Mr. President, Abject Poverty Lives Here!

by Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye

“Why do I ever think of things falling apart? Were they ever whole?”

—Arthur Miller, playwright, in his work, After The Fall.

In every community we have them. They are better known for what they are capable of saying than what they are capable of doing. They are widely quoted. Children and village loafers trail them, wait eagerly to hear the next great speech they would make, so they could fall over themselves to have the ephemeral pleasure of being the first to broadcast it. They criticize everyone except themselves. They know everyone is a failure except themselves. They are very good at beautifully articulating the failure of others, the solutions to every matter, but embarrassing failure is always the outcome each time the minutest form of responsibility is left at their hands. What they lack in clear ideas and industry, they make up with exasperating garrulity. They love praises, large doses of it, especially the dubious variety; they love their own voice too, and with sickening ecstasy.And sometimes, they are so enthralled with the weird melody of their own perennially cracked voice that they are unable to discover when they have become a bore, a repelling burden to the people they thought they were entertaining.Doomed is the nation foolish enough to place their like at the helm of its affairs!

Imagine this scenario: a man leaves an unspeakably starving family at home, and then goes out to lavish the meagre family income in his custody on booze and bacchanals for outsiders who inundate him with flowery praises whenever he is present, but call him a distinguished Big Fool once his back is turned. It makes his heart merry to be soaked with the dubious praises of these perpetual parasites, than bother about the heart-rending sighs and cries of his sickly children and terribly emaciating wife at home. The wife, always pregnant and overworked, always malnourished and underprovided for, and perpetually sad and unloved, waits for this unambiguously irresponsible father and husband to no avail. He keeps running away from his responsibility. He has a particularly exceptional talent for explaining them away.

The man is having a good time out there. His family has become a most irritating reminder of his failure, and so he cannot wait each time to put a great distance between him and them. He feels better each time they are out of his sight, or whenever none of them bothers him with their never ending problems the few times he is around. Yet he must of necessity occasionally return home to them, because, thevery purse that services his profligacy and philandering, can only be swelled by fruits of the killing labour of his sickly wife and children; more children also must be born by her with alarming rapidity, so they could all join hands with their mother to labour,sweat and even die, if need be, inthe sun or under the rain, to make the great sacrifice, as patriotic and loyal members of the family, to make sufficient money to service Big Daddy’s leisure and profligacy.

He has many defenders and spokespeople, attracted to him because of his irresponsible generosity and huge, misdirected, lopsided spending. They know him very well as the biggest, most lucrative and most highly rewarding industry in town; yes, he is the highest paying employer in these parts, but the fat salaries he pays do not depend on the people’s output and industry, but on their preparedness to remain cringing toadies to him. Equally, ability to demonstrate exceptional skill and performance in praise singing is an added advantage. So, these insist that the man is right in all his ways. In fact, they argue that he is doing so much for his family for which they would have remained eternally grateful and quiet, and would never have ever thought of complaining about their sorry plight, had some foolish activists and “illiterate” columnists like me,busy bodies all, not gone ahead to inform them that they were hungry and needed food, and sick and needed care.Indeed, they were so satisfied with their horrible stat, and ecstatically grateful to Baba for making them so, until these busy bodies went to incite them against their hard working and generous father. How ungrateful and foolish could they be.

Unfortunately, try as he does to paper it over, the sorry state of his family follows him everywhere he goes like a powerful stench. Sickening photographs of his starving wife and children confront him at every joint, and in the company of otherswho look healthy and radiant because their own fathers had discharged their sacred obligations towards them with dedication, carefulness compassion. He wished his own wife and children could be like them, even when he had done nothing to make that happen. In fact, sometimes, he is not too sure again how his family looked like, because, even when he is at home, he stays put in the secluded cosy apartment he has built for himself. He now talks to his family through a number of callous, aloofand snobbish intermediaries.And each time heremembers once in a longwhile to enquire about the state of his family, those aides are always quick to tell him that they are all looking very fine, over-nourished, overfed and over-happy. He may doubt this report, because, he knows he had done nothing to achieve such amazingresult in his family, but then, it is more emotionally satisfying to accept those lies than investigate them and run the risk of discovering some ugly things that may rob him of his well-earned peace.

But would the trouble makers allow him to have his peace? Only recently, some fellows he thought were his good, international friends, and who he had even invested enormous efforts and resources to subserviently please, even at the expense of his family, had the guts to tell the world that his family lives in abject poverty!No, he can’t take that. His family? No, it can’t be true! And so he raored: I know that my family membersare poor, very poor; but I can’t allow you to describe their situation as abject poverty. Even though I have since lost touch with them, but I can still tell you that before the close of each day, they already know what they would eat thenext day.

I think this man has a point. Ms. Bessie Head, the late cigar-loving South African female writer would equally have agreed with him. Since this man’s horribly impoverished family is sometimes flattered with the ill-fitting title of “Giant of Africa”, he must then endeavour to make it possess in super abundance the worst scourge in Africa, so it could truly live up to its great name!Indeed, when Ms. Head commenced her short story entitled, “Village People”, contained in her Collection of Short Stories, Tales of Tenderness And Power with this chilling but obvious truth: Poverty has a home in Africa –like a quiet second skin.It may be the only place on earth where it is worn with an unconscious dignity,” surely, the giant of Africa would, at that time, be last place on her mind. Well, she should have been alive today to see her unconscious prophecy come to pass in the most unlikely place!How are the mighty fallen! How are a great people laid so low and wasted, and made to wear the shame of their enslavement and impoverishment with “unconscious dignity.” And the man who heads the house that has already fallen is busy wasting his breath on the semantics of adjectives. Poor, yes, abjectly poor, no!

There is a character in Prof Adebayo Williams’s novel, The Year Of The Locusts who had told his son: “I could be a rich man, but I don’t want to.My ambition is to become the poorest man in the world.”Can you beat that? Must everyone excel and be on top on the achievement index?Won’t there be someone who also must distinguish himself by being the only one at the very bottom of the dark chasm? Yes there always will. But when that happens, the person must be proud of his achievement, and endeavour to celebrate his distinction like the character we quoted earlier, instead of and trying to use his mouth to dream-talk himself onto the top of the mountain while everyone knows that he is down there, lying still at the very bottom of the chasm, and sharing the place of shame with people at war and those struck by natural disasters. Quite unfortunately.


Memory Lane…

On May 26 2006, Daily Independent published an editorial entitled: “Seven Years Of Civil Rule.” Permit me, dear reader, to remember a small extract from that editorial:

“The inauguration of a civilian administration in Nigeria on May 29, 1999, raised the hopes of the citizenry that, at last, the country was ready to commence a reliable process of rebuilding its institutions and systems seriously weakened under the crushing impact of protracted siege by military dictators. But what has become clear is that seven years after that colourful inauguration, which held out so much promise and awakened high expectations, Nigerians cannot, in all sincerity, say they are better-off than they were in 1999 … Indeed, since independence, no government has had anything near the amount of revenue that has accrued to this government from oil exports. Yet, life for majority of Nigerians has been much worse than ever before. Virtually all the hopes raised in 1999, have been dashed, as government continues to make largely unverifiable grandiose claims and reel out statistics of development that are in no way reflected in the living conditions of Nigerians … The past seven years have also witnessed the total collapse of virtually all institutions and systems that provide social services to the people. The quality of education available in Nigeria today has never been this poor… Public hospitalshave become even far worse than the mere consulting clinics they were in 1999, and the countless private hospitals that are now found at almost every nook of the country (many of which are owned by ‘doctors’ merely flaunting licenses to kill and get away with it)are beyond the reach of the common man. The decay has become so much that even government officials, their families and cronies, have totally lost confidencein hospitals in the land, and now go abroad to treat even very minor illnesses … Also, the security situation is so bad that Nigeria now looks so unsafe and unpredictable. Armed robbery has remained on the increase; they now operate with utmost impunity as if the law and its agents have since been banished from the land.

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