Saturday, October 29, 2005

African markets

One of things I love about living in Africa are the markets. I hardly ever actually shop there (for fear of inflated Oyinbo pricing), but often drive Bibi or one of her sister's there. I park and watch the goings on as they go to haggle. It's all so much more of a sensous and haptic experience than going to Asda on a Saturday morning.

This morning, I sat in front a young guy with a wide brimmed straw hat tended to his guava (they've just come in season). He sprayed them then carefully mounted them into pyramids. Their light green lustre reflected in the sunlight. Then he sliced one in two and lay it open to attract customers.

Meanwhile, women shoppers sauntered about - both maids and young professional women. A woman that caught my eye wore an ankara trouser suit with one shoulder strap styllishly pulled off her shoulder, gliding before me. She glanced at the guava and put on the usual discerning yet graceful scowl and mini-pout - which is always only a millimeter away from a smile. A silent interchange followed (I remained inside the car with the engine and ac on). She made to leave and then paused, as he lowered his prices and lured her back for the transaction. In a thousand places, the same ritual was occuring all over the continent at that time. Then a young girl tapped on the window and offered up a plate of spinach leaves. I declined. Then she leant against the bonnet and laid her arm to rest, thoroughly at home in the space. As its 37 degrees in Abuja today, I dont know how all the traders can stand the heat all day long.


Chxta 8:22 am  

Sorry to have to hijack your blog for this one Jeremy, but I feel i should be published...

Stole this one from Reuben Abati:

I feel compelled to deal with this subject again, although I had reflected on it at some length in The Guardian of Friday, October 27. Since the burial of Mrs Stella Obasanjo in Abeokuta, Ogun State, and the memorial service that was held in Lisa Village for the 117 plane crash victims, other issues have since cropped up that deserve further exploration. I am particularly concerned about the identity question that the Bellview plane crash has thrown up. We now know most painfully, that many of the persons that boarded that flight did so, under other people's names.

The result is that some of the persons who are supposed to have died have since stepped forward to say that they are alive, safe and sound. By now, for example, we should all be familiar with the story of Waziri Mohammed. He died in that air crash, but his name was not on the manifest. Yesterday, ThisDay newspaper also published a very moving piece by Abdullahi Usman about Bala Halilu who travelled with a ticket bought from a tout and whose involvement in that tragedy was confirmed only through a text message he had sent before the flight. Some big men who also travelled in that ill-fated flight did so using the names of their personal assistants. Only God knows how many young ladies travelled with sugar daddies on that flight without their names recorded anywhere. This identity question is very important to the extent that in our cultures in Africa, it is considered more honourable to die and for a man or woman's family to bury the remains and pay last respects than to be declared missing and untraceable.

This is tragedy worse than tragic. It is perhaps the strongest explanation why relatives have been thronging Lisa village to see whether there is anything: an item, a wrist watch, a sheet of paper that can establish the identity of their loved ones. A particular woman according to reports was lucky enough to have found her husband's face towel and she screamed: "this is my husband's face towel" before breaking out into torrents of tears. She was shown on television clutching that piece of towel as if it was life itself. That face towel would have been taken away. It will be buried as if it were a human being: the last evidence of that victim's humanity.

The Bellview plane crash has to be placed, therefore, in a proper perspective. It was not just 117 persons that died on October 22, but many more. Many of the victims were the breadwinners of their families; their very existence facilitated the survival of others, and we ought not to be surprised about this, given our extended family relations system. For every life that ends, others are affected too. And so at Lisa Village, there were many relatives who were mourning not just the dead but the seeming end of their own lives as well. The incident has been so touching, Nigerians have been forthcoming with all kinds of interpretations ranging from the rational to the superstitious. For really, I have heard quite a number of astounding interpretations about what must have happened.

I was in Oregun on Friday evening when someone announced that the double tragedy of October 22 had something to do with 2007. I didn't allow him to finish when I shouted that he should not dishonour the dead by politicising the accident. Another fellow announced that although he is a Christian, a Knight of a Church, he would not rule out the influence of juju in that incident. According to him, there is something called Juju and it is possible that inside the 22-10 plane, there could have been someone who had committed a terrible sin and whose punishment caused the death of others. Another person then added that the pilot had screamed just before the accident that some kind of strange figure was blocking the path of the aircraft; when he tried to avoid it, the same thing went in the other direction that he had taken. I had to point out that the black box had not even been found; so what is the source of this imaginative interpretation? The man got angry; he said he was speaking as a man who had been versed in juju before he decided to become a Christian and he was convinced that there was something spiritual about the plane crash. It was pointless trying to convince him otherwise.

The only point that I tried to make, however, was that in this country, every Nigerian should learn to travel with a certain form of identification and that we should all make sure that the identity we use is ours. Travelling by air or by road under other people's identity is common practice. There are Nigerians who consider it a class matter to travel incognito. They don't want anyone to know that they are moving from one part of the country to the other. The danger when tragedy occurs is that they may never be traced. Besides, the 22-10 tragedy has also shown that the airports have to be rid of touts. There are too many touts at our airports selling tickets with fake names. You buy the ticket, get onto the aircraft, there is absolutely no proof of your movement. In a country where there are no DNA records which can be used to determine identity, and no proper national documentation system, this situation is really sad.

I could not attend the burial of the First Lady in Abeokuta. I had to travel to Abuja. I arrived at the Murtala Muhammed Airport very early, around 6.30 am. I noticed that not too many persons were travelling. The domestic terminal of the Lagos airport is usually busy at every hour, a clear indication that Nigerians tend to move around a lot. I pointed out the poor number of travellers to someone who had joined me at the Aero Contractors counter. His response was that Nigerians, since 22-10, try to travel when the sun is in the sky and the pilot can see everything ahead of him not early in the morning or late in the night when visibility may constitute a problem. I laughed. Human beings travel in other countries at any time of the day, and who says a plane cannot crash in broad daylight? But shortly after buying my ticket, I had to pass by the Bellview counter before checking in for the flight. I was surprised to see some Nigerians buying Bellview tickets and even more surprised seeing the staff of the company in full uniform acting as if nothing had happened!

When I tried to make an issue out of this, I was gently reminded that the day after the accident, Bellview planes were in the air and Nigerians boarded them. I asked: "what does the interest of Bellview lie?" I expected the company to shut down operations for a few days in honour of the dead and to ask all its workers to wear a black band. To this, one of the passengers in the waiting lounge responded: "this is business; if Bellview did that, then people will be alarmed." "But are people not alarmed already?" "They are, my brother", someone else said, "I am sure those three guys we saw at the Bellview counter are either their staff or they are travelling with free tickets." "Come to think of it", one other fellow interjected, "the law of probability does not work like that. It is not probable that a plane will crash last week, and another one will crash this week too." The man was holding a Chachangi ticket. Someone noticed this and said "Mr Probability, why didn't you buy Bellview ticket to test your theory. You can see that the situation is so serious people are reluctant to travel by air. I have never seen this airport in this state early in the morning."

The return journey to Lagos in the afternoon was another story altogether. There was some construction going on at the airport, so the ticket cubicles had been relocated elsewhere. I found my way there to meet a large crowd. It was as if the whole of Abuja city was travelling. Aero Contractor seats had been sold out, so I was told. But I later discovered that the staff were making brisk business with the increased demand for the services of the airline; they would tell you there were no more tickets but if you were the type who was willing to add something extra, a free seat would suddenly emerge.

I went from one counter to another, it was the same story. When I got to the Bellview counter, there were workers there truly looking as if they wanted to sell tickets, but I noticed that nobody stood in front of the airline's counter. I eventually found my way to the IRS counter where tickets were still being sold. It took some time before I made up my mind. One fellow on the queue to whom I expressed my fears had said: "don't worry; all these airlines are the same. When I board an aircraft now, I know that I am in captivity. When I get down safely, I shake people's hands, and congratulate them." I liked the guy's confidence, although I had wanted the Aero Contractors ticket badly.

While waiting in the departure lounge, I got a call from a friend who said he had read a paid advertisement in The Vanguard newspaper in which a group called Esan Youth Movement had berated President Obasanjo for choosing to bury the late First Lady, Mrs Stella Obasanjo in Abeokuta instead of her father's compound in Ishan as demanded by Ishan tradition. I had responded that my friend should not mind the Ishan youths: didn't they know that in Egba tradition, nobody can take an Egba man's wife dead or alive? I added that by burying Stella Obasanjo beside his own parents, the President was expressing love and eternal commitment to her, and that when an Egba man does this, he is in fact honouring the woman.

I thought I also said that Stella Obasanjo in dying has been victorious; because there may be no other woman married to President Obasanjo who can be so honoured and that I wouldn't be surprised if other wives, in that heavily polygamous Obasanjo set up, are not envying her even in death. I had hardly finished this statement when I suddenly heard: "Stupid Egba tradition. You are talking nonsense". Then I heard: "To hell with Egba tradition, Ishan tradition is Ishan tradition, what honour are you talking about, does that give Obasanjo the right to abuse other people's tradition?" I looked up. I was being abused by two gentlemen who were standing next to me. I was angry, so I raised my voice immediately to check their impudence.

"What is your problem? Can't I have a private conversation on my own phone, in a free country? How dare you interrupt a conversation that doesn't concern you?"

"It concerns me", one of them said. "You can't be putting down Ishan tradition, and I an Ishan man will stand beside you and not stand up for my people's tradition"

"I wasn't talking to you. You should learn to mind your own business. And you must know that eavesdropping on other's people's conversation is bad manners."

"It doesn't matter. I heard you and the nonsense you were saying about Egba tradition. If you people married our daughter, then you must respect our tradition. Yorubas don't respect other people in this country. It just proves that Obasanjo is truly a dictator even in his own house. And for your information, I know many Egba men whose wives have been taken away by other men."

By now, my friend at the other end had started asking questions. I had to explain to him and his wife that some Ishans were attacking me. I was also ready for an argument: so I announced very arrogantly: "don't mind these so-called Ishan youths. The superior tradition will prevail, because what we are faced with now is a clash of civilisations". Just then, there was a boarding announcement for the IRS flight and I quickly moved away. Indeed, it is amazing how much energy Nigerians devote to matters of culture. On further reflection it was all clear to me: this was about identity too. Stella Obasanjo's death has united the entire Edo nation, and in the eyes of the people, Stella, an Egba wife, is no longer an Obasanjo, but a daughter of the Edo nation.

So strong is this sentiment that their in-law, President Obasanjo, has had to offer an apology. In the end then, our roots are important, we are as Africans what we are. Which is why a Ghanaian sister of one of the victims of the 22-10 plane crash had said on television: "this can only happen in Nigeria. In Ghana, no plane that is older than ten years is allowed to fly. My brother died because he travelled in a Nigerian plane." This woman was insulting Nigeria, but she was saying something weighty about differences and human circumstances.

Mrs Obasanjo's burial was later shown on television; while we watched, someone asked an interesting question: "will there be another Obasanjo First Lady in Aso Villa, after Stella?" I pointed to the elaborate burial and the President's grief. And I declared: "I don't think so".

Chxta 8:23 am  

Someone may say why not open your own blog. Answer: I am too lazy :D

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