Thursday, June 27, 2013

Embassies and the Urge to Pee



You have this wanting-to-pee feeling when you go to embassies. It is still a hypothesis, because you have only been to three embassies. You say three in your mind because the Ugandan Embassy felt like an NGO office, or one of those ministry headquarters that you imagine not many people go to, like the Ministry of Water Resources, not an embassy.

You wonder if it is the air conditioners. The first time you entered the Austrian Embassy the thought crossed your mind, as goose pimples popped up all over your arms, that perhaps the cold waiting room was to remind people that ‘our country is cold, do you really need to go?’ You entertained the crazy thought long enough to make you scan the ceiling for cameras that were watching people who shivered too much or complained about it being too cold so as to deny them visas. You stopped yourself, felt ashamed and looked around to make sure no one was watching you looking round the room.

The fact that there are no restrooms out in the waiting areas makes it even worse. The South African embassy reminds you of apartheid. Saying this out loud might be politically incorrect, so you don’t tell anyone. The fact that the people are unfriendly makes you remember the prisons in the South African apartheid struggle movie, Sarafina. It reminds you of the interrogation rooms where they tortured young students. This was the first embassy you ever went to. That day you felt so cold, you put your hands between your thighs and grit your teeth. You have never admitted it, but the fact that you didn’t even get the visa further taints that experience and all you can think of when someone mentions South Africa, is goose pimples, wanting to pee, and apartheid.

From what you hear, people in embassies and visa sections all over the world are not nice people. You wonder if they do a meanness test before they allow people work in visa sections.

You find it fascinating watching people at embassies. The measured, grateful smiles, the silence, the exaggerated, faux politeness, the anticipation, the gasps when someone collects his passport, people’s eyes trying to bore through to see if the person leaving got a visa or not. You do not like the microphones they use at the Austrian Embassy and how you need to shout out your business for everyone to hear. Or how the slim, bespectacled, stern guy with one bad finger changes quickly from being brusque to smiling a smile that you could have sworn was not possible for that stern face. The last time you went, a tall man you guessed was from the East from his accent tried to argue with the stern visa officer about a document that was fake.

“You are very lucky,” the visa officer said, “the Consul was in a good mood. Normally we would have denied your visa because of this fake document.”

The man tried to explain why he had fake insurance papers. And all the while people sighed and shook their heads. You put your head down—you couldn’t bear the sight of this man, who looked and sounded more and more like a criminal the more he explained. In the end he received his passport.

“Three months?” he complained.

“Whatever! You should be lucky. Very lucky. We could have denied your visa.”

You looked away again. You counted the number of people until your turn and wondered if you could hold the pee until that time.

You are not sure if it was the urge to pee, but you felt like pulling the walls down, rummaging through the documents on the other side, snatching your passport and finding some corner in the room to pee. You felt like screaming, “fuck borders!” You hated the guy with the fake documents, people like him make it harder and harder to trust Nigerians. Then you calmed down, realizing that the more upset you got, the greater you felt the urge to pee.

In your room, you look at the three visas in your passport. And all you can think of is: wanting to pee.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

STOLEN MOMENTS


You really want to hear the punch line of Ralph's long joke. But three beers weigh down on your bladder. You wonder whose bright idea it was to put the bathroom down in Australia. He is looking at you now as he tells the joke; now that you are supporting yourself on your chair, preparing to get up. It will be rude to just go now, so you wait for him to turn his attention to someone else. You smile even though you have stopped listening to him. Suddenly his girlfriend gets up to go to the bathroom. You relax. You will hold this until she returns.

You have made the mistake of taking one more sip from the damn Star bottle. The one evil sip sends you running across the field to the bathroom. They laugh, all three of your friends.

You manage to get out your penis just in time. As you wet the toilet seat, you do not care; there was no time to aim before letting go. Running has made you a bit dizzy, tipsier. As you walk out into the darkness just past the wild lemon grass you almost bump into her, Ralph's girlfriend. You both laugh. You both say it at the same time: 'I think I am high.' She in English, you in Hausa. You giggle and high-five. As both your hands come down, they do not disengage. At first it feels like she is the one holding on, but you realise you are also doing it. Holding on. Your heart pounds; you realize what is happening, quickly. Then without words you both step back into the darkness behind the lemon grass and it starts to happen- the locking of lips that you know is nothing but trouble. Your hands reach for her breasts. You knead, at first too roughly, then gently. She doesn't stop you. You do not stop. Drunken footsteps approach and she pulls away, just as your fingers have found her nipples, beneath her blouse. 'Wait two minutes,' she says and walks away.

You are glad that they are all getting drunker and can’t notice your discomfort. You try not to look at her but when you do, she is laughing deliriously and rubbing the back of her boyfriend’s head. She too has stopped drinking. The erection you now have, her laughter which you now notice rings out in a way that is exaggerated and false, her boyfriend's drunken chatter and swearing, make you angry.

As you all say goodbye, leaving the beer garden, you look into her eyes, asking with yours: what the hell was that?. She smiles back but she says nothing with her eyes. Just a nice-to-hang-out-and-goodbye kind of smile. A that-really-amazing-stolen-kiss/grope-means-nothing-to-me kind of smile. You get it; it cuts you, deep.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

WHEN EVERYTHING ISN'T FINE

You have always had an intense fear of losing your mind. Of waking up without the memory of moments lived, shared, wasted and being in a world different from the one you know, from the one that knows you. It doesn’t help to that a few weeks to your exams in your first year in University someone you didn’t know called you to say they had found your favorite aunt who was in the same Law Faculty as you were, her bloated mass bent over, sweeping the streets outside the largest female hostel, whispering to herself. This was not the first exam she would be missing. It had happened before, before you got admitted into this University. And now that you think of it, the signs had been there more than 10 years before - the excessive sweeping, the laughing and talking to herself, the getting lost in her own quiet world- when she still spoke with her eyes, when she still laughed, when you still laughed together, before her eyes showed a place you could not reach. 

Your relationship started in the two bedroom low cost house your dad rented from your mother’s uncle in Kaduna. Your dad, mum and sister shared one room and your aunt, together with you and your younger brother shared the other. She was seven years older than you and lived mostly in fear of your mother who like her father knew only angry confrontation as a way to communicate. Quite often mum’s long arms would stretch out into a slap or a series of slaps. Your mother was her de facto mother, their mother having died when she was only a baby; your mum being the eldest daughter raised her under the heavy hand of their father. 

Many times when your aunt sat down to tell you stories, you could tell that she was censoring, wondering what she could or could not share with this precocious child who spoke sometimes like he was twice his age. Sometimes, right in the middle of a conversation she would drift, her pupils dilating, a smile appearing on her face and then a giggle. You would have to call out her name two or three times or shake her vigorously to get her to finish what she was saying. 

Once she told you about an Ijeoma who was bullying her in school. It worried her and for weeks she could think of nothing else but this other girl who was popular and feared. You don’t know what you were thinking but you found yourself- barely 12 at the time- becoming her advisor. In spite of the age difference you were quite close because you were the only person she could really share anything with.

It is now 11 years since your mother dragged her out of the campus in a rented taxi; since your aunt last attempted to be normal again. You are attending a funeral.  Your aunt is seated on one of the rented white plastic chairs right outside under the canopy. She is bloated like she has been since she slipped permanently into this world that no one knows. He dark face has too much talcum powder- dark  like she someone who spends hours every day trudging under the unforgiving afternoon sun. You walk over to say hello. You can feel the nervous eyes of your other relatives following you, asking if you know what you are doing, if you know that she is ‘not well’, if you remember. But you are determined.

“Aunty, good afternoon” you say, almost whispering, bending to be at the same level as her face.

“Ehen, how are you?” she says with her characteristic lost gaze. 

And you lie and say, fine. Fine, because that is the only way to end the conversation. The only way to hide the quiver in your voice. The only way not to cry. 

You walk away thinking, this is the answer we had been giving ourselves- we all kept telling ourselves everything was fine until we found her sweeping, whispering away, giggling in the streets.
 
You think of how everyone assumes everyone is ‘fine’. How there isn’t any visible social plan for dealing with persons suffering mental health issues. How families bear the total burden of understanding, and managing mental health. How 'managing' mental health means anything from denial to totally isolating the person. How there are hardly any therapists available even in this glitzy capital city. And how really, no one seems to care.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

HOW TO BREAK BAD NEWS


Being the text of a speech delivered on Tuesday 11th June, 2013 at the Responsibility to Report Seminar, organised by dRPC, NRN, Femke van Zeijl and supported by the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

Bad news is good business. As a journalist you know this. Your editor knows this. You did not become reporter of the month in February and last year in May because you reported about those buying plots of water in Eko Atlantic City or how a Nigerian was CNN journalist of the year. In February, you happened to be in Maiduguri when the soldiers shot at those civilians in the street and you got good pictures. Your cheap plaque still stands in the reception area of your office even though it is May.
Your source in Maiduguri tells you something big has happened. Bigger than just thirty civilians killed in the middle of the streets. Bigger than terrorist kingpins being arrested. Bigger than a lawmaker with bribe money in his long cap. They tell you a whole village, gone, not a soul left, only burnt out cinder. You run with it. As usual your editor trusts you. These are the things you must remember:
You hate to say it but you know that people have the attention spans of gold fish. Your goal is to catch as many people as possible, as early as possible. Remember also that evil contraption called smart phones. The smart phone is built to make life hard for you, the hustling journalist, tricking people into constantly scrolling and surfing with its myriad cool facilities. There is Twitter, Facebook, push email, blogs, instant messengers all struggling for the attention of your audience. Your goal is to stand out. Exaggerate your headline as much as you can. If more than five persons die, you can say that “scores perished”. By the time the reader realizes you mean six persons, they will have clicked already. Your job will have been done.
You need to publish your story as soon as possible, before Linda Ikeji puts it up on her blog and drags all the traffic to her site. To do that you cannot afford to be sloppy and wait for crucial facts to become clear. It is easy to deal with a report that is inchoate, just publish that generic phrase that cures all defects of incompleteness: ‘details to follow shortly’.
Twitter is a dangerous thing, slower only than the speed of light and subject only to the speed of your internet connection. If you can’t compete with them I say, quote them. Stalk Twitter and get sources from there. Send tweets or direct messages that ask simply, ‘are you sure?’ then proceed to report. What good is a media house that is the last to report the news? If you make a mistake, you must never fear the wrath of the people, for with Nigerians, while they may not instantly forgive, they are sure to shortly forget. And really, who needs forgiveness when people can forget?
You do not need any serious attribution. It is enough to say your paper ‘has learnt’ that 4,000 houses were destroyed. There is no need to send someone there or actually verify information from your source (who is also your ex-girlfriend from university and supplier of Maiduguri incense). Go to press.
Carefully vetted truth is a luxury that stopped being available in the 90’s before we got the internet. They will tell you in journalism school that your profession is about conscious, scrupulous information gathering, processing and scrutiny. But they lied. Because they didn’t see those millions who have social media threatening to snatch food from your mouth. They didn’t see those meddlesome interlopers called citizen journalists who are there where the news happens, tweeting it real time with pictures of fire and mangled bodies and blown up buildings. They didn’t know nosy bloggers. Anyone who expects you do snail reporting is an enemy of progress and you must treat such person as a child treats a cold bucket of water in the morning. You must keep up, because the world treats the second to break news like the last. There is neither forgiveness nor forgetting for the one who comes second.

One of your sacred duties as a Nigerian government official is to amend the figures of fatalities. Nigerians are bad with numbers and they have bad tempers. If you give them the real figures of how many Muslims or Christians or Igbos or Hausas were killed they will go and start another round of killing. So when 500 people are killed in that village, you must report the official figure of sixteen. It is better.
As a government official you know the score. There is only one default answer when bad news happens. Deny. Deny. Deny. The key word being, Deny. Deny that it happened all together. Say that the video that shows a girl being gang raped is an attempt to discredit your leadership. Because after all, that is the chief job of your enemies working for your downfall, through means both physical and metaphysical. When in doubt, never say you will find out or investigate until you are absolutely certain that it has happened. Again, you can deny knowledge of the event if its occurrence has become too notorious to deny.
Government is big and complex so no one should expect government agencies to come up with a consistent narrative of the tragedy. Anyone who criticizes different agencies for giving different figures of casualties has no idea how government works. You must not bother with these people. It is important in the long run if you admit that the bad incident has happened to take your time to react. You are not like the latter day journalists who are struggling to keep up with the speed of social media. Your job is to create balance in the world, to slow things down.
In case however, you meet a really persistent, overzealous journalist who has cornered you and you know you cannot escape, it will be helpful if you teach them a lesson or two about the importance of a pecking order. The journalist should be made to see the folly of directing serious questions to someone who has an oga at the top. How do they expect you to speak out of turn in a matter of such grave importance? If however you ARE the oga at the top, you can then assure them that as you speak a high-powered committee has just been set up with eminent Nigerians to ‘look into’ the problem. Done.

Whatever your job, government official or journalist, bad news can be good news, depending on how you handle it. God sees your heart and will bless all your hustle. And in the end, that is really all that matters.


Monday, June 10, 2013

Stories and Tragedies




You are thinking of stories. Your special moments' quota for the week is exhausted. There is nothing ethereal, or scandalous, or epiphanic in the news, in your life, in the streets. Nothing spicy from eavesdropping on strangers, no special insight into their lives. Your neighbors are all behaving this week. And you desperately need a story for your deadline.
Even the weather isn’t inspiring. There aren’t ‘rays of the sun glistening through the mist’, no ‘shimmering lights’, nothing to make that gripping opening paragraph that you sometimes extend too long because you really have nothing concrete to write about. So you step out to buy a razor blade from the shack across the street from your house. For your toe nails that won’t be cut by your small nail cutter. 

Malam Haruna is away in some market, getting little cartons of milk, cigarettes, sweets in funny looking wrappers and cheap, too-sweet bread that is too heavy on some days and has more hollow spaces than dough on others. You ask his younger brother, who has the same type of tribal marks as he does, if he has razor blades. He always has a bewildered look on his face, like a stray puppy that has been cornered by screaming kids. He searches and searches. You are not exasperated like you usually are when you are in a hurry and he can’t find what you want. You just wait.

A guy you recognize as one of the motorcyclists around your area in Lugbe screams as he approaches the shop: ‘A bani Goodluck.’ Give me Goodluck.
‘What did you say?’ you ask, giggling.
‘Goodluck.’ He replies and with a hangdog expression adds, ‘magani ne.’ It is a drug.

You collect your razor blades and ask him to show you the pack when he receives it. It is Tramadol, a highly addictive prescription opioid, used for severe pain. It causes feelings of euphoria and well-being, a mild high that lasts for a few hours depending on dosage. You know this because you almost got addicted last year when the doctor prescribed it for the pain in your broken leg. 

You remember feeling guilty about lying to the doctor when he asked if your pain was still severe. It was there alright, but nowhere near the severity you implied by the vigorous nodding of your head when the doctor asked. On your way to the pharmacy, your body trembled at the thought of the feeling you were about to have. You stopped to check for your prescription again because the last time that you forgot it, no one agreed to sell the drug to you. 

You knew Tramadol well by now- it made you feel so good the first time, you had to google this crazy drug- you knew how it worked; the increase in the levels of serotonin in your brain, the relaxation, the blocking of the transmission of pain signals to your brain, the euphoria, the feeling that nothing in the world matters, that nothing can hurt you. 

You remember your bag of pills sitting by your old-fashioned steel bed on a small raffia stool, right under the bedside lamp, illuminated, so you could watch the pack, high, and marvel at the wonders of Tramadol Hydrochloride. You remember waiting, playing a game to see if you could tell the exact moment when the drug kicked in. 

You remember taking more than two 50mg pills because you convinced yourself the pain in your ankle was too much to bear and you floated in a hot balloon and your girlfriend suddenly became a fiend who hated your guts, to whom you needed to send a text message:  ‘I have had enough of this relationship.’ Your Tramadol induced thoughts rationalized:  I don’t need her. I don’t need her. She drinks too much. She loves her job more than she loves me. She is not even Nigerian. ..

You give the man back the pack of drugs. Perhaps this is a story, you think. 

As you sit to write, you think, the fact that drugs like Tramadol are sold so openly in Abuja, is not a story. It is a tragedy.