Monday, July 29, 2013


I was in Venice when I heard that Kate and William had a baby boy. From one leader-in-waiting to another, I congratulate William. I am not crazy about children but I admire people who can make the sacrifice to have them. I am particularly impressed by how the whole global media decided to park outside Kate’s hospital and wait for the baby to be born. It doesn’t matter that people are dying in Syria and Egypt and Gwoza, and there is starvation all around the world. What we need is positive news, like the news of one baby for days and days on end to remind us that in addition to all the suffering, important English babies are being born. And especially CNN in America. I am glad that America is such a good sport. They forgot all about the war of independence fought so they would not need to swear allegiance to a King or Queen in Britain. They too spent days waiting for this new potential British emperor. 

Only the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) didn’t join the queue for Mr William’s baby. This needs to change. All the former slaves of Britain were there including America. But no, not NTA. I will make sure that I remove the head of NTA as soon as I make it into Aso Rock in 2015. We cannot afford this kind of embarrassment. I want to apologize to William and Kate for this. I will do something about it when I become president and promise that should they choose, in spite of the hectic affairs of state (running the British Empire isn’t easy),  to find time for one more baby after 2015, I will personally lead the delegation to St Mary’s hospital. Also as soon as I can find their email, I will send them a few messages including pdfs of free e-books about child care, how to get back the pre-pregnancy body (for Kate) and what to do if your baby just won’t sleep at night. I want to know though, will Kate breastfeed the little emperor or is it against the royal rules? I just want to say though, that in Africa once a woman has had a baby, it is not considered offensive for her to breastfeed in public. It is staring at a nursing mother’s breast that is considered rude. So, if Kate feels a need, fired by her maternal instincts, to take out her now royal breasts to feed the new potential emperor, I will support this. I know that many foreign commentators, especially British ones will be up in arms, but my government will back Kate. There is nothing wrong with a white woman breastfeeding in public, just as there is nothing wrong with showing naked African women in the name of documentaries and telling stories. 

So, Dele Momodu in congratulating Kate and William wrote the following on Twitter: “My heartfelt congratulations to the British Royal family on the birth of a new Prince today at St. Mary's Paddington where we had our sons.” I like Dele. I like how he is not ashamed to say things like ‘me too I had my sons in England where Willy and Kate had theirs’. All that remains is for him to give them advice on what to do when the boy has a fever or has teething problems.  I am happy especially because he recently attempted to run for president. And no, it is not a shame for one seeking the highest public office to brag about having his sons in a British public hospital. There is really nothing wrong if he finds it hard to decide if he wants to be the publisher of a lifestyle paparazzi magazine or a serious public figure. We all have things that confuse us- for example I get confused about whether to wear long or ankle length socks in the morning. I will make sure to put some ads in his Ovation magazine to support his hustle.

In support the ongoing debate about the propriety of marrying girls just attaining puberty, I want to add that we need to extend this to include boys. Boys too should become adults as soon as they start growing pubic hair or right after their first wet dream, whichever comes sooner. This is only fair, seeing as our country permits the same for girls. Maybe while doing that we can consider removing the age limit for running for office. A person who is old enough to marry and raise kids should be able to do simple things like make laws. But think of the cute couples we will have if we also allow 13 year old boys to marry. It will be Gandhi all over again. How sweet. 

Ps.  Governor Yari Abubakar of Zamfara decided recently to purchase arms for men of the state’s vigilante groups to improve security in the villages. In arming this new militia does he think of the consequences? Can he not learn from the case of Peter Odili in Rivers and Ali Modu Sheriff in Borno? Does it not occur to Abubakar that once you give arms, you create a new monster?

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Sameness and Difference

Every slum feels the same, especially when you were born in one. I say this to my friend as I complain about having nothing to write about after visiting Dutsen Alhaji twice to write a story about this settlement on the outskirts of Abuja. The sameness of backwater communities and settlements threatens to torpedo any brilliant angles I might come up with. Unpaved, meandering roads that expand and contract without rhyme or reason, houses in unplanned clusters, people seeming to mill about aimlessly, fecal matter and dead animals in different stages of decomposition, dull eyes and many outdoor spots where cheap liquor is sold, children and stray animals scurrying across roads to escape motorbikes or cars and, on Sundays, cheap clothes ironed to death.
I do not have this presentiment that I am going to find nothing new when I am introduced to my guide, a writer who lives in the area. Sameness seems to be a quality that only an outsider can afford to see. But then she tells me after five minutes of meeting her that she too is new, having moved here only a few months before. We walk around, randomly choosing places to go to in this large area lying roughly adjacent Kubwa and before Bwari. At the end of the day I leave with no new insights apart from the ironic and ubiquitous existence of ‘House for sale’ signs side by side demolition notices from the FCT.

I go back a third time to look for something beyond the demolition signs, some distinguishing character in this familiar tale of poverty and privation. I find hills and big rocks attractive and going far into Dutsen Alhaji near the foot of the hills which is densely populated by houses is more for my personal edification than the quest for a story. The settlement is named after the hills around which it lies, Dutse being the Hausa word for stone, rock, or hill. 

There, close to the foot of the hills the sameness begins to disappear. 

One of the most solid looking buildings painted in puke green is the public convenience. This catches my attention because it has always struck me as odd that in the capital city, there are no functional public conveniences, forcing people to make unplanned detours into restaurants, banks and hotels. Right in front of this building for about 200 meters ahead is an almost perfect square of wood and zinc shacks. In the centre of the square is a huge heap of what looks like rubbish. 

It is a Sunday but the guys inside the square are as busy as flies in a Nigerian abattoir. I go round and round the square looking for a point of entry. I find it and as I come in full view of the centre of this square and the people working inside it, I realize it is impossible to be invisible and sneak around. One of the boys drops the old bag of empty flattened soda cans that he is sewing up and sizes me up. His eyes ask me: ‘What the hell do you want?’ I smile and walk toward him. 

‘Yaya dai?’ I greet nervously. I am not sure whether to stretch out my hand to make his suspicion go away.
‘My name is Danlami,’ I say in Hausa and add quickly, ‘and I am a journalist.’
His eyes light up. I am suddenly sweaty. I am not sure I should have said I was a journalist.
‘Ok?’ he says.

Behind him people lift up bags and weigh them on a big rusty improvised scale.
“I write for a newspaper,” I tell him rolling over the words quickly in my best I-was-born-speaking-this-language Hausa, “and I am doing a story about your trade.”

His eyes soften, but then the others in the background become interested. I become a subject of curiosity as much as, if not more than, these people I am curious about. I am uncomfortable but keep my smile, careful not to extrapolate hostility from mere inquisitiveness. 

I see old slippers, tins and cans, plastic, damaged household electronics and kitchenware all packed in separate old rice sacks. I ask my questions quickly, feigning prior interest in the subject. I keep my camera concealed in my pocket. As much as I am itching to take a photo, I find that increasingly, people become aggressive when they see cameras. 

He tells me that most of these things are gathered by ‘yan bola, scavengers who go from rubbish bin to rubbish bin.
“There are two groups of people here. The ‘yan bola who go picking rubbish bins and the guys who purchase good used items. Those ones don’t meddle with rubbish bins.”
“I am a ‘dan bola,” he adds, resuming sewing the bag of flattened soda cans. 

Slowly a crowd grows and I know I must leave quickly. Before then I learn that the items are weighed, sold and transported to Kano and Kaduna where they are recycled.
“Are you paying us for this?” a muscular bony faced boy with a plastic comb in his hair asks.
“I am a journalist, I do not pay to talk with people. And I am not making money from talking to you either, I am just doing a job.”
“Well then you are doing the wrong thing. We have hierarchy here. You do not just jump into a place and start talking to the people down below. You start by asking who is in charge. That is how things are done.”
“Well then, I am sorry. Where is your oga then?”

He points to the lanky man by the scales. He is wearing a faded orange t-shirt and sporting rough pre-dreadlocked hair. I walk quickly away from the small crowd and meet the head of this dump. He tells me he is busy and asks me to speak with one of his deputies. 

The deputy he points to is sitting leisurely on an old rusty refrigerator. At first he doesn’t want to talk with me but then I smoother him with smiles, silly chit-chat and a prolonged handshake that says, you need to be friendly or feel very very guilty about being rude to a harmless friendly stranger

He softens. He tells me they live in the wood and zinc shacks and repeats most of the things the first guy told me. 

Conditions are harsh and apart from the public bathroom and toilet nearby, there are absolutely no amenities here in this slum within a slum. However, amidst this pile of rubbish is meticulous organization and an almost religious observance of the hierarchy. The buyers of scrap negotiate with the head of the dump or his assigned deputy after weighing. There are those whose job is separating the items and arranging them into heaps and those in charge of bagging them. 

“If you were to have audience with government, what would you say your needs are, as a community?” I ask.
He is exasperated, glowers at me and kisses his teeth.
“Please don’t ask me those kinds of questions,” he says. “I thought you wanted to ask questions about our trade.”
I am struggling to understand the sudden hostility.
“Who cares about government? What have they ever done for anyone? We just try the best we can. I don’t need the government.”

I thank him profusely for his time and for letting me, albeit only a little, into the self-sufficient world of scavengers. I walk away without looking back. A few meters ahead, a boy coming from the opposite direction stops to beg for money. He is chewing sugarcane that still has its purple skin. I give him one hundred naira. It is not pity. I am not quite sure what it is, but I had stopped giving alms to healthy beggars. Somehow this didn’t feel like the same.

I do not continue my journey to the foot of the hills to finish the process of self-edification cut short by a potential story. I turn around and make my way home, knowing that this will be no routine tear-jerking story of communities abandoned by the government and living in the shadows of Abuja city. There is no unhappiness in this story of people who live dangerously under high tension power lines. Only enterprise, schools with names like ‘Pinky and the Brain’ and ‘boutiques’ encouraging you to walk in and pick items of your choice with signs that say YOUR GRANDFATHERS HAVE PAID FOR YOU.
On my way out, I stop to buy the fresh avocados I had bought the first time I came here. I ask the jovial gap-toothed woman if she worries about the demolition marks on her house.
“No,” she says. “Dem just talk say, anytime we see them, make we just take am like that.”

Friday, July 26, 2013


The first time you zone out, get lost in your own world in the midst of dozens of people in this conference holding in Austria is when someone mentions how one European country banned circumcision for men. It occurs to you for the first time in a long time that the practice of circumcision has roots in the Abrahamic religions. Someone in Europe thought it was smart to reflect the separation of religion from state by letting men walk around with foreskin. You have read of all the health reasons why foreskin should be cut off. And for you, nothing is uglier than a penis with foreskin.

You cannot look at any of the men from that country at the conference the same anymore. You do not want to file after them during break when they go to the bathroom--you do not want to be tempted to turn and look and traumatize yourself for the whole duration of the conference. Chris Abani’s 'Becoming Abigail' comes to your mind. The character Derek, with dirty habits, loved by the protagonist Abigail. She knew when Derek hadn’t taken his bath because “of the way his penis would smell and taste when she rolled back the foreskin”.  A room full of Dereks. That’s where you sat. People whose foreskins held tales of their hygiene or the lack of it.

Anyone who knew how seriously you were thinking of this issue of foreskin even as you walked to use the bathroom would not believe it. You think of how a simple decision like cutting off excess skin at birth makes the difference between how you feel now and how you think these European men feel now. As you pee, you look down and feel in that instant a sense of gratitude for this thing your parents did without thinking , because that was what the hospital said, and that was what everyone else was doing. It would have been horrible you think, to do what Michael, one of your neighbours growing up did--get circumcised secretly at 25 because his parents' church forbade circumcision and he couldn’t bring out his penis in a toilet full of black men without someone bursting into uproarious, uncontrollable laughter that would eventually spread through the room full of peeing men. He let a nurse cut his foreskin at 25 and exchanged a life of ridicule for one of peace.

One day after the conference in Graz, you walk into a big supermarket to buy cheap casual shoes for your trip to Venice. You need something flat and light because you are going to have to drive five hours and your host has told you it is against the law to drive without shoes. You find something that fits for 20 Euros. It feels like a bargain until you do the conversion to Naira in your head. Then the smile leaves your face. As you approach the elevator you notice a man inside trying to close the doors. You are faster than him and you walk in before the doors close. Then he runs out. He will not share an elevator with you. At first it is funny, the way he runs into the second elevator which opened at the same time. It is funny before it hits you that you are black and he is white. You grit your teeth and your nose trembles. But almost immediately the thought comes that heals you and makes you smile again. He is probably carrying foreskin around. You are circumcised and he is not. Suddenly all is well with the world again.