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On Reserve


Letters from Nigeria

              by Ehi


Ehi, the Underachiever



Dear Wendy

I have been having the common cold with all the discomfort, especially difficulty in breathing, that always accompany it like beloved grandchildren. I am not sure why it always causes me difficulty in breathing, but in the absence of comprehensives tests, I have learned to make my own deductions in these matters. My suspicion is that it is something to do with my chronic sore throat which I have had for a pretty long time. The way I see it, since the air passage is already narrowed by the sore throat (this oscillates often between mild and moderate and occasionally progresses to near acute), the presence of mucus narrows the passage further, causing the difficulty in breathing. That theory must sound very unschooled, but I’m holding on to it for now until I see otherwise or an expert says otherwise. Catarrh, though, is not what I have been thinking about lately.

We are in the heat season. The temperature in Lagos gets to 90F. We are going to live with it till harmattan – the cold, dry wind that is unique to West Africa – comes and takes it away. Unfortunately, though, harmattan is usually brief in Lagos, so we are actually going to live with heat till the next rainy season which usually starts in April. These days I sleep with my ceiling fan on – which is something I do not like ordinarily because it encourages the flu since it blows debris into your nostrils. The body has mechanism to filter the debris but some of the bad stuff always find their way into your system. Again the body immune system can tackle this, but sometimes it is overwhelmed by the sheer force of it all or by sudden change in whether conditions. Anyway, at the moment, we are getting electricity less than half the time in the Federal quarters I live. When there is power failure, I open my windows and door wide. My door opens to the outside – that is, it does not open to a passage. When the door is open, I am protected by the net door I had installed on the door to keep to a manageable level the number of mosquitoes that successfully invite themselves into my apartment everyday. I always push home the rather strong bolt on the flimsy net before I sleep. Considering the crime rate of the average Lagos neighbourhood these days, this would sound like dashing [donating] yourself to the men of the night. I could be bugled or even be shot by robbers who may get nasty on realising they had wasted their precious time and hard-earned transport fare in coming to my place. We are talking about guys who sometimes kill for sport after taking money. Or I could be captured by ritual killers who may be out looking for the head of a light complexioned man – or the brain of a writer! – for some arcane witches’ kettle. But since my current health problems started about a decade ago, I have battled with internal body heat even in good weather. I gush out sweat when every other person in a room is relaxed. When I travel with my folks in a bus, they reserve the seat by the window for me. My sleeping problems are bad enough in clement weathers, and I would never consider going to bed without pausing to take a shower. Thus, if I lock my doors, I would not sleep a moment through the night. And what is the use of safeguarding yourself from bad guys if you are perpetually excommunicated from slumber? However, the place I live is not the average Lagos neighbourhood. The crime rate here is so low most of the time we could be living in Tokyo. And when Hank, a friend visited me recently, he joked that if he were a robber and he came around and met my door and windows wide ajar when every other person had theirs double-locked, he would give my place a wide belt because he would reason that there must be something in there! (When I wrote you about Nigerian capitalism last week, I omitted to mention that one way low-earning people survive here is by “squatting”. In the Lagos slums, there are some single room apartments housing close to a dozen people. I live in a far better neighbourhood. Not necessarily by choice. In Lagos it is difficult to get one-room apartments and the place you find one, you quickly pay for it. But I will not give up my current place for any other neighbourhood.)

Anyway, heat, too, is not what I have been thinking about recently. I have been thinking about money.

Since my publisher told me last Tuesday that we have to pay in more money, I have been compelled to. I intend to tell you everything about the story of this book when I am through, but let me state here, in summary, the scenario so that the appropriate context can be established for the tone of this letter. A printer/publisher I approached earlier demanded N650,000 for 1,000 copies (US$1 = N140, €1 = N165). An uncle of mine recently published 1,000 copies of his book for N400,000. The printer I am using is being paid N180,000. Now you can say I am the “luckiest” guy around. For several months I went from place to place but failed to raise this money, until, like I already told you, an uncle living abroad gave me N120,000. He later told me that I would not have to pay him returns when books are sold – that is, I should return only the N120,000 capital. (You can’t say God has not been good to me.) This money only went 65% (N117,000 paid). Now the printers have made the prints. But they have stated firmly that they will not use their money to pay day workers who do the “finishing”. I am to pay balance or work stops where it is. It has. My publisher, who is an old pal, says if we can raise about half of the N63,000, he believes he will be able to get them to continue work because of the existing relationship between them.

Trouble is, I have not been able to raise, even this – and there lies the cause of my angst. In publishing, this is a small amount and I have been asking myself why I am such a clangourous failure that, at 29, I cannot raise this relatively small amount of money. (Note that unlike many other climes, including the US, here you usually pay to have your work published. Some of the old traditional publishers are still there, but they are inaccessible, tiring and unavailable.) As I write this Sunday night, I have only raised N20,000 out of N63,000 after about 20 phone calls and 10 visits.

It is almost impossible to raise money around here. There is a clannishness about social classes. When you ask people that have money, they will not give you because they know they are not going to come to you for anything and so there are no prospects of quid pro quo. I recall what a certain cousin told me back in 2001, shortly after we both came to Lagos – separately. After asking me why I dropped out of university and after a discussion of my prospects of going back, he said, “Don’t just bother yourself. At the moment, just concentrate on how to feed yourself and get by. As long as we are here together in Lagos, you are my younger brother. Something will be done about your studies.” I used to be very naïve in those days and took people on their words. Less than four months after this Lagos Declaration, my cousin got a job in what is considered the most lucrative sector in this country after oil, telecoms. An engineer in the telecoms sector is a god of sorts. Well, since then the story has not been the same. When I did make requests for money/loan during some pressing moments and during the initial time I tried to publish this book, my face was rubbed in it. I have since learnt that the more money people have, the tighter they hold on to it. This is perfectly logical. Once you start getting good pay, you begin having these grand plans about moving house to a swanky neighbourhood like VGC or Lekki, and saving to send your kids to Princeton or Cambridge, or purchasing a small private jet. And you don’t need a decrepit little chap coming around to spoil your Arcadian plans with his own tiring little problems. There was this guy let on he was saving to send his son to MIT. When he told me that, the son was four months old. Now he has two sons, so try to imagine the rate at which he must be saving now! One of the things I may never understand till I die is people’s attitude towards money. It would appear the ultimate aim is always to outdo Croesus. Anyway it is his money who owns it. Whenever I ask someone for money for a project and he refuses, it never affects my relationship with him; it does not change my opinion of him as a good person or a bad person – except where he insulted me by deliberately rubbing my face in it. I tell myself it is his money and whether to “help” a certain individual or not, to invest in a project or not, is his decision to take and that decision must be respected.

I am not one to engage in self-pity or that sort of thing. I do not place any importance on material things and I despise those who place too much importance on them. However, I have been wondering why I am such an underachiever. (I do not usually write down any title before writing these letters. But before writing this one, I wrote down WHY I THINK I AM POOR.) At 29, I am not even in college – for someone who intends to get a degree. I skip meals sometimes. My writing aspiration has remained just that – an aspiration. A year ago, when I ran into an old classmate from primary school who is now a college graduate, he said, “but you were the best guy in the class!” This is the classical underachiever. Because I am capable of doing things. I have got ideas. There are books I want to write and publish, but I have to spend long hours at work. Effectively caged by an intractable health problem, it is difficult to find enough time and energy to be creative. Getting published is for the birds. There is a magazine I want to start, but that is a cake in the sky. Still remember the TV program I drew up? Someone else has since got the idea.

I do not particularly like engaging in self analysis, except privately. I work hard at my job. I have been a waiter, an ice cream sales boy, a barber’s shop attendant, a secondary school teacher among others. Every oga I have worked for has been sad to see me go. There was one who, when his emissaries failed to see me change my mind about leaving, went after my father to get the older man to have me persuaded to return. Even with nasty bosses, I have always refrained from using what Herb Cohen calls “malicious obedience”, and I despise those who do. I am always willing to make sacrifices. Why then am I an underachiever? I have formulated some theories, and I am going to make an exception to my self analysis rule by disclosing them to a friend. One is money. I have realised that to do anything in this world, you need some money. In Lagos where I live now my standard of living is higher than it was when I was living at Ekpoma. The cost of surfing the Net at cybercafés is not that expensive but back at Ekpoma, I would have been unable to afford it. That means I would have been shut off the potential opportunities the Internet has offered me. The computer I use at home was purchased for me by my elder brother – imagine what I would do without it. My book should have been out by now if I could raise any money. Number two is bad health. We have discussed this at length in the past. As the costs of going for the proper tests to ascertain whether this is indeed MS or not are far out of reach, I am probably going to remain like this for a long time, unsure. Needless to say, these two factors I have stated are mutually reinforcing. They were responsible for my dropping out of college. Three is lack of enough personal discipline. No, I do not engage in what many boys around here spend their money on – booze, girls, latest CD’s, designer wears, and the likes. But I still think I am not disciplined enough. I am poor at sticking to budgets. I sometimes find myself watching a movie when the original plan was to sit on the computer and write. I have resolved to do something about this. A possible forth reason would be my lack of charisma and poor interpersonal relationship. I am reticent and avoid crowds and forums. When I have serious things to tell anyone, if they are many, I often write them down and hand to the person. The difference in response between this and the talking method is wide. I have always been poor at relating with people, though I have made some improvements with the aid of some books I have read in recent years. Some have read me and wanted to me. For the few who do, it is often an anti-climax.

How was your week? I was peeved when I found those people did not have Nigeria listed. When a country twice the size of California, four times the size of Britain, and a population half that of the US’ is not on a list that includes Burundi, Laos and Paraguay, you know it is deliberate. What I can’t make up my mind on is who takes the lion’s share of my displeasure – the tiny minority of Nigerians whose scam art activities have given the rest of us in this country a bad task or these guys at Illinois who have decided, in what must be considered unparalleled prejudice, that all Nigerians are bad news probably because of one or two bad experiences, or rumours of it.

Do let me know if you happen to confirm when and where the classical music concert will be coming up. It will be wonderful if they are coming this way sometime.

Have a blessed week


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