I had three English Literature teachers at King’s College, Lagos. Mr Chukwudifu taught me drama. Mr Ejiofor, who liked to wear sunglasses to look and feel hippy, taught me poetry. And the immensely popular, short, stormy petrel (with all due respect and reverence that I can muster from within me), Mr Ibiam, taught me prose. It was Ibiam who helped us navigate the works of Samuel Johnson, including Rasselas, Prince of Abbyssinia, a book whose subject revolves around the futility in the search for happiness.
It’s actually what someone explained as the “discrepancy between what is wished for and what is obtained”, which I considered rather more apt. You will soon see the connection.
But talking about navigation, Nigeria is a difficult place to navigate! No, I am not saying I am, or want to be, a sailor and that I want a ship to go round the country in. After all, if I were to attempt that, I would soon find that there are indeed landlocked areas in the country that I just can’t reach by water. But I was actually thinking of a much broader scheme. That maybe, just maybe, we all, the entire 150 million of us, need to be put on a very, very gigantic plane and fly 35,000 feet above the ground, over some no-end-in-sight wide ocean, with some turbulence that forces the pilot to announce to us he does not understand and hasn’t a clue what’s going on. I can picture most indulgees saying: “Aye! Aye!” And this should in no way be confused with Fela urging fans, during those iconoclastic performances of his while he was still with us, “Everybody say yeah, yeah!” And it doesn’t matter if this is Felabration month, indulgees are banned from confusing the two acclamations, period!
And just in case you are wondering why I might be wishing this on 150 million of us, the thing about us is that we are all so resilient that the only thing that seems able to shake us up is when we know that there is no chance in hell, or heaven, that we can survive a situation. It is the very reason why I think that we are still going about groping in the dark and with very little or no care that the world is leaving us far behind, even when we say, jokingly and mockingly, that we want to chase and catch up with a pack of BRIC by 2020. I am just imagining at 35,000 feet (and I must not hear you say: “Dis bobo wicked o!”) with 150 million people on board this gigantic aircraft that is experiencing turbulence, what sort of confessions and supplications would be taking place at this time. It would be difficult to really tell, but I can just imagine that there would still be the selfishness of Nigerians on display, with more words than 150 million said, everyone would be asking that they personally be spared if the plane goes down. You can also be sure that there would be those who would be there believing that there is a slim chance of escaping the disaster by hook or crook! Overall, though, you are likely to find a very sober people asking for one last chance to make amends.
“Phillip, why a plane? Why so high up?” Well, you can deduce several reasons but I think the closest would be that Nigerians and Nigeria truly need a shake out! And such a shakeout would have to come by way of something in which Nigerians would find themselves helpless over, where their power of influence, authority and manipulation would be of no use whatsoever. If you were to put all 150 million of us on a gigantic bus travelling by road and there was turbulence, there would be those who would escape and run away to wait for the next person who would do the same so that they can sign that long outstanding contract. If the plane was to fly low and not over a no-end-in-sight sea of water, there would be those who would see the land below and take the risk and call up all the babalawos, marabouts and dibias that they know in the hope that they would escape the onslaught. But it seems that in some ways, every Nigerian, caught up in some form of trouble on a plane flying at above 30,000 feet, resorts to some self-dignifying resignation. And I think that’s what we need to make progress with Nigeria.
The problem with our situation is that we have too many troubles to deal with. We have our individual personal troubles, and then, we have to add on our national problems. When we are not able to solve our personal woes, some of which are connected to the way our country is organised and run, we are helpless looking up to our country to provide a soothing balm to calm our worries. Here’s what I mean. Those who know, especially those who try to keep this away from the rest of us because they can hop on the plane and, pronto, they are in Johannesburg, Dubai, Paris, Milan, London, New York, know that there is a huge benefit in retail therapy. They know that you really don’t need to have money to engage in this self-healing regime. The fact that you are in a shop full of beautiful things has both aspirational and psychological healing powers. It is one of the reasons why, in those places listed above, the governments build or encourage the development of lovely cities with beautiful shopping complexes all over the place, accessible to all so that their people, when they feel the pangs of depression, can go heal themselves with some retail therapy. The good thing, though, is that in those places they also make it possible that people are able to find things that they can afford. Here in Lagos, in particular, if you are not on any of the Island’s axis, it’s always a punishment to go do retail therapy at The City Mall, Park ‘N’ Shop, and Spar.
Before we get consumed in this wild talk about retail therapy, I think we had better return to our Muse, flying at 35,000 feet above the ground and being in serious turbulence with some 149 million other Nigerians, including those who have naturalised but still behave as if they are enemies of this country by the way they run their companies, treat black Nigerians who work for them and siphon every profit to the place where they are originally from. I suppose for this latter-day naturalised ‘Nigerians’, one day, a true Nigerian would be sent from heaven and he would be good to everybody but be firm in dealing with those who claim our citizenship but treat black Nigerians as if they are less than human. I have heard a lot said about this treatment by those we have welcomed with open arms into our country, both to do business and to live with us. One day it will snap, I tell you!You are cruising at 35,000 feet above the ground. Your headphone is plugged in and you have made a selection of music on the in-flight entertainment system. Then the soothing voice hits your eardrums. You can hear it’s a familiar voice and a familiar song. It’s Keshia Cole singing Heaven Sent, which actually begins with “Sent from Heaven. Sent from Heaven.” As you listen to the song and take the moment to feel strongly carried away by it, you realise that the Nigerian tragedy is both personal and national. For as you keep telling yourself that you can’t wait a whole life wondering when it’s going to come or where, indeed, it has been, you realise how much happiness eludes you, and how much happiness eludes Nigeria. So everybody gets to look up to heaven, hoping that something, someone, will be sent. And that when that ‘something’ and that ‘someone’ is sent, they would seize it and run with it and spread happiness to as many people as they can.
For still many, and that so-called group of “many”, it’s like watching the BBC comedy ‘Keeping up Appearances’ that starred Patricia Routledge and Clive Swift. At the end of the day, as a nation we are deeply unhappy. As individuals this deep collective unhappiness feeds into us and rubs off on us, and so we are unhappy. Personally too, we have our individual battles to deal with. For some of us, we might have thought that those personal battles were dealt with when we thought someone, something, had been sent from heaven. If Keshia Cole’s song, Heaven Sent, once did it for you but no longer does, hang on in there. You are not alone in saying: “Now, surely, this is no longer sent from heaven.”