Two Moms

Today is the fifth of November, a day that has grown in personal significance for me over the years. Today I remember and celebrate two women who in their own ways have done so much to make me who I am today. They have been ever-present (and still are), and I had to write something to mark their birthdays, which by random chance coincide on the same day.

First, there is my biological mother, Nkoyo Toyo (of whom I have written before here). She has been a relentless force in my life, driving me to strive, to dare, to get shit done. Never one for philosophising, her philosophy is action—just do it. I used to scoff at this approach, perceiving a weakness in her eagerness to start doing before spending as much time as possible to think through all the possible ramifications of the course she was about to take. But now, approaching my 40s, I have come to see her approach as the distillation of all of the ancient philosophical traditions.

Our actions are our philosophy; everything else is just fancy words. What you do is the revelation of what you believe in your core. My mom was hip to this from the jump, and she never wasted a second overthinking an issue before executing. Before it was cool to say that success is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, she was on it, and made it her life story.

If she taught me anything, it was just that—act, start, go! She fought against lazy intellectualising in me. Scandalised by what she saw as my passive attitude growing up, she basically seared the words BE ASSERTIVE into my brain with her relentless repetition of them. Standing at a bank counter or airport terminal with someone trying to take me for a ride, I would hear her bark: “Be assertive! Be assertive! Be assertive!” She meant don’t just accept the outcomes that confront you, grapple with life, make it difficult for anyone to tell you you can’t have something you want.

And that’s been her life mantra: action and assertiveness. She has demonstrated this in her track record of conceiving and driving new projects. Her gigs have included: being a banker (Mercantile Bank, now defunct); a salon owner (called Malaika after my sister), a restaurateur (The Barracuda in Surulere sold the meanest Efik edesi isip (coconut rice) in Lagos), a kilishi merchant (years before the nicely wrapped packs of kilishi appeared in places like Shoprite, she had the idea that kilishi could become a retail hit like beef jerky overseas), an alcohol distiller and merchant (she has the idea that Grade A ogogoro can be a multi-billion dollar export opportunity in the same way that tequila from Mexico is), a development professional, a barrister, an ambassador, a member of the House of Representatives, and a bunch of other things I have no idea of.

Even now, approaching her mid-60s, she has a new new gig: getting her MPA from Harvard’s Kennedy School. In her telling, it is “something to inspire my grandkids.” Apparently, before her grandkids come of age, this “inspiration” is my problem, because I am now expected to do something about my “lack of masters.”

Her fierce determination to waste no time and drive forward has been a constant refrain in my life. Whenever my natural tendency to shrink myself or to overthink things rears its head, I hear her voice tell me to “be assertive” and remember the many attempts—which necessarily come with many failings—that seeded all her successes, and I act.

***

My second mom is Eka Williams (Nkoyo’s elder sister and my aunt). I have known her my whole life, but we only got to kick it from my late teens into my twenties. At age 18, I was deposited in her home in a green Johannesburg suburb to start my journey into adulthood. Released from the expectant glare of demanding Nigerian parents (yes, including that mother I love so much) and in a new country, I slowly lost my mind, stumbling through school (I did make it eventually after one exclusion and three different faculties), becoming a full-time loafer in and out of jobs and in and out of her home, and, eventually, figuring things out and getting on the mends.

That was a long seven year process (which feels like a lifetime when you are in your early 20s). But throughout, in her awkward way, she was the epitome of patience and solicitude, a homing beacon in a foreign country and a sort of guiding angel, a physical and spiritual connection to the family back home, a reminder of the expectations of my family and that, however bent I got, I had to right myself and find my way back home, often literally to her house, where there was a warm bed, a meal with the right amount of cassava and palm oil, and some desperately needed cash.

Her life was an example of how to patiently build for the long term. Utterly dedicated to her career, a careful manager of her finances (mistaken for stinginess by unwise types who now depend on her largesse for their sustenance, a largesse afforded her by the same frugality they once derided), content and self-possessed, I could not ask for a better role model of how to be an adult, how to keep things heading in the right direction at all times, and how to enjoy life’s simple pleasures. Perhaps her greatest legacy is inculcating me into the cult of wine drinking, a practice which I will most assuredly take to my grave.

In her late 50s and already enjoying a distinguished career, she enrolled for and earned a Masters in Public Health. I assume she did this for shits and giggles, because I couldn’t tell you what she planned to do with it in addition to her PhD in Immunology. Ah, but there are those grandkids again.

***

Today is their birthdays. Unfortunately, I cannot join either of them physically to celebrate this day together. But this post, I hope, expresses something of what I feel for these bookish, accomplished, striving, caring, totally dope women who, though quite different—Eka is quiet, deliberate and unassuming, Nkoyo is stylistically the equivalent of a bazooka—embraced me with a deep, unmistakeable love. If I could give my daughters one thing as they grow into their adulthood, it would be this same gift of the feeling of inimitable love I enjoyed (and still enjoy) from my two mothers.

Today, I drink to their healths — wine, of course.

Zombie Twitter

Random picture I took in Modderfontein, Johannesburg last weekend

I’ve tweeted this before (here), but it has been eating at me, so let me repeat what I’ve said before in this blog. The way Twitter (and all of social media) is setup, any publicity is “good” publicity. In other words, whether a thing is retweeted (re-shared) to approve or disapprove, its reach and influence grow regardless. Whenever you retweet you are spreading a message, you are promoting that message and the person behind it.

Too often I see people innocently quote-replying some tweet to tell us how much they dislike it. They unthinkingly conclude that the priority is to dunk on this person or tweet because it is offensive, wrong, triggering, etc. But here’s the rub: you have just blasted that message to your entire timeline. Before you quote-replied I (and perhaps most of your followers) was happily ignorant of the existence of the tweet you were replying to. The act of quote-replying—even when disagreeing—means your timeline, the same timeline you would like very much to know that you do not approve of the tweet you are replying to, becomes aware, and awareness means, in all likelihood, they too will quote-reply, setting off a chain reaction of quote-replies and rage tweets that have the ultimate effect of spreading the very tweet you disapprove of.

The way certain vile and toxic accounts are able to game this stimulus-response system to grow their accounts very much reminds me of the way parasitic organisms infect and takeover the bodies of unfortunate insects, forcing them to involuntarily do their bidding. The reaction is instantaneous and unthinking; in the moment you respond to the offending tweet you become a zombie controlled by the other party.

Try timeline hygiene. Be more cautious in what you retweet; try to put distance between stimulus and response; be especially careful with quote-replies, these seduce you into thinking you are doing the right thing, after all, aren’t you just telling off some idiot who tweeted something offensive and awful? (Yes you are, but it doesn’t matter, you have been had.) Most especially, ask yourself: Am I doing this fellow’s (the person who tweeted trash) bidding? If you absolutely must respond, do a screen-grab, or paraphrase the offensive tweet. Whatever you do, do not quote-reply.

I say all this knowing full well that you will do absolutely nothing about what I’m speaking of. You will zombie retweet.

20.10.20

It has been one of the longest 24 hours of many Nigerians’ lives.

In shock, we watched as members of the Nigerian armed forces launched a live ammo operation to clear out peaceful demonstrators who had gathered at the Lekki tollgates.

They cut the CCTV cameras and the lights and killed the cell towers in the vicinity to slow the spread of information from the scene to the outside world.

Then they opened fire.

The protestors, hemmed in on all sides and with no way to flee, sat on the cold tar, draped themselves in Nigerian flags, and sang the national anthem, their sense of security inflated perhaps by an internet rumour that had spread in the days leading up to that fateful night, that the Nigerian army does not shoot at people holding the nation’s flag.

They were wrong. They shot at protesters with the flag, they shot at protesters without the flag. Protesters were killed, protesters were wounded. How many people have died, we do not yet know. How many are wounded is also unclear. We are still in the middle of the confusion of war where the wildest rumours abound and it is impossible to know what is true from what is not. There is a staggering amount of “fake news” out there right now, but also a lot of real stories about the tragedies of real people.

What have I not seen in the past 24 hours! Nigerian social media has been awash in gore. I saw a video of young woman with her head blown wide open like a headshot in Gears of War; there was a video of a young man throwing stones at the police only to take a straight bullet to the head and immediately crumple to the ground in a pool of his own blood; there was the now famous video on DJ Switch’s IG account showing an emergency surgery to extract a bullet from a protester’s leg using crude tools as gunfire still rang. I have seen far more close-range executions than any normal human is likely to see in a normal lifetime. All caught on camera, all evidence of the brutality and violence at the heart of the agitation to end SARS.

Beyond the loss of life and bodily harm, there has also been the vast and extensive damage that has been done to property. The courts, the media houses, the tollgates, the BRT buses, private property, police stations, various government offices, the Oba’s Palace, supermarkets, malls, etc., nothing has been spared the carnage that began yesterday. Lagos is in a state of what is beginning to feel like mob rule. And it isn’t just Lagos, in several states across the country, charged images of protesting youths, the rampaging disaffected, or murderous state agents have ruled the waves.

I feel sometimes that the reason the Nigerian state is instinctively unwilling to brook even the slightest dissent is its sure knowledge that should even one strand be tugged sufficiently hard, the entire fabric of our unjust society will unravel.

None of this is new to any Nigerian old enough to have seen the worst of the Nigerian military. I was a child during the June 12, 1993 crisis, so I never experienced it outside the shelter of parental care. But even then I could sense the mortal fear that hung low over Lagos. For many others, they do not have to go back that far to remember the feeling of a city teetering on the bring of anarchy. Many of my fellow citizens in the North East or in one of the many parts of Nigeria perpetually facing unrest know this feeling. Our tragedy is that each new generation must learn it, too.

And in all this, the brutality and excesses of the security services are on full display, once again underlining the urgency of the cause that started these agitations.

I don’t know what happens now. Perhaps the protests will continue perhaps they won’t. But what must happen is that we must find justice. We must know what took place on the night of 20 October, 2020 at the Lekki tollgates.

The Greatest Living Nigerian Writer

My apologies to Ms Adichie, but this post is not about her.

If you read a lot, you are bound to come across pieces heaving with words that seem to say a lot, but which, after reading, you realise say very little, if anything at all. They are chock-full of fillers, pompous words, and tired clichés that create the overall effect of something stale, dead, and torturous to read. Whether we are discussing academic essays or opinion pieces, newspaper articles or blog posts, bloat is the curse of writing everywhere you look.

The other (perhaps more forgivable) writing crime is failing to establish a voice. How many times have you read a thing to its end only to realise that you have failed to make any connection with the story or the person writing? There is no soul, no Earth, Wind and Fire, no Cameroon pepper. The narrator is Siri.

So may I, at this juncture, introduce you to the most dazzling example of writing I have seen in quite some time? The writer is Engineer Akemokue Lukman, until 16 June 2020 a member of Ward 7 of the All Progressive Congress in Etsako East, Edo State. (Of course, given the fluidity of events on the ground, I cannot rule out the possibility that this intrepid engineer has since engineered a return to the party.)

Though this letter (whose authenticity I cannot verify) has been public for some time, it has taken me this long to write this piece because, well, words failed me. I did not know how to describe the artistic power of the letter. I am still not sure that I can.

The body is just two lines: premise and conclusion. A happened therefore B must follow.

There is not a single word out of place; not a stray comma; not a misspelling; not even a formatting error. It is the most perfect example of writing economy you will find anywhere. The entire thing (address and all) can fit in a tweet:

He does not say I hereby resign or some other tired phrase, he says, and this is high art, let me tell you: “OK, take your broom…”

In syntax and tone, you cannot find a more perfect Nigerian voice. It is not passive, it is not aggressive, it is not even passive-aggressive; it has the indefinite quality of raw “Nigerian-ness” that you would expect a ward level politician to have mastered in order to have any sort of long-term career. When he says, I nor do again, we know an Edo man is speaking, a man of the people.

When this letter first became public, it made a splash on social media, earning a place on Nairaland, the most reliable metric of what is on Nigerians’ minds at any given time. You can see why. It is a simple message. It perfectly captures a certain mood on the ground in the moment (the skulduggery unfolding at the start of the 2020 Edo gubernatorial race). It reveals something of the man behind the pen. We would like to have a drink with this boisterous fellow. We know he’s got stories for days; and he can tell ’em.

He has something to say, he says it, and says nothing else. This, ladies and gentlemen, is how to write.

The Scourge of Listicles

I recently returned to Medium after a few years off when the team behind the app embarked on a slew of experiments that put me off the whole thing. It has been quite the experience coming back after so long. 

Just as I was getting used to the new digs, I noticed an avalanche of self-help content bearing down wherever I looked. You know the type: the optimised-to-be-clicked-on stuff that drives “engagement” (and thus dollars) by referencing the wonderful lives of famous people, new studies or bestsellers (or studies that become bestsellers), and everything you can learn from these people or studies or some famous over-referenced (and frequently unread) ancient text—The Art of War, The Mediations, that sort of thing.

The classic form of these posts is a numbered list of light condensed points designed to allow easy reading on a smartphone and ready sharing into the global stream of viral digital content. In short, a listicle.  

I cannot get away from listicles on Medium. And really, they are everywhere; the Global Order of Internet Content Producers appears to have resolved that this is the only way to write online and be read. It might just be that I am stuck on the wrong side of the algorithm (our new overlord), or I am only the latest person to discover that the entire site is a constellation of listicles with the singular purpose of highlighting my inadequacies and all the things I need to hack. To open the app is to be pummelled by unsolicited advice on every and anything: how to sleep better, eat better, exercise better (or eat and exercise better), earn more, write better, speak better, what books to read, what Steve Jobs and Elon Musk can teach us, 7 Quotes From Marcus Aurelius that will change my perspective on life

It is utterly ridiculous. Yet for a good part of my life, this was just the sort of cotton candy “wisdom” I clung to and allowed to govern my affairs. I was awash with feelings of discontent, believing I did not measure up, constantly looking to become someone other than I was, looking to people whose realities and contexts differed greatly from mine. I read a lot of books written by middle class Californians; but why should I relate to their experience except  in that vague way every human can relate to every other human? Why should their stories inspire me? The experience of a middle class Californian growing up in the 60s or 70s is about as removed from that of a middle class Nigerian growing up in Nigeria in the 1990s as it is possible to be. (Here we see the limitations of that oft-repeated, little understood economic term “middle class.”)

But here’s the thing: everyone thinks someone else has the missing link, the secret sauce, that hidden truth. We are captive to the notion that there is a system out there, unknown to us, that will enable us to have a better go at life. Never mind that some of these “things” are as basic as… sleeping or drinking water. Never mind that there is no way to tell what is good advice and what is just something that has worked in a very specific context that does not extend to our own unique circumstances. We are infinitely suggestible, and we latch on to anything that sounds vaguely like self-improvement gospel.

Let me give you a sense. For a time I was completely taken by the ideas from Napoleon Hill’s mega bestseller Think and Grow Rich. The book (and every motivational book before and since) explicitly assumes that there is some secret in the universe that the wealthy and powerful have discovered and tapped into which made them into what they are, and you too can experience the same outcome—*wink wink* you can be wealthy too—if you just imitate them. Note: this does not refer to a trade secret or an economic opportunity or arbitrage. Rather, what the writers would have us believe is that success is down to something far more mystical; some force invisible to people of weaker wills. Do what these successful people do and you will be fine. But if you fail, clearly you did not imitate them well enough—and whatever you get is on you. Hill, writing in the 1930s, uses famously rich men like Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, J. D. Rockefeller, and a whole assembly line of 19th and early 20th century industrialists to make his point. It does not surprise me that in 2020 the subjects of this same genre are a new set of brash billionaires—Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Mark Cuban and others. And it isn’t just billionaires or celebrities; any popular figure or study can be established as an authority with which to condescend to us. Sometimes it is just a guy who lost weight and now has a god complex.

Now, not every listicle is garbage. If a post on how to get healthier makes a point as explosive and revealing as “drink more water,” for instance, well, you have to give that to the writer. But like essentially every post on the internet, there is just enough truth and useful advice to obscure the fundamental silliness of the entire message. And this is generally what a listicle is: a bulletpoint list of mostly bad advice with a sprinkling of something worthwhile.

I am hoping I escape the algorithm at some point. If I can’t, I may have to wish Medium goodbye finally. That would be a shame, they have some good stuff on there.

Uncertainty

So much uncertainty; on all sides, death is pressing.

Nothing about this year has been normal. Feels like the last time we had a normal day was an entire lifetime ago. The news, never positive, has taken an even grimmer turn. What will tomorrow bring?

In Nigeria, we begin or close each day with a new death, or rumours of death. Some prominent figure, once dazzling and imperious, now rendered mute by a killer whose name we only learned this Easter. Some gloat. Stupid. You or a loved one may be next.

“Test to death in one week,” someone said today over WhatsApp. How?

Where once the dry nightly statistics issued by NCDC were watched like a sort of daily death league match, stories of dying have seized control of our imaginations. I wrote a post about stories being more powerful that statistics, but goodness, even I wasn’t ready for this.

Where I once scoffed at the garlic and ginger home remedies—now I drink garlic and ginger tea. It can’t possibly hurt.

Uncertainty.

I worry. I worry about being away from my family. Videos which once delighted—a successful experiment with baking scones—now leave me pensive and pondering a dreadful, dreadful question: Will I see them again?

I worry. I worry about my parents far away, cloistered from the world, social distancing. What sort of evil disease hunts people entering the go-easy stage of life? It is one thing to worry about surviving for your young family, it is quite another to ponder the far more concrete possibility of one’s older, more vulnerable loved ones being snatched away. Will I see them again?

Who can answer such questions?

So much uncertainty, so much death, so much fear. Tossed in the currents of this unfamiliar river, we press on holding faith that there is a bank somewhere ahead.

Coronavirus: Stories & Stats

One of the first things you learn as a rookie business development professional is that stories and emotions sell. Statistics on the other hand, even when understood—and they often aren’t—don’t. Think of it as one of the ten commandments of sales.

It is why, I am quite certain, very few sales or advertising professionals will be surprised at the current struggles public health officials are facing to achieve certain behaviour changes among the public in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Look around, it doesn’t seem to matter what country it is, the reactions to the measures taken by governments around the world—ranging from hard “lockdowns” to minor social distancing—run somewhere between mild irritation and full-blown resistance. It is difficult to identify a country where most people, without compulsion, simply accepted the necessity of these measures and complied with little fuss. I believe this response has something to do with the lack of stories and a relatable emotional core to the unfolding narrative. There is nothing we can anchor our fear to.

I think you need a visceral sense that you or a loved one is in danger to change your behaviour, and, more importantly, to keep it changed.

I know it is saying something to suggest that asking people to comply or risk death is not a sufficient motivator, but, honestly, it just isn’t enough. We hear talk of rates—infection rates, mortality rates, recovery rates; and new additions to the language like bending the curve, social distancing, and contact tracing. But where is the tragedy in all that? Where is the danger to me?

Without taking anything away from the great work being done by thousands (maybe millions) of health professionals and public servants, it is very difficult to get the right response without that sense of danger. Most people believed you in February, and then in March, and possibly April. But it’s June now. Where is the nightmare we were warned about? Where are the bodies? Where are the dying? Where are the graphic, unforgettable, epoch-defining images? Where is the human tragedy?

(I realise that there is a circular construct in that last question: The success of the public health response in February, March and April, it can be argued, is the reason we didn’t get the human tragedy in May and June.)

Thinking back to the last truly global pandemic lodged in the popular imagination—the HIV/AIDS pandemic—most people remember the AIDS skeletons of the 80s and 90s (which let us not forget left a trail of horrific stigma on the victims). I doubt that they have any recollection or idea of the details of the challenge. And why should they, that’s not something we should expect Joe Everyman to know. And yet, he carries deep within him a vague sense of dread about the realness of that virus and so takes the necessary precautions. (A dread or awareness which needs to be constantly rekindled to avoid complacency.)

And that’s how it goes. Tell me that the murder rate in your city is 5% and it is meaningless to me. Show me a picture of a murder in all its detail, it becomes my personal problem, it establishes for me the realness of the murder problem in that locale. That’s what stories and emotions do that statistics cannot.

The coronavirus presents a unique challenge in this respect. It kills in a far too benign manner to lend itself to the sort of storytelling that shocks. And yet, it is infectious and lethal enough that the bodies keep piling even as complacency grows. We have to show the numbers and preach the precautions, but we lack the emotional hook to bring and keep people in line. You cannot fight a virus people don’t fear.

Shoutout To NCDC

“Have you bought the thermometer? Good, good. Please tell your brother to measure his temperature, too, and let me know.”

That was a call from Jude (not his real name). Jude works for NCDC, the Nigeria Centre for Disease and Control. He tracked my relative to her home in Lagos after she returned from an overseas trip. Every morning he calls to find out about her state of health and who she has been exposed to. He carefully runs through a list of questions—are you feverish?, any difficulties breathing?, flulike symptoms?—in order to determine if her case merits an escalation. So far it hasn’t. Next week Tuesday, 14 days after her arrival and self-isolation, she will be going to a testing centre to take a COVID-19 swab. If her test comes comes back negative she will go home and we will never hear from Jude again. We hope this is what happens.

Another person, this time showing all the symptoms, contacted NCDC through their toll-free number. After two conversations over the phone NCDC staff, kitted in full-body protective gear like in the movies, arrived at her house to test her. After one inconclusive swab and a later one which was fine the tests came back negative. NCDC staff have kept in touch ever since, speaking with her daily to check on her progress.

You may disagree with the approach being taken. There are legitimate arguments to be made about whether or not this is the right strategy, whether this is too little too late, and so on. But you will not, I hope, fail to appreciate the job NCDC is doing at a crucial time under difficult circumstances. At a time of great anxiety, it is a good thing to recognise some of the people in the country working to try to beat back this pandemic. Working, I should add, without the resources available to their colleagues in other countries. But they carry on. We Nigerians have a long habit of dunking on our leaders, our governments and our civil servants. Such vitriol is usually well-deserved. But occasionally there is a unit like NCDC which breaks through the cynicism and negativity and shines a light of hope on all of us.

I want to applaud and encourage Jude and the team at NCDC. Every call they make to one of us is a message to all of us, a reassurance that we will get through this.

Covid Talk Run Amok

These are not normal times; nothing normal about an invisible world-killing virus run amok. You only have this one life and if everyone is freaking out, you are damn sure not going to just shrug and carry on like the world is not coming to an end. I understand.

But consider that the 24/7 saturation coverage of all the ways you and your loved ones are going to die shortly, and how the world as we know it is about to end may not be helping one bit.

I sympathise with those who are frustrated by a perceived lack of action by leaders and governments. It is hard to recall an event so threatening to every human being alive at the same time. We are nervous. We want something to be done about it. It is perfectly normal to want to know what is going on; to try to read everything we can about the virus; to believe what everyone is saying or what seems most plausible. But there is barely a line between keeping yourself informed and veering into a state of self-induced hysteria. Right now, the spread of false information relating to the virus may be as great a danger as the spread of the virus itself. It can lead us to act in ways which worsen the problem. Even if information is true, not all that is true is helpful, and rubbing your face in it while helpless to its action—as happens when we hang on to each byte of new data about infections or deaths home and abroad—can paralyse you with dread.

It is now more important than ever to manage our information feed—what we consume—and what we share. Before sharing—and it is terribly easy to share on our phones, is it not—ask: Is this true? Does this help? The point is not to wrap ourselves or others in a bubble of ignorance and become complacent, no. Rather, I would like to conscript you to the task of supporting your family and friends through an already challenging time. Let us not add to the pervasive mood of fear and panic. A lot is riding on this.

New Post

It has been 11 months since I published on this blog. The last post was on 8 January 2019. If you are one of the, like, ten people who subscribe, man, sorry, this wasn’t what it was supposed to be like. It’s not like this was a crazy year of anything like that. Sure, I’ve been busy; but is there any year where that is not the case? I have just been a bit more distracted and a good deal more dispersed in my endeavours. I really haven’t managed my time as well as I would have liked.

This, I guess, is the part where I commit to “do better” next year, isn’t it? But that is a lot of nonsense as you and I know, no one is fooling anyone. So I won’t attempt it. All I will say is: I’ll try.

And, oh, look here, you already have a new 150 word post.