ROMANCING POVERTY

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Our poverty, their riches;

This jean looks faded — we sigh and worry;

They’ll proudly wear it for a change from the chilling cold at night

And from the nakedness of daylight.

‘Dotun, I am sure you never rented a bicycle or made some razz moves in your childhood’, he said. I tried not to laugh, but the more I tried to suppress it, the more it got the better of me. Here was a man in his fifties, who happened to be a relative of mine, making a comment about MY OWN LIFE with so much finality, that you would think he was living on the inside of me. Now, I have gotten used to this sort of snide remarks during conversations with friends, acquaintances and sometimes in public discussions. I usually laugh or just wave it off and shake my head in disbelief.

Nobody can claim actual monopoly to poverty or been raised from a lowly estate or a background lacking in riches because poverty is relative. So, like many persons I have a ‘mish-mash’ of experiences from my childhood. I spent majority of my childhood (13 years actually) in a ‘face-me-I-face-you’ house around Akowonjo area in Lagos — one of the reasons I usually chuckle at ignorant jokes about living in such houses. This type of housing structure actually introduces you early enough to the several realities of living in Nigeria.

One of such reality, is the existence of ethnic rivalry and clannish behaviour. The house was a storey building with twenty rooms, one hairdressing shop (operated by the Landlord’s daughter), a makeshift stall (owned by the Landlady of blessed memory, who sold pepper for a living), two kitchens (one upstairs and another down stairs), two bathrooms and two toilets (need not say it was a public toilet and at some point people who lived behind the house also visited the place). The house was occupied by people from the major and minor ethnic groups of Nigeria.

It was not an uncommon occurrence that whenever a new occupant came into the building, he or she most likely be quickly be wooed by people of a similar ethnic background. He/she will be fed with tales of how unruly and badly behaved the other persons in the COMPOUND (that’s how we describe it, despite the lack of a large open space) are. Although, almost 9 out of 10 times, this unceremonious union usually blew up after a while, with an uneventful war of words and trading of insults that usually revealed several personal secrets to the crowd of onlookers.

Although some persons like myself — mostly the little children and young adults — that grew up in such settings ended up being detribalised because most of my friends or playmates in the house/area happened to cut across all the ethnic groups — Igbo, Igara, Yoruba, Isoko and others. This is actually one of the advantages of living in such settings; you actually get first-hand knowledge about several cultures, habits and how to co-exist with people of divergent belief systems. Most of my liberal views originated from my experience in that environment.

You get to also learn about human greed and covetousness. There was a Lagos State Water Corporation system, that was supposed to provide the house with water. The water system rushed at odd hours, if the system was ever running — it was epileptic (Yes, just like power supply). I learnt to buy water from distant boreholes owners with Baffs (very large plastic bowls), usually balanced on the head with an Osuka (Yoruba word: a piece of cloth that is folded or rolled into a circular shape to ease the burden of the filled plastic). People whose windows faced the tap would keep vigil for when the taps start running. So, cans, bowls, buckets and all sorts usually were in a line that served as a queue for days at the tap area. Some persons would greedily ignore the three baffs per household policy and would go ahead trying to fill up their entire drums (some would even fill up cups and spoons to store water). Fights usually ensue and it is not unlikely that someone’s bucket or baff will be flung in the opposite direction.

Away from water crisis, there was a particular lady, Aunty Bola. If you ever had an important outing — office work, meeting, school or interview — just make sure you are in the bathroom before her, unless, you will most definitely arrive at your destination late. Aunty Bola will sing different albums of Yinka Ayefele, the most prominent lyrics from her early morning melancholic strain was — Ota to ba tori mi gbegbo, A gbe ebo ku(Any enemy that carries sacrifice because of me will die). For a long time, I felt she was throwing shades and subliminal(s) at illusory fellows, who might have been neighbours waiting in line for their turn to get a hurried bath. Once I remembered that Aunty Bola could enter bathroom before me, I had to speed up my morning chores, have my bath and run along to school. No wonder the school made me Punctuality Prefect in SS3 despite my smallish frame.

The covetous aspect had to do with clandestine philandering that was usually between single or married neighbours. A man whose apartment faced ours was once apprehended in the smallish looking bathroom having a BATH (we all know it was more than a bath) with a woman (widow) around 1am, by another male who went to take a leak. Funny thing is his wife, who was actually a younger and more beautiful woman could sleep FOR AFRICA and the poor lady didn’t always realize he was not by her side at night. We usually had to pour water through the window net and scream her name to wake her from her slumber — Awake, thou that sleepst!!! — Even in the day time. The woman who had the amorous affair with her husband kept a friendly relationship with her till she moved out of the apartment. Wild, right?!

There are other things like diplomacy, being street-smart, loyalty, how to throw fireworks into the opposite building with high walled fence during yuletide inter-house banger duels (I detest the sound of fireworks nowadays, perhaps we over-stressed it), engaging in games like; Street football, After round one, Oba ni ka dawojo, Naming game, Omo Oba Fausat and a whole lot of what you might term razz games. I remember all the times we were banned from playing football in the compound because we either broke a glass louver, water pipe or the ball touched someone who had come to plait her hair or the ever popular, WASHING & SETTING at the salon in front of the house. The football bans only lasted for a few hours or days until we begged and received our regular dose of forgiveness.

A quick diversion, anytime we were indoors (my mum always wanted us indoors, but playing football usually got the best of me) and there was an on-going robbery on the street (our street was a major alternative route). We always knew of the robbery through the way our next door neighbour locked their door - usually accompanied by hurried screams of ‘Chinasa!!! Chinasa!!!’(Chinasa was the younger sister of our neighbour, who always happened to be at the back of the house or in the kitchen cooking) and the doors will be slammed shut with a lock that made a funny noise of ‘praah-pah-pah-pah!!!’ This sound was the alarm that robbers were in our vicinity.

Albeit, whenever I hear some people claim to be STREET or IBILE, perhaps to scare one and try to stop me from conversing in English, I just laugh — I check them out on my Google Map and guess what? They don’t exist. Being loud or conversing in pidgin is not being STREET — the STREET is more of an experience than a horrid lifestyle of gangster-ism. Using hard substances, drugs and other sedatives does not improve your STREET CRED (It actually just puts you in a position of mental imbalance or a crackhead). I converse mostly in English is because my dad sent me to a good primary school. It is not because I am deficient in my local dialect or pidgin. However, kudos to my British-Nigerian proprietors and all the Ghanaian/Nigerian teachers at Woodland — as well as early introduction to reading of books (mostly short stories novels) by my aunt and not to forget Mr Nicholas, a neighbour, who compelled us to always present new English words anytime he was around. He eventually got a good job with Chevron and he moved out with his wife.

People often times try to exaggerate their own claims to poverty, with most of them assuming their lives have been harder than others. Although some persons in their condition of poverty, might have had access to some opportunities you didn’t. It still does not discountenance their claims of having come from a modest background. The goal is actually to keep moving forward and trying to improve your living condition via legitimate means and not to continue wallowing in poverty.

Recently, I have been reading lots of opinion editorials on poverty, migration and moving a critical mass of the population from below the poverty line into the middle-class. This is actually a task that may likely take decades for it to happen in Nigeria looking at the current economic realities and population estimations (Nigeria does not have accurate or even near-accurate population census figures). Increasing the per capita income of each individual; redistributing wealth in the most favourable way - different from the hand-out schemes and unsustainable social welfare programs practiced by some states and the federal government of Nigeria today.

The government over the years seems to have been actively perpetuating poverty, with several data sources showing that many people than ever before are now living below the poverty line in Nigeria. We may claim to be diversifying the economy and rebasing our GDP to become the largest in Africa, but we have not had a significant change in the middle and elite class structure. Many people who are doing well today are a product of petty-cronyism schemes that is fueled by corrupt practises and weak institutions. Little wonder, why people are mass migrating to Europe and America — according to a report by the Italian Migration officials, Nigerians are now the highest number of illegal migrants who try to cross into Europe through the sea bordering Libya and Italy on rubber boats from Africa. Sad.

The rhetorical questions urgently begging for answers are — how do we ensure a great change in population demographics leading to a majority of the population occupying the middle class, as seen in Europe? How do we steadily reduce the gap between the rich and poor? What steps are we currently taking to handle population explosion in relation to the available economic resources? How do we ensure that the next generation will not be grappling with a worse poverty dilemma?

Why don’t we stop romancing poverty?!

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