (“Who wants six chicken nuggets, and a dash of barbecue sauce?”) I miss my cell phones, my computers and the shower in my bathroom where I retire for solitude from my four merry children. A strange thing happens though, when I do return to America. I begin to pine for the delicious chaos of Nigeria, the analog existence of my village where every human contact has to be physical, and I miss the re-connection with the spirit of my ancestors that happens each time I turn the corner into the path that leads to my father’s house.

Preparing for Nigeria is a complicated ritual in itself, a sacrificial offering to the gods of my forefathers that involves a lot of useful US dollars. There are the gifts for practically everybody in the extended family, money for mandatory obligations that invariably surface (school fees, a new business, shoring up a failed business or a leaky roof). A Nigerian sage once remarked wryly that the extended family system spreads poverty. It is hard for a civil servant for instance to save a dime given the constant demands from the extended family (uncles, aunts, cousins, close and distant). That may explain why official corruption is so rampant in Nigeria. The extended family system that was so crucial for sustaining an agricultural economy (before the coming of the white man) has become hugely dysfunctional, a perverse excuse for milking the state coffers dry.

And our state coffers are reeling from the punches of official kleptomaniacs. A drunken posse of thugs posing as leaders roams the land looting with a vengeance. I liken this civilian government to a cloud of locusts that are just as devastating on the land as the khaki colored boll weevils (soldiers) that recently handed over power to the civilians.

And they call this a democracy. Nigeria is a rich country, blessed with an abundance of resources. Its elected leaders however, having borrowed a leaf from the crooked antics of their predecessors in uniform, have been behaving like drunken kleptomaniacs. It is like they have never seen money before and if they don’t cart it all away, the money will disappear. At best these leaders are a marauding band of heavily guarded thugs roaming the land doing the hard work of doing nothing. After doing nothing for our long suffering people, they retire to America and Europe to rest in their new palaces. I interviewed several people and every one of them swore that they were happier under the last military dictator. The government appears largely irrelevant to the lives of ordinary Nigerians. The trip from Lagos, the economic capital of Nigeria, to my village, ordinarily should take four hours. A combination of dilapidated roads, armed robbers and armed state security officials (a distinction without a difference, they are all thieves) makes the trip a horrifying seven hours for anyone lucky enough to survive the experience. We had to stop at every checkpoint manned by armed policemen openly asking for money. I stopped counting after eighteen checkpoints. Armed policemen would stop us at gunpoint and openly demand money for the privilege of using the road. At one point, in exasperation, I suggested to my traveling companions that it would be more efficient for the policemen to leave a collection plate out that motorists may fling money into as they zoom past. It would accomplish two things – get us to our destination faster while fueling the greed of these custodians of the land.

I believe that Nigeria is an incredibly wealthy nation, blessed with an abundance of resources. The wealth unfortunately is concentrated in the hands of a few citizens. The rest of the populace is reduced to hustling for the crumbs that fall of the table of the rich. The unintended effect is that the country looks like a nation of beggars. Everybody seems to be begging for money. I think that the people worship two deities – Money and God, in that order. The worship of God is for the express purpose of pleading with him to plead with Money to loosen her grip on the tree that rains dollars on Nigeria. The uninitiated traveler like me is subjected to a shake- down that saps him or her of money, dignity and energy. In such a climate, trust is a priceless commodity that long fled into the shocked bosom of our ancestors.

Hope rises out of Africa like fresh steam out of a piping hot bowl of rice and stew. I rise to salute the courageous men and women that toil in the private sector and actually flourish under conditions that would be unacceptable in the West. They have nimbly sidestepped the antics of the government and fashioned out a vibrant economy that sustains the land. The most dramatic illustration of the revolution underway is in the use of cellular phone technology and its impact on the way business is now conducted not only in Nigeria, but in much of sub-Saharan Africa.

Two years ago, when I last visited Nigeria, only a handful of people had cell phones. They were clumsy contraptions that even the owners hated to use. It was just as bad as the state-owned land phones; it took several tries to get a connection and you had to have good ears to follow your conversation. Telephones in general were considered a luxury for rich people especially since the monthly bill was prohibitive. Today, with the deregulation of the cellular phone industry in Nigeria, I found that, thanks to cellular phone technology, much of Nigeria is now one huge digital village. Even more impressive, Nigerians have adapted to this technology so seamlessly, a visitor from another planet could be forgiven for thinking that Nigerians invented the cell phone. Along the road and it seems that on every available space, make-shift kiosks have sprung up that merchants use to hawk digital air time. My traveling companions chatted almost non-stop in the car, carrying on business as if they were in their offices. I remarked to my companions that their cell phone technology seemed more advanced than the one I was used to in the United States. I watched in awe as traders on the streets of Lagos carried out business using electronic text messaging, a feature on my American cell phone that is so primitive, I have never used it. In the days that I spent in Nigeria, my brother, a practicing attorney hardly had any need to visit his law chambers, preferring to conduct business via cell phone as he cruised along on the streets of Lagos. As we were traveling to my village from Lagos, the phone calls kept coming in from all over the world. As we approached my village, the cell phones suddenly went dead, too far away from the towers that give them voice.

And so suddenly I was transported to a distant past, an analog world of physical boundaries not much different from the world that I remembered as a little boy in the sixties waiting in the village for the Biafran civil war to end. We traveled another forty-five minutes from the last city and we could not be reached electronically. I looked around me and I could see the last vestiges of a dying way of life; goats crossing the highway in search of food, people actually getting up from their homes, to physically communicate with each other, homes that have never seen electricity or pipe-borne water, homes where the only alarm clock that the people own is the cock crowing to warn of yet another painful dawn. I took one hard look at my village and I realized that I would be back and like a victorious army, technology would have transformed my village. What successive governments have failed to do for my people, the feisty entrepreneurs that I saw in Nigeria have done. The private sector will bring light and hope to my people. There is hope.

In my dream, my kindred spirit stood deep in the valley of my ancestral home and wept for the land. And our ancestors came and fined him for each tear that chased shame down his cheeks. The plane home to America waits, mute mule of the West, ready to take the willing back to the poverty of prosperity that is America. I do not look back as I get on the plane. I have only my clothes and effete prayers from those who took everything else. It is okay, money is not everything. It is okay, I think. And I woke up in America. And America did not wait for me. America’s teacher Art Carney moved on to his place in the pantheon of poets gone to join the great Jackie Gleason.

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