Monday, February 25, 2013

once upon a suicide...

I hear that a boy who hanged himself in the huge gully that has mango trees is to be buried today in the Christian burial ground opposite my house. I have never been to the gully but from the descriptions of Mercy, our Ibibio house maid who knows everything about everyone, I must have passed by the place before. It is mango season and I wonder if he saw a ripe mango as he tied the rope, first to a strong branch and then in a noose around his neck; if perhaps he had some before he died- a last meal. He used the rope his family used to fetch water from their deep well. He untied it from the metal bowl- a gas canister cut in half. Mercy tells me the details as if the suicide was her idea. My mind goes through all the processes starting with choosing the site, a lonely gully. Would he have gone to more than one site? Did he think of another way? Swallowing something perhaps? The gully was not too close to his house and I wonder if this means he carefully planned it so that he would have been perfectly dead by the time anyone even thought of looking for him. What went through his mind when he loosened the tight rope around the half gas canister by the well, when he folded the long rope, put it around his waist or in his pocket or in a little knapsack? Did he know how to swim, was that why he didn’t just jump into the well? I wanted to see his face, look for the burn signs around his neck, look at his eyes- as shut as they may be, look at his face. For answers.
I will attend the funeral.
I am thirteen or fourteen, when I discover my fascination with the burial ground, hurriedly built coffins, and sombre sermons struggling to rise above crying relatives. From the window of our small living room, I can see through metal window bars, the street that separates our identical block of low cost housing from the Christian part of the open burial ground. A burial usually starts with two or three men early in the morning with daggers, shovels and machetes. There is no readable expression on their creased faces, except eventually, tiredness, by which time their entire bodies are gleaming with sweat. They are just rounding up when the first people, usually relatives, begin to arrive, arms folded, mouth hanging down, eyes staring beyond their gaze, routine heaving and sighing. The first ones apart from the grave diggers come to check if the grave is the right size, if they need to break more of the walls of the grave, if they need to dig deeper.
The women are my signal that I need to prepare before it becomes harder to penetrate the crowd, to see the grave, freshly dug, to see the coffin, and smell the freshly sprayed wood. Sometimes, there is an unsprayed coffin.
Today, the diggers come and the inspectors come and the women come and the pickup truck comes and all the other cars that make our street temporarily difficult to pass. I am there before the truck but after the women. It is 4pm and dad is not due home for another two hours. I do not come in through the gate of the burial ground, but through a hole in the barbed wire fence, the point closest to my house. All the shrubs from this point on are familiar- I was here only two days ago for another burial. A child in a small coffin.
His brothers look upset. I know they are his brothers because of their resemblance with the dead boy in the picture on the funeral program. They have the same nose and vertical tribal mark between the eyes and square head.  They look angry, not sad. They do not nod when the pastor, preaching in Hausa says, ‘For everything under heaven there is a time. A time to be born and a time to die.’ They do not hum amen when the pastor, with veins bulging on his neck, prays that God will ferry him straight to heaven. They seem not to agree with the pastor that he is in a better place. One of the brothers turns. Our eyes meet. I had been staring at him for many minutes.  I see in his eyes a need to punch someone.  To drag his brother out of the coffin and slap him for dying.
I do not know the words of the hymn they are singing but I recognise it from the other funerals.
I do not feel like crying yet. That is until the pastor asks the family to pour the sand on the coffin starting with his parents. I cannot see his father’s face; I am standing behind him.  His mother fetches a handful of the damp, red laterite that has been dug up from the ground. Two plump women are holding her by the arm. She is sobbing as she moves forward to throw the sand into the hole. The women let go of her and just as they do she screams and makes to jump into the grave. The women, faster than her, catch her just as she begins sliding down the heap of laterite by the side of the grave. There is a commotion and she is carried away.
As they drag her away, my nose begins to tremble and hurt. I am fighting back the tears because I know that once that first one rolls down I will break down and sob like I am being whipped with a cane of thorns. Holding back that first tear is important.
I turn to leave before it starts to get rowdy. I push my way through the crowd, jog along the bushy path kicking the broad leaves of the bright green shrubs, run past the ambulance and across the road until I reach my gate. I still have a few more minutes until my father returns.  He is so predictable, my father. I lock myself in the toilet and feel my chest swelling, about to explode. I change to the bathroom instead. The toilet irritates me because there is a leak and the floor floods once someone flushes or when the soak-away is full. The plaster on the bathroom wall is coming off and there is green algae growing in many parts. Sometimes I want to demolish the bathroom and rebuild it with white tiles like the toilet in my Uncles Dogo’s house on Waff Road. The memory of that toilet makes me ashamed because of what I did a couple of years ago. I was with my mum and I needed to go to the toilet. I lied to my cousins that I wanted to pee. So they took me to a white toilet that had a fluorescent light. I had finished before I realised there was neither water nor toilet roll. I sat on the toilet seat for a long time contemplating what to do, until I heard my mother ask me to hurry because we were about to leave. In my confusion I picked up an old pair of jeans on the floor and wiped my bottom. I folded the jeans to cover the mess and tucked it beneath the pile of dirty clothes in the corner and hoped they would never find out.
My mind returns to the burial and I wonder what it feels like to die. What eternal non-existence is, what it feels like. I close my eyes and try to conjure eternity. My mind travels through dark tunnels of space and time until I start to get dizzy and scared and I open my eyes. I wonder what it means when they say God has no beginning and has no end. Again, I try to imagine having no beginning and it gives me the same dizzy feeling.
Death. Dying. Eternity. Eternal death. This is what makes me finally break down. I cry hot, painful tears. My chest swells and contracts and I feel heavy with pain. Why do we have to die? I think of all the things that my father and Christian faith taught me about God and His right to rule and Adam and Eve blowing our chances at eternity just because of some fruit. I understand it according to the Bible: why we have to die and all. But I do not know if God made the right decision, letting billions of people suffer for the sins of one greedy couple. I know the answers in my head, but not in my heart. I cry. For a suicidal stranger. For what I will share with that stranger one day.
I hear my brother Azan’s voice and then my father’s. I take off my clothes, open the shower and let the water rush over my face.

Sunday, February 24, 2013


*"Because I care" series #2

Because I care about this great nation, last week I announced my decision to run for president. 

Since then I have thought long and hard about minorities and the way successive governments have treated them. What do we do when we find people who are either blind or hard of hearing or otherwise physically challenged? We start an NGO and treat them like specimen. The president promises to do something about them. The first lady visits them during Christmas and struggles to show that she is not irritated by cripples and orphans. My government will treat them differently. My government will treat them like the equal human beings that they are. Apart from smiling at them for no reason and saying please and thank you, it is my pleasure to announce that my running mate, although I haven’t chosen him or her yet, will have some form of disability, whether of the limbs, or of the skin- even if it is some tribal marks. Have you ever seen someone with tribal marks nominated to contest elections? I will end that discrimination.

Already the wisdom in my manifesto is showing. Any president who is serious about governance cannot afford to marry or live with a partner. Two things this week reinforce my position. Look at the promising South African ‘blade runner’, Oscar Pistorious, who ran his way to global prominence recently. Demons invaded him and the young man went and shot his live-in girlfriend four times through the bathroom door. I mean even if his lawyers turn out to be like OJ Simpson’s lawyers he will still go to jail for possession of unlicensed weapons. And I am not sure they allow prisoners take part in the Olympics. 

Again, last week the wife of the president (soon I will call him my predecessor) had a resurrection party to celebrate her return to life from a protracted death. She came back after seven long days of death. God be praised. Some sources say that about 500million naira was raised, over six times the amount that was reportedly paid to Kim Kardashian to show her gorgeous sex-tape making self on stage for five minutes. I have not seen that sex tape. I would never do such a sinful thing. But I digress. Heaven bless Dame Patience. Think of how difficult it is to compete for the attention of Nigerians with a hot, white, slim, unafraid-to-show-skin-we-all-have-seen-before young woman. But by god, the Dame won. If the death of Jesus and his resurrection after a mere three days is anything to go by, then Kim has failed and failed forever. No wonder she ran away after two minutes on stage. As president I will insist that all celebrities who come into Nigeria fill a form declaring sexual history, amount of skin they plan to expose on stage and a CV showing at least one skill set- singing, dancing, playing Ludo. Anything apart from the ability to live, breath and have sex. But this is beside the point. Think of Jonathan without a partner, without rumours of a wife laundering millions of dollars, without the pressure of inter-First Lady land disputes, without having to host the most expensive resurrection party ever. That’s a happy Jonathan. And for now, Nigeria sorely needs a happy Jonathan. 

After I declared my intention to run for president, something happened that bothered me. First my friend and father (he doesn’t know he is my friend yet but as my popularity grows, this will become clear to him) General Buhari announced that he was withdrawing his candidacy for a younger candidate. I was so happy that finally he had recognized someone like me as a contender in the race. I went out and celebrated with some cat-fish pepper soup (I am still working on being a vegetarian. It isn’t easy). Suddenly, a few days ago, he pulled an about face on us. It was reported that he said only death can stop him from contesting. I had already started preparing posters with my photo and that of a stern death-to-corrupt-politicians looking Buhari in preparation for his endorsement of a younger candidate. You can imagine the trauma this caused me. As president I will push for legislation to prevent politicians from changing their minds. The effects are just too disastrous. 

I am a believer in last words. This is my one quarrel with Oscar Pistorious. People shoot people. We have been doing it for centuries. The world dumps the cheap small arms they are bored with in Africa. We have to use it for something. Who buys a new piece of equipment and just leaves it lying in a room-divider? The real issue is last words. Every person deserves a dying declaration. The least Oscar could have done was kindly explain to his girlfriend what the shooting was all about and maybe allow her one last post on her Facebook and Twitter accounts. Maybe with a hashtag like #dyingthingz or #hadIknown. 

I will insist that we have laws that mandate killers to give their victims the privilege of last words. All these, because, I care.

Thursday, February 14, 2013


It is Sunday morning. I am a stubborn sleeper. My fingers find and silence my phone when the alarm goes off at 5am. My mind silences the muezzin in the mosque in front of my house as he begins his sweet call to prayer shortly after. They are not enough to rouse my sleepy head. But when the dozen motorcycles begin to roar away from the mosque after the Morning Prayer, I cannot sleep any longer. 

It used to take me a lot of adjusting to make the daily mental transition from the concrete and glass jungle that is Abuja city where I work to the dingy satellite settlement, Lugbe, 20 kilometers away, where I call home. Moving from Lugbe to the city centre used to feel like the sudden burst of a halogen lamp after being in pitch darkness for so long. I used to feel self-conscious when I first moved here, wondering if people could tell by looking at me, that I had travelled 20 kilometers to get to town. 

Some days it feels like Lugbe is chucked away, to the side, in the dark shadows of Abuja city- the days when, driving home at night I miss my turn because the lights I use as a signpost aren’t turned and every junction looks the same; days when I wake up on Sunday morning and find that none of the two functional ATM machines in Lugbe work and I have to make the long 40kilometer round trip just to get some cash; days when I stroll past Malam Haruna’s wooden provision store, which doubles as a house and see scores of young men coming out of shacks made of wood and old cement and rice bags. 

On other days when I feel thankful for cheap restaurants like Iya Alaje whose rough stew and fish is just as I like it, for the effectiveness of motorcycles which are banned in the city, for a rent I can afford, I am careful not to romanticize poverty, privation and the absence of government. 

Lugbe as a settlement has no running water and the sale of water from boreholes is big business. Men push carts through the streets carrying yellow 20-litre water gallons.

I walk into the bathroom and discover my 50-litre bucket is empty as are the two smaller buckets. I wait for the sound of clanking metal which is how the water sellers announce their presence. In Lugbe one learns to master sounds and calls. A series of clanks done to a rhythm is the water seller. The jingle of flattened bottle corks is the cobbler. The call “Trade by barter” sung repeatedly as “traybabata” is from the guy who gives exchanges plastic containers for old clothes or household items, “Doze-bee!” is the garbage collector and the call “digiway poto-poto comot” which is an attempt to say “Digging well, Poto-poto (mud) comot (out)” announces the guy who cleans abandoned wells or fixes collapsed wells.
I recognize the water seller passing by and call out to him in Hausa. 

“Galan biyu”, I tell him and he brings out two gallons from his cart. I think of asking him if there is a rule mandating all the water sellers to use only yellow gallons. I have never seen a water seller with a white or black water gallon even though these are easily available in the market. As I take the first gallon into my bathroom I smile and decide that it is a silly question to ask.

Sandra runs the drinking joint that has no sign post or business name. We just call the place Sandra.  My neighbor and I like to come here on Sunday because it is close to Iya Alaje, the only decent restaurant that sells food on Sunday morning. We ask one of the attendants to go get us rice and fish. 

Sandra converts from a drinking joint in the day to a brothel at night. In the day time, the sex workers mill about, smoking, chatting or washing before their work hours begin. Occasionally a desperate customer will show up in the day time and the sex worker will frenziedly drop all else, rush a bath and prepare to do business. Unlike brothels in the city- most of which operate in the shadows- Sandra is smack in the heart of residential Lugbe, loud and confidently carrying on business. I am friendly with one of the sex workers here. Like many of the other girls, most people have no idea what her birth name is, apart from “African Queen” which is her business name. 

African Queen is sprawled out on one of the couches- Sandra does not get much patronage on Sunday mornings. As we walk in to sit, she sits up and says hello. She smiles what I call her business smile

My friend asks her where she is from. Enugu, she says. There is something both sad and curious about African Queen. While she is the most popular sex worker in Sandra, she is also the most humble and courteous. It is hard to find her screaming or fighting, something that happens regularly here. I risk her becoming suspicious or aggressive and ask her why she is here in Lugbe. 

Through a somewhat incoherent narration, I am able to glean certain facts- she is from Enugu, is from a large family and goes home every month to convince her mother she is actually in school, studying. She does not give me a pathetic story of poverty and privation. 

“I no like to dey ask anybody for money,” she says. “If you ask man for help, all of dem want to fuck you. Nobody want to help you without getting something. And me, I want things. So I do what I can to help myself.” 

I am both impressed and saddened by the honesty in her story. I ask her why she chose the outskirts, why she chose dingy Lugbe over the city.

“When I dey for East, den tell me say, if I just come Abuja, fuck man just a night, I go get 50,000. Na im I come. But when I come, I see people dey prize me 4,000. When I ask, why, dem come tell me say, dat one na for town. By den I don already start.”

She tells me of men who took her for the night and abandoned her without payment. She remembers one who felt bad, because she didn’t react aggressively and came back the following day to pay what he owed. And then of course there is Sandra who regularly slaps and punches her sex workers sometimes for offenses as little as being ‘rude’. 

Lugbe casts a shadow even over African Queen. I leave Sandra, with a bellyful of rice and fish, grateful for little privileges. 

As I take a shortcut through a particularly muddy road back home, thinking how I will need to buy more water to wash up, I feel sad at how much acceptance there is of the lack of government presence in the Federal Capital Territory, as close as 20 kilometers from the city centre. I think of how, although much of the manpower and labour that services the city pours into it daily from settlements like Lugbe, this place sits sadly in the shadows of Abuja. 

I wonder if the President who passes by almost every other week on his way to the airport, knows that African Queen and I cannot get something as basic as running water. 

I lay down in my room and wait for electricity so I can iron my clothes for Monday. I hear the sound of thunder. The darkening clouds darken my room. I know I will wait a long time for the electricity.

Monday, February 4, 2013


The word ‘business’ is a cliché, the relevance of which has attained gargantuan proportions in Nigeria. Business meetings- anything from seeing an ex-girlfriend that one has sworn to his current girlfriend or wife that he is not sleeping with to paying your carpenter for the side stool he fixed- are sacred. Business partners typically have the most intense form of relationship. “Businessman” or “Businesswoman” is the nebulously omnibus job description that solves the problem of having to explain why one is idle or why one has so much money without any visible or legal source of income.  Being ‘into business’ can mean anything from importing cheap substandard goods from China to having a rich generous lover. Some statistics say that the majority of Nigerians are into agriculture. That is a blatant lie. The majority of Nigerians are into ‘business’.  Now, you may be forgiven if you don’t have an actual business in Nigeria. But it is a mortal sin, not to have a business card otherwise known as complimentary card or just card

It goes beyond sinning to not have a business card. It is an existential issue of the highest degree. It questions your identity as a Nigerian. Recently I have been going about my normal business, pun intended, without a business card. When I say I don’t want children, people greet me with surprise. But when I say I have no business card (not that I have run out of cards) they greet me with horror.  I get the you-are-an-evil-alien-that-deserves-to-die look. That look isn’t nice. You don’t want to lie in bed wondering why bad things happen to good people. To avoid this, you must understand the business of business cards.

Whether you are a ‘General Contractor’ or ‘Friend of His Excellency the Executive Governor’, the business card can prove to be more important than the business. Consequently, you must take care in its production. A floppy, dull looking card can be an instant business death sentence. Your card precedes you. Many times that will be the only contact you will make. Make it nice, firm, glossy. Or gold embossed if you have anything to do with His Excellency the President or His Excellency, The Executive Governor

Make sure you have at least three phone numbers on the card. This shows you have at least three phones. No self-respecting business Nigerian takes this for granted. True, one of the phones may be a cheap China dual-sim phone but nobody can tell- three numbers show you don’t muck around with your business. It is not your fault that not a single network provider in Nigeria can be relied upon. Whoever criticizes your three phones, may their own businesses collapse. 

You need titles. Every academic qualification must be clearly printed. If you are a lawyer for example it is not enough to write your name and call yourself a legal practitioner. That is a waste of space on a business card. You need to add Barrister in front of your name and Esq behind. Then you must add LLB (Hons), BL and any other acronym you have acquired including all those management and arbitration courses they advertised to you in Law School and during NYSC. Below all of this you will write out your full title: Barrister and Solicitor of the Supreme Court of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Only another bad-belle lawyer can fail to see the significance of all of this.

You must keep your business cards handy. You never know when you will run into someone rich, famous or extremely beautiful who has no time to wait for you to search your six pockets and fat multi-layered wallet for your business card. Get a nice card holder. Or arrange them nicely in your breast pocket. 

Striking up a conversation using business cards is an art that takes you everywhere from doing business to someone’s bed. Meet a total stranger on a plane and as you look into their eyes, put your hand in your breast pocket and slide out your business card in time to coincide with ‘Hi, my name is Emeka. But you can call me Mekus.’ It will not matter if you are as useless to each other as a condom to an impotent man. A proper introduction is all that counts. They will take your business card and stare into it pretending to care, by which time you will have gotten their attention. The rest, if you are smart, will become history. 

May the good god who guides all things Nigerian, guide you and your business cards to people who will bless your hustle.