These pictures tell their own stories.
two missed birthdays
in this blasted year, 2020.
These pictures tell their own stories.
These pictures tell their own stories.
two missed birthdays
in this blasted year, 2020.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
The hot plate fell on the table with a loud clang. It had only been three or so seconds, but that is all the time you need to burn your fingers. Stupid. I licked my tender fingers and studied the white ceramic cereal bowl carefully, worried that it may have cracked when I dropped it. It was fine, and the contents steamed satisfyingly in the dark, airless room. On my way back to the kitchen, I banged shut the microwave and ran my fingertips under cold water to take the sting off. I inspected them. It did not feel too bad. But I knew from long experience that my diagnosis was only valid until I buried my fingers into hot eba; that was the true test of how bad the burn was. I was to find out soon enough.
I grabbed a cup from the cupboard and went back into living room, past the tray of food on the dining table, to the water dispenser in the far corner. I noted that this was my first glass of water for the day.
“At 4 P.M?’ I thought.
But I did not dwell on the matter too long. This is “Christmas Period”, let us enjoy and be merry. I sat before the plate of afang and eba. Before beginning, I turned on the standing fan and made sure the blast was directly on my back. This is a standard precaution. I could already feel the sweat building around me, within me. But what is that to me? Can one truly say he has lived if he did not at least once experience what it is like to sit to a steaming meal in a tropical country, sweating, shirt off, with a blast of air pressing on skin enthusiastically?
It is a treat for the gods.
And so it was that in this condition, having unconsciously taken note of the sensible green-black colour of the soup, I carved my first ball of eba.
It did not burn the fingers. Good.
The first ball is all critical. It heralds the beginning of a stroll in paradise or a descent into a bland, saltless desert. Is it too hot? Then you need to slow down and track your prey more patiently. Too cold? Well, who eats cold food? You moderate and adjust. And when the temperature is just right, you chew carefully, swallow slowly, pause here and there to consider all that you have learned.
A burst of juice from a stray shard of okporoko, with its unmistakeable, pungent taste filled my mouth. I nodded and said a quiet prayer of gratitude to my ancestors who I knew then still smiled warmly on their son. After carefully selecting and setting aside the usual obstructions—cubed beef, dried fish, okporoko, and so on—I was still able to enjoy this piece of fish without reaching into my priceless hoard.
It is the mark of an experienced professional to cook the soup so as to achieve that perfect consistency which allows that each scoop of soup contains within itself some memory of the end, the last act, the conclusion to the whole business. It was clear that the dried fish and okporoko had been introduced at such a time, in such a manner, and in sufficient profusion as to ensure that each quantity of afang one summoned never arrived unaccompanied, never met the palette unescorted.
But I get ahead of myself. At this stage I had just entered a spiritual seance when I noticed a strange phenomenon: There was no periwinkle.
What was this provocation? How did this cook, of whom I had thought in such reverential tones only a few moments ago, think it fit to prepare afang without periwinkle? I must admit that I was so gravely offended by this realisation that it threatened to capsize the canoe on which hitherto I had sailed on a river of perfect bliss.
“Nobody does anything properly anymore,” I said aloud.
I put my hand down in despair, careful not to ensure my fingers did not touch table. The dark mood, slowly enveloping me like the shroud of an evil, giant mkpokporo, threatened me with absolute ruin in that hot room. I heard the NEPA horn blare and the fridge and deep freezer compressors kick-in to return the salute. But even this, this smile from the Nigerian Goddess of Electricity (she who is the protector of sleepers, scourge of the generators, ancient of days) failed to lift my spirits. I sat staring with glazed eyes into that cereal bowl.
Then it appeared. I blinked hard to make sure I was seeing what I thought I was seeing. But it was plainly there: a green-blue slug glistening under the light of a low voltage energy-saving bulb. I picked it up and placed it in my mouth and chewed gently. Confirmation! I fingered the plate feverishly looking for other signs and there they were all around! It had all been an unfortunate trick of the mind. Where I had been looking for the hardened shells of the periwinkle, I had not allowed the possibility that its less noble de-shelled relatives may be standing in substitute. The gods did indeed smile on me. In a moment, the storm had passed, I was back at the head of the canoe sailing calmly home, sailing towards the sun which sank behind the palm trees.
After the festivities of looking for the elusive periwinkles, I was in no mood to delay the final entree for much longer. I picked one piece of cubed beef, topped it with some of the leftover soup, then delivered it all into my mouth. I chewed for as long as the thing would emit its juices. Next, it was time for the kpomo: one kpomo, two kpomo, three, all boiled to perfection, not too soft, not too hard, not too thick, not too thin. Towel came after, then the dried fish, then the snail, and finally, critically, historically, okporoko, the king of the soup. In this manner, I did as was expected, I preserved the ancient order of precedent set out by my forefathers’ forefathers when they sat in the distant past to decide the order in which the obstructions of a well-appointed plate of soup are to be absorbed.
To complete the ritual, I placed the now cold cereal bowl on top of the flat plate now littered with bones and other detritus. I downed a glass of cold water. I was starting to realise that I was getting cold. Gone was the sweat and humidity, replaced by a hypnotic feeling of satisfaction and contentment. I could feel the approaching state we call Itis. I picked up the tray and left it by the sink, making sure to empty the bones in the bin then soaking the plates in water so that it could be washed easily later. I washed my hands and applied hand cream, which left them supple and smelling faintly of stock fish and lemon.
The room upstairs was ice cold. I had forgotten that I had left the AC on that morning, but it was all as it had been ordained, wasn’t it? I climbed into the bed and laid in it for a minute thinking of nothing in particular. I listened and all I heard was the hum of the AC and the banging from the construction site next door, something which usually annoyed me to no end, but in my present state of intense itis, I found not at all disagreeable. My thoughts drifted to the new year coming. I prayed. I prayed to the Christian God. I prayed to my ancestors. And I asked the Goddess of Electricity to give me smooth tidings even if it was only for the next two hours.
I shut my eyes and slept.
Today my mother turns sixty.
She was down at my house this past weekend where she, my dad and my siblings recounted old tales of where we have come from and how we got to where we are now. There was a lot of food and nostalgia in the air this weekend, a wonderful time to remind oneself of all the things which ultimately really matter.
It is the way with these things that when the conversation gets going the memory is rejigged and new recollections are brought forth. We were reminded of the time in 1989 when, out of work and down on their luck, she and my father left Calabar for Lagos with three young children in tow, hoping to find something. We roomed with a relative in Ajao Estate in Isolo for the first year. The details of that house are sketchy to me. All I remember was Italia 90 and Roger Milla. We soon found an old house in Surulere which came to serve as our first home in Lagos. My youngest brother came soon after. I can still see him coated in dust from crawling on the stoop of the old house we found just off Adeniran Ogunsanya.
This was the early 90s and Nigeria was anything but a party. This was true even for a family of two professionals who graduated from good federal universities. My mother, a lawyer, could not find work in any law chambers or in any corporate organisation. (Things were not much better for my dad who couldn’t find work as an architect or builder.) Being a person with a basic impulsion to strive and achieve something, she set out to start a business selling fish and roasted plantain. The details are hazy now, but it seems to have transpired something like this: My mother got it in her head that this local delicacy from Calabar could generate some interest among the urban Lagos crowd, so she found a partner who had a shop on Lagos Island. She seeded the business for some amount which nobody can remember now, and agreed that her partner would supply the balance in fish and raw plantain. She was somehow convinced to hand over her capital to this partner, returning home to prepare for what was to be the beginning of a new and fruitful enterprise, she thought. That was not to be, of course. My naive small town mother never saw her business partner again, and ended up out of pocket and with an invaluable welcome-to-Lagos lesson (and a great story).
This early setback didn’t break her. In characteristic fashion, she shook it off and moved on to new things. The sheer range of activities she has gotten herself involved in leaves me exhausted. At various points she has owned and run a salon; she has worked as a barrister; she has studied and trained as a development expert; she has founded and run an NGO for several years; she started a business frying and selling puff puff and buns out of our old blue 305; she has run what might be called a ‘garden’ in Surulere, selling roasted fish, coconut rice, fried turkey, snails, gizzards and booze in front of our house at night (on Fridays and Saturdays we helped to wash plates and serve customers when we got old enough); she has also worked as a diplomat and as a member of parliament. Her sheer willingness to dare to do is a constant inspiration to me and a reminder that I, too, can.
This enterprising spirit is one of her defining qualities. She gets an idea that she needs to do something, and she does it. She does not think too much about it, she does not dwell on the downsides of it. She starts, she bootstraps, she hustles. “You can’t” is a meaningless phrase to her. We hear a lot about what’s wrong with such a crude approach to life. But I’ve seen the other side of this coin, I’ve seen a person who was long on execution and short on strategy, and I think there is a lot to be said for the grafters of this world, those who act quickly and leave the pondering for later.
In writing this piece, I had to think about some memory or defining moment between us. The more I thought about it the more I came to the realisation that that moment did not exist. All of it is a continuum in my mind, a sort of smorgasbord of sights, familiar smells, fierce shouts, hard slaps, awkward smiles, laughs, hugs, hairstyles, boubous, large heavy 80s lens frames, and so on. Here she is one minute working on a report on Adobe Pagemaker late into the night, me dozing off in a corner, standing, because I had failed to obey a simple instruction to go to bed at 9PM. Here she is on sanitation day making akara and ogi for the house, sternly driving all of us to our domestic duties. Here she is at Visiting Day with my favourite meal ukang (an excellent pottage of bushmeat, plantain, palm oil and scent leaf), me embarrassed because the meal was a bit too ‘local’ for my fancy private school where fried rice and jollof was the order of the day. (Turns out fancy private school boys absolutely love ukang, judging by what happened to the cooler I took back to the dorm.) And here she is, slumped on the stoop in the front of the house in Anthony Village where we had moved to. A few metres from where she is seated the neighbour’s massive diesel generator is on, filling the night air with its industrial growl and the smell of Lagos. We did not have a generator then. She had had a long day, it was 10PM. There had been no light all day and we could not pump the water from the borehole into the tank. Me, too busy galavanting, as we say, with friends, had failed to fetch enough water to ensure that there was water upstairs for her return. And so the one thing she had been looking forward to that evening, the one break in her crazy day: a bath, was not possible. She was too tired, too defeated to yell. She would not raise a hand to me either. She just sat there, with her handbag at her feet, and wept. She sat there for a long time.
But she beat that, and she beat everything else life has thrown at her. And she is here now. How do I describe such a leader? How do I tell her how much she means to me?
How does one, say, describe what breathing means to them?
Nigeria will drain every ounce of hope you have, unless, like so much of the country, you exist in an idiot bliss of optimism while the signs all around point to, if not catastrophe, then the familiar slide of flattened aspirations and spreading poverty. The place never collapses, it never implodes, it never boils over. Years collapse into one another, and things just sort of carry on, as they always have and as they always will. But they don’t get better. The worst of it is that we’ve normalised this hypnotic slide, so that spreading poverty is no different from past poverty.
Lately things have taken such a bad turn that I am filled with too much dread to even contemplate where they may end up if we continue on the same trajectory for much longer. It is a repeatedly paralysing exercise to wake up to the day’s news.
And so I have sharply curtailed my commentary. I have stopped to conserve my energy; to try to live, rather than survive (which is what 2014 to date has felt like). I don’t keep abreast of the latest happenings; I don’t try to make sense of corporate fines, masked men shutting down the legislature, or a pronounced anti-business attitude spreading like a virus.
This is necessary also because I have talked myself out espousing positions which are overwhelmingly regarded as ‘negative.’ It hardly helps if clear-eyed realism leads you to the same place as those accused of being pessimists. Whatever your reasons, it is no fun to be the bearer of bad news, idiot bliss is much more agreeable.
But what else can I report? What is the record of our history? Have you not seen this pre-election movie before? Just today Nonso Obiliki reminded us that in 2011 we were seriously debating the need to increase the regulated price of electricity to make the sector more viable. That was almost a decade ago. Today, after all that time, after all that petrol, all that diesel, after all those kerosene lamps, after all that lost productivity and missed opportunity, we are further away than ever from a consensus on how to stop the lights from going off. Ten years. That’s bad, you say. But if you look back long enough, we have been having the power back and forth from as early as the President Obasanjo era, to my memory, and much much longer, I wager, if you dig back far enough.
The pattern repeats itself endlessly: the Biafra agitation, pollution in the Niger Delta, family planning, a national census, public education, and so on. Please take me literally and seriously when I say that on the fundamental issues there are no new problems in Nigeria—because there aren’t. We just don’t seem willing to arrive at any kind of actual solutions or even admit that the band-aid solutions are not working. Perhaps this is the natural messiness of nation-building. Perhaps. In any case, at least for now, I have nothing else to say.
Over the past few months, I have been going back and forth with a fairly senior person at one of our big banks. It has been a deeply frustrating process, mainly because of the quality of the person’s work. I was finally prompted to write something down after an interesting conversation on Twitter about, well, the quality of work one has come expect from artisans, specifically, but Nigerians generally.
Every time I think about the quality of output, I am reminded of an episode from years ago. Early into my career, I found myself under a boss who was what could be called a master. He had a remarkable resume and experience at some of the finest firms in the world. One time, I was over at his house for Saturday drinks when he’d organised a barbecue for he and some of his peers (mostly private equity and investment banking types). I was the cub in the den. We got to talking about all sorts of things, and the conversation turned to the young starters in their various firms — people like me. They were all complaining about the quality of work they got. (Some of this I suspect was the usual habit of older people to look back and think everything was better in their day.) I recall someone saying something like:
“Most people think there is some secret to doing great work. Like you must be Einstein or something.
No. That’s wrong.
Sure, it helps to be smart, but assume that most people are at the same level for smarts—which is usually the case for the top firms. The rest is just hard work and keeping at it. Doing great work is a grind.”
I’ve never forgotten that last phrase, “Doing great work is a grind.” Basically, it is drudgery. It is crossing t’s and dotting i’s, checking and rechecking, being obsessed about ridiculously small things. I do not think much about the mythologizing of Steve Jobs, but one thing about his story which has always struck me was his maniacal attention to detail, his obsession with perfection. He cared about the text of his creations, the shade of black on the screen, the feel of the product, even its packaging. It is almost impossible to list out all the specific instances where he was sweating the small stuff.
After that weekend, I started to see my boss’s fussiness in a new light. His painful anality served a purpose. Every letter, every report, every document of his was thought out to extraordinary depths before he even started writing. And then, he would write, and rewrite, and get your opinion, and then rewrite again. Constantly cutting out fluff, correcting errors, distilling the essence of what he was saying. When I sent reports to him, he would go over it with an electronic red pen: correcting grammar, interrogating points, helping me to sharpen my thinking. It was being anal-retentive by design.
And this is just how it goes regardless of who you are or what you do. If you want to do great work, you have to make it a habit and you have to be prepared to work bloody hard. You have got to sweat the tiniest things and sharpen the instinct to spot crap work. You have to hate crap work: I mean like really hate it. Do this long enough, eventually you would have worked yourself to a level where it is simply impossible to do otherwise.
I see the challenge of lower quality work all too clearly. It is a compounding catastrophe. Perhaps the biggest problem is that once you get used to crap work, you accept it; and once you accept it, well, you are done. You will deliver crap work because your norm is now crap. You will lose the ability to distinguish crap from great. Here’s the thing: You cannot on the one hand accept bullshit as OK and think you can deliver caviar. It ain’t gonna happen.
Jeff Bezos had this to say about a culture of performance in his most recent letter to Amazon’s shareholders:
“A culture of high standards is protective of all the ‘invisible’ but crucial work that goes on in every company. I’m talking about the work that no one sees. The work that gets done when no one is watching. In a high standards culture, doing that work well is its own reward—it’s part of what it means to be a professional.”
I love this idea of ‘invisible work.’ (I also love how he defines the idea of a ‘professional.’ When last did you think about what it means to be called a professional-something? What does that mean? How does it separate you from the non-professional?)
Bezos’s allusion to invisible work is an admission that it is impossible to micromanage everyone. The best teams are ones where everyone is prepared to grind and grinding is a culture. For leaders, I think engineering this culture—or, indeed, engineering the destruction of the opposite culture, a culture of low standards and bullshit—may be the single biggest contribution they can make to any team. And I think we are all leaders, if only of our own lives. We can demand a culture of high standards, but it starts with accepting the grind life.