Sweat and The City: An Essay on Emotional Compromise

Am I a part of the cure, or am I a part of the disease?”

It came as no surprise when our generator motor exploded late at night, first with a deafening sound, and then a drawn out whirring noise. That night, our power fluctuated, and the electricity alarm sounded off repeatedly. I imagined that someone in the power company must have been pulling a lever back and forth, just to screw with us. Our world, our only generator, as we came to learn, did not end with a whimper. Instead, it’s wheezing breath drew out like a dying man after it’s deafening demise, and from this I gathered that we were in for a treat. I heard the creak of my father’s bedroom door, his slippers slapping quickly against the tiles as he made his way down the foyer. He opens my door and meets me standing there, and we both run downstairs, and then outside. It is my second week in Lagos, and my re-indoctrination was happening, fast.

Eventually, I hear my father’s voice boom into the night. I also hear the security guard’s, and then, nothing. The death of our generator motor is our loss, because like clockwork, our neighborhood, once dark and quiet, lights up, house by house, and eventually street by street, with the rumbling of neighboring generators awakening around us.

In New York, a close friend often referred to challenges in life as The small stuff, when I complained about things not working in a particular order. To be concerned with the small stuff, he felt, was to spend time addressing the little things in life which one could commit to understanding as trivial, and therefore compartmentalize for the sake of emotional survival. My friend, I mentally countered, as I wrestled with the heat in my bedroom, needed to hear the recurring ring of the electricity alarm, listen to the rise and fall of the freezer hum, feel the return and seizure of electricity, and then hear the deafening explosion of an electric generator motor. Perhaps, then, he may have thought differently about sweating the small stuff.

Nyadao: The Thing Around Her Neck, 2011; Painting by Njideka Akunyili-Crosby

There is a lot of sweating happening in Nigeria, and it isn’t solely related to finicky electricity and exhausted generators. A good chunk of this sweating can be attributed to the multiple loopholes one should, and cannot plan for, in a place where lawlessness is the devil dancing in the intricate detail. As though a requirement for survival and re-socialization, one is sometimes expected to accept the rotting bouquet of small stuff they will meet in Nigeria, an unbecoming prerequisite to truly becoming part of society again. This bouquet features a perplexing acceptance, sprinkled with perpetual frustration, and endless complaints. To continually question the existence of small stuff, both in its multitude, and perhaps its contrived existence, is to risk being the subject of eye rolls, jokes, and irritated stares. Like a running joke, you are late to the party, and have you not heard? This is how things work here!

Returnees are known, and often times mocked, for sweating the small stuff in Nigeria. To general annoyance, we complain in the airports about the lack of order, the heat, infrequent electricity, what Nigeria should and should not change, the Keke Napep drivers who seem to have a haughty indifference to death on Lagos roads; and for some; the ridiculous bouncers at Lagos clubs who seem to have stronger rules than nightclubs in global cities like London and New York. Often times, it is also the annoying returnee who explains at club entrances, that this will not happen to him in New York or Las Vegas as he is forbidden entry into what one would think were the golden gates of heaven.

In the Sisyphean battle for Nigeria’s future, we, her citizens, continually push the stone uphill, only for it to roll back down, a giant accumulation of all the unaddressed small stuff, not really a rolling stone, but still, gathering all the moss of malcontent.

Survival dictates that suffering, however it manifests, can be negotiated and redefined. One’s perception of hardship changes when there is little to buffer you from the expansive frontier of suffering which is existentially possible in Nigeria. Some Nigerians often reiterate the, But it happens in (insert foreign country here) explanation, as though it absolves citizens and Government from the sweating required to build and shape a developing country. It does not. In renegotiating what we view as the small stuff, we edit and reimagine the landscape of suffering, nudging and tweaking it to our own benefit, whims, caprices, and understandably our need for survival. This leaves us with emotions trapped in silos, and compartmentalized anger often expressed in our frustrated and sometimes aggressive verbal communication. En masse, one witnesses this social phenomena in the multitudes of people gathering before religious institutions, where prosperity is promised by pastors wiping off sweaty foreheads, and payed through endless tithes, offerings, night vigils- the accumulated financial sweat of a people whose hands are continually held high, seeking refuge in God because governance has failed.

Everyday life in Nigeria is a challenge, a vicious polarity between a committed questioning of why things are the way they are, and an acceptance that they may never change in your lifetime. It is in this renegotiation of the small stuff- normalized pains which people are forced to accept and endure, that pensioners go for months without pay, and students sit at home, let down by the inefficiencies of national universities where dormitories, classrooms, and faculty accreditation lay to waste, all to the painfully obvious detriment of our nation. The small stuff, which we no longer want to sweat for the sake of self-preservation, are the visible symptoms of a culture and society struggling to pin point the origin of our problems, because they are vast and the reach of our hands, once hopeful, now exceeds our grasp. It appears that the mirror is cracked, and if our face were the landscape of our problems, we might cower at our own reflection. But to address every problem, every orifice, every malaise, is to frankly run mad. In a land where the small stuff is numerous, survival is paramount, and one must negotiate and prioritize what small stuff is worth the sweat.

Here, in the land where we do not sweat the small stuff, we relinquish the ability to define the small stuff as it morphs into bigger problems, too monstrous in the end for last minute jurisdiction. And to curb its monstrosity, we forcefully drag it’s origin and consequence under the umbrella of culture, and that’s just the way it is, removing ourselves from personal and communal responsibility, because in the land of responsibility we must still look up that very hill and accept that us, and only us, can push that rolling stone down.

The problem with refusing to sweat the small stuff as it arises, is that it creates a world where it becomes the accepted norm. And in the danger of the norm, we often confuse weakness with resilience, continuing to make allowances, unable to back away from the Faustian bargain one makes voluntarily or otherwise, in exchange for Nigerian citizenry. The small stuff, is the employer who shoves his hands down your friend’s skirt at a job she must fulfill to complete her National Youth Service, politicians marrying children, hiding behind customs that support this abuse of human rights, the WAEC official who suffers bribes from textbook publishers thwarting the proper education of Nigeria’s future, the economically disenfranchised dying in hospital waiting rooms; citizens tweeting for help in the wake of armed robberies-the children who should be in school, hawking heavy goods on busy streets, running after cars in dangerous traffic, barefoot; unreported and frankly uncared for cases of robbery, homicide, suicide, depression and rape; thousands of university students clinging to the last straws of lawlessness- a formidable answer to gaping unemployment.

These are all questions begging to be asked, shaped, changed, for the future of a country lying dormant in the normalcy of its own malaise. But to allude that all Nigerians lie down and take all these things is also an incorrect and incomplete portrayal of our existential struggle. The reluctance to sweat the small stuff does not come from ingrained heartlessness, or a lack of humanity, but an agreed upon understanding of what can and cannot be changed. But this too is exhaustion, hiding behind the worn out tale of “resilience”. Many have come, few have remained, and even fewer care to be chosen. Solutions abound, but the spark needed to incite change has often been ignited and blown out by a people skeptic about its sustainability.

Later that night, as we dined under the glow of rechargeable lights, my father says, Nne, I’m sorry about the light situation ndo- sorry. Tomorrow Hassan will come and fix the generator. In that moment, he has transported me from the world of our shared burden, to one where I am truly an outsider. In his apology, my guilt is baseless, and Nigeria’s responsibility is his. My being away from home for so long , is the torn in his side, searing in his skin, forcing him to appease. But he is wrong. The small stuff, too, is my portion, and I am not free from it. Where were my solutions? My actions to rectify things? Was I not like everyone else, trying, exhausted, privileged enough to buy my way out, or aware of our challenges but still comfortable being an armchair theorizer?

I knew, that in Laguardia Airport, I would be greeted by the flickering lights of a towering Christmas tree, and I would feel the release, the all-too- familiar feeling of relief from the guilt and burden of Nigeria and her endemic small stuff, laced with home sickness and a disdain for the things my parent’s generation also thought they could change. I would be ushered into the New York version, where homelessness, poverty, and class warfare bruised the city- a slight hop from fire to frying pan. And it bothered me, that I awaited freedom from a reality I was no longer used to, and could no longer navigate without guilt woven through an awareness of my privilege- escape.

A few minutes to midnight, my bedroom lights flicker on, and the air conditioner murmurs to life. I hear the ring of the alarm outside, signifying the return of power, and a silence settles over my neighborhood as the generators go to sleep, one by one. I smile and cover my head with my blanket, attempting to make haste while my room cooled off. But when I finally feel the lull of sleep, the A.C is dead and all that lies outside my window is darkness. I am left wide-eyed in the dark, angered that I have let my guard down in naïveté, trusting that somehow this too would last.

Again, like clockwork, the neighboring generators erupt around us, like lions roaring to the death of this coincidental loss of power. And our little house in the middle of the street, remained masked in its self-contained darkness, and a silence signifying the acceptance of our fate.

This is me, then.