“Why do I ever think of things falling apart? Were they ever whole” – Arthur Miller, Late American playwright and essayist
I am forced by some very discomforting thoughts to remember today Bessie Head, the late South African writer and her 1989 collection of short stories entitled, Tales Of Tenderness And Power. I remember particularly one of the stories in that collection captioned, “Village People,” especially, its opening lines which reads: “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.”
Now, this is one assertion that immediately compels one to start visualizing images of scenes and objects that readily constitute benumbing evidences of “dignified poverty” spread all over Africa, where people try to give some form of shine and panache to a very horrible situation they have somehow convinced themselves would always be with them. In those two brief lines, Ms. Head states a truth about Africa which we may find very demoralizing and objectionable, but which would remain extremely difficult to contradict.
But is poverty the only thing we appear to have accepted as inevitable component of life in this part of the world? What about crime? How come crime appears to have gradually become too natural with us in Nigeria here, that we even go ahead to put up notices to moderate its operation? We appear to relish more the very unpleasant job of merely alerting people to it than doing anything to stamp it out. Now, if I may ask: what usually occurs to your mind each time you enter a hotel room in Nigeria and on the wash-basin, dressing mirror, bed-sheet or towel you see the following inscription: “Hotel Property, Do Not Remove!”
If you ask me, this warning simply takes it for granted that guests would naturally wish to remove those items, and so to forestall that, care is taken to advise them not to remove those particular items as the hotel is still in need of them. In other words, the absence of such a warning on any other item should be construed as an automatic authorization any guest requires to move those things together with his personal effects, if he so wishes, at the expiration of his stay. That’s just the implication. Or have we not also thought about that? What are we then, by this practice, telling numerous foreign visitors that use those hotel rooms daily about ourselves?
Yet such warnings abound everywhere, but I doubt that it in any way bothers anyone, even those public officers spending billions of naira on their so-called efforts to manage the nation’s image. Indeed, it no longer shocks us to see daily on virtually every building, even rickety, dilapidated ones, this inscription, usually written in very bold letters, even at the risk of seriously defacing the structures: “This House Is Not For Sale!!” And in most cases, they usually add, for maximum effect: “Beware of 419! Beware of Fraudsters!” For goodness sake, is Nigeria the only country that fraudsters can be found? Is this the only country with records of incidents of people selling properties that do not belong to them? Are there no better, more decent, less socially destructive ways of protecting people from fraudsters than screaming on virtually every house out there: “This House Is Not For Sale, Beware of 419!!” Are these houses not properly registered at the appropriate offices where prospective buyers can go and verify their real owners? Today, almost every undeveloped, refuse-ridden land on every street hosts at a prominent spot an imposing signpost informing people the land is not for sale, plus the usual warning screaming to prospective buyers to beware of fraudsters and 419. The impression the continued proliferation of these warning signs can only convey is that most Nigerians do nothing else than wander all day looking for each other’s properties to sell to unsuspecting buyers; that our society is filled with so many rich, dumb buyers without the slightest awareness that checks ought to be run on properties before paying for them; that the system here is so chaotic and unreliable that people prefer to rely only on this very crude, people-diminishing method of discouraging potential property buyers with mostly badly written notices.
Out there, my beloved sister, Dr. Dora Akunyili, is shouting herself hoarse in a determined effort to convince us that she is re-branding Nigeria or its image; she claims that she is striving to give Nigeria a positive image, but I doubt if it has ever occurred to her that this unwholesome phenomenon alone can easily destroy the best cultivated image. What for instance would a foreign visitor think of us, after observing this inscription on virtually every building he saw on a particular street he visited? There are some crooks in Nigeria, like in every other nation, but, for goodness sake, this is NOT a nation inhabited by only fraudsters! Decent people like me also exist here, okay! And it is somebody’s job to ensure that this point is cleared underlined to every ear that can hear.
And because we appear to demonstrate through our indifference to the whole thing that these vulgar displays are in order, foreigners living among us have gone ahead to add some really ruinous sophistication to the ugly phenomenon. In front of even some hardly known, struggling foreign companies today, you must find notices screaming: “No Waiting; No Loitering.” The next time you visit an embassy, try and look at the kind of notices placed in front of the buildings. Indeed, United States Embassy in Lagos here appears to be the most enthusiastic offender in this regard. Only recently, while visiting the US embassy, I was suddenly moved to look at the number of large, gleaming notices in front of the compound warning people against patronizing touts, submission of fake information and documents etc. I can’t really recall now how many notices I saw in front of the same embassy gate saying the same the thing in the same words, and standing gallantly near each other, in silent competition. I have not tried to investigate whether this is what obtains at the US embassies in other countries, but I am willing to guess that this proliferation of demeaning notices may not be the case in other lands. Inside the US embassy building itself, the rooms are generously splashed with well illustrated notices warning people that fake visas or passports or false information or documents can open many doors and but close one permanently. Even warning notices meant for the blind and deaf could not have been so generously pasted!
Indeed, the thing is so gratuitously done that I am forced to wonder if the aim is really to discourage fraudsters or to advertise a well-cultivated opinion about Nigeria to visiting Americans and other foreign nationals who also visit the embassy as often as Nigerians. I am tempted to suspect that the latter is the prime motivation, and as I look at Ms. Robin Sanders, US Ambassador to Nigeria, and observe the facial features she shares with me, I am forced to wonder how she is able to allow this clearly unhealthy profiling and stereotyping to continue flourishing during her tenure against the land of her ancestors.
Yes, we can say that after all we asked for it by failing to contain the vile activities of some Nigerians that clearly portray here as a country of crooks. Indeed, there are fraudsters in this nation, as in any other country, but this is by no means, a nation peopled by ONLY f
raudsters. It ought to be clear that fraudsters constitute only a negligible minority in this country, but their evil deeds seem to speak louder than the good works of the decent, hardworking majority. And although the fellows ruling us are mostly very low characters who care very little about reputation and self esteem, and whose understanding of being in public office is to loot the treasury pale, I refuse to accept that any nation’s politicians should form the basis for judging the people’s character. Else, why do Americans still speak contemptuously about the “Washington crowd,” and yet hallow their country at any given opportunity? Yes, we have the Dimeji Bankoles out there, the Iboris, the Bode Georges, Governor-General Alams, Big Tafas, Obasanjos, IBBs, Dariyes and the rest of them, who know only how to rubbish the country and give it a monstrous image, but for goodness case, this does not automatically consign all of us to the refuse dump reserved for low, dishonourable characters. The time to do a rethink and act accordingly is now. Enough of this debilitating profiling, please.