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On Reserve


Letters from Nigeria

              by Ehi



Sunday 2005-12-25
Dear Wendy
Yesterday I went shopping. No, not for Christmas. I went to buy a few things I really need. In Nigeria the prices of consumer goods go up in the market at this time of the year, so you may wonder why I chose yesterday to go shopping. It is simply because I had some money. That is how it usually is. At the end of the year there is usually one kind of bonus or the other. Since throughout the year one gets paid less than one needs to eat and commute to work, I always appreciate this little extra money to buy the few things I need. I recall that in 2002 I ended up spending almost all I got, thinking there was money, and in January 03 I was stranded and had to pawn two dictionaries to get by! This year was particularly good – well, better than I have had it yet. I got paid “leave allowance” which is approximately 75% of my monthly salary. (Last year I did not get any leave bonus because I was less than a year on this job, but oga gave me what amounted to a third of my salary as bonus. 2003 December I was jobless.) And my boss gave a fairly generous bonus on top of that. These were paid along with December salary. So after paying what I borrowed while raising money for the book project about three weeks ago, I still had some money left on hand.
I needed three things very badly – a radio, a handbag and a standing fan. The radio was not negotiable. The cheap handbag I was using would be a source of disgrace if I had not risen above surface considerations. I had bought it in late 2003 while jobless with the belief that in a matter of weeks I would replace it. I needed a standing fan because my ceiling fan does not reach the computer in the room. I cannot simply move the PC because of space constraints. Other things I needed include a pressing iron, a food flask, a metal kettle and a mug. I quickly decided the iron could wait as my neighbour, Kehinde, whose own I usually borrow, along with his girlfriend, are folks, and great ones too. The food flask would make it easier to buy food from bukas and then bring it home to eat away from their smoky, stuffy little restaurants. Eating at home also gives you better opportunities to sit back and eat at ease, eat your meat to the bones, and lick your plates. Oh, I do cook, but as often as not it is inevitable to eat out. I needed the kettle to enable me store water and boil water with some ease. The cup, I needed for purely sentimental reasons. Besides these, I needed to upgrade the RAM on my PII 400MHz computer from 128MB to 256MB. The system was fairly fast, as the processor is MMX, but after I put some more software on it recently, the speed has declined a lot. I also decided this one could wait.
In real terms, I have no money for shopping. There is one outstanding debt of fifteen thousand I incurred sometime. The six monthly payment for house rent is due and I am required to fork out nine thousand for that. But like we say it here, you sometimes close your eyes to do some things. The 15k debt will be put off for now, as there is no pressure whatsoever from there. I will pay half of the house rent and plead with the landlord to let me pay the remainder by January ending. So yesterday I went shopping.
I soon realised I could not locate any electronic shops on my own so I asked for directions. Tejuosho indoor market is vast and intimidating to anyone like me who does not go into markets often. I was directed to go upstairs. But it happened that while I was asking directions a certain fellow heard me and as I mounted the staircase he accosted me. He asked me what type of radio I wanted. I told him to take me to his shop and I would pick what I wanted. I did not want to end up with a “market guide”. You may not know what that is, Wendy. A market guide, simply, is a trader who has no shop, a businessman whose business premises is superlocated. He goes about the market to look for shoppers and directs them to his friends’ shops. He handles the bargaining and whatever he succeeds in getting you to pay on top of the actual selling price goes into his pocket. Probably a social nuisance, but just one of the many creative ways devised by some of our people to beat unemployment. His shop, when we got there, had no radios. But another guy had materialised and taken charge of the situation. He and the guy who brought me up offered me a seat while asking what I wanted. Tired, I gratefully fell into the wooden straight-back chair. “I want a three-battery world receiver which has a cassette player.”
He disappeared and in about three minutes, came back with three radios. The first two he showed me had only SW 1 & 2. I rejected them and as I was getting to my feet he showed me the third which turned out to be just what I wanted. An AC/DC three-battery 12-band world receiver with a tape recorder. I had him test the cassette player as I had no blank cassette to check the recording capability. I then checked the FM and SW reception. Everything appeared to be in top shape. This one is low quality stuff, but a good one – that is, you might call it a high quality low quality product. He asked for thirty-five hundred naira for it. I told him I would pay twelve hundred. He made a terse statement in pidgin that just cannot be translated into queen’s English – or American English – but had the effect that the amount I offered, though ridiculous, could be considered a start. (If you ever ever believe anything a market trader tells you in Lagos, you can believe anything – including the story, told by one naughty girl, that there was a certain baby born without a head somewhere in Nigeria. His parents, the story goes, summoned a medic. That one summoned some specialists who summoned more specialists. In the end the good doctors engaged the services of a master carver who carved a head for the male child. That child, the story ends, later became the President of Nigeria!)
At a point it appeared we were stalemated at twenty-four hundred on one hand, and sixteen hundred on the other. He said my offer did not go anywhere near a possibly acceptable amount. I frankly told him that was too bad, because it only meant I would have to go home and try harder to have my old radio repaired. He asked me to “add something” but it soon dawned on him I was not prepared to pay anything more than sixteen hundred. As I was about to leave, he wrapped the radio and asked for the money.
Downstairs I went in search of a mug. At the fourth shop, I found a beautiful white made-in-China one that outdoes my last made-in-England one in beauty. That done, I asked the lady if she had a food flask. I had not made up my mind whether to buy one today or not but felt I should get a good idea of what it costs. She quickly offered me a seat and brought three flasks. While I made my choice, she came over to sit by my left, facing me, her legs touching my left and leaving me wondering if this was coincidental or the use of sex in sales. (I once brought an item home I had bought and my friend’s wife remarked that she was sure the lady had used sex to get me to pay that price for it!) While we negotiated, she got up frequently to attend to other customers. It soon appeared we were stalemated at twelve hundred on one hand, and nine hundred on the other. She told me she did not buy it for anything less than a thousand, so would I please pay a thousand two hundred. She had such a womanly look and candid mien about her face that I almost held her hands to comfort her that not to worry, everything will be fine. But I did not change my mind. “I can’t pay above nine hundred.” As I was about to leave, she said, “So you can’t pay one thousand one hundred?” And then, “So you can’t pay one thousand?” I caved in. As she wrapped my purchases she said, “I vowed that anybody that comes here today, even if it is cost price, I will sell for them.” You see how lucky I am? Always going to the right places!
She did not have a kettle and I did not go looking for one – the money I had on me was exhausted. As I write this I am seeing the glittering white cup I bought and wondering how much it contrasts with everything else in this room. Where everything else is austere my cup looks like a piece of luxury that would not be out of place on Adna Kashoggi’s table. This one cost only two hundred so it is making me a little uncomfortable to think it has a bit of garishness. I am seriously missing having a kettle and thinking that I will have to go back to Tejuosho tomorrow to find a kettle. I have decided to call someone to move the fan a little closer to the PC. I hope that takes care of that for now. I bought a laptop bag on Friday. It was quite expensive, but I believe it will last for a very long time.
I recently met two people discussing Christmas. One said it had lost Christ. The other said it hadn’t. And then along came another fellow said it never had. Christmas began in c.350 when Pope Julius proclaimed December 25 the date of the Nativity. This was during the “christianisation” of Rome and the idea evidently was to bring in a something the pagans could identify with. It is known that December 25 was, until then, the day of the Roman Saturnalia, the festival of Saturn the god of the sun and of agriculture. A lot of people are of the view that there is nothing wrong with this kind of origin for a Christian festival. In fact, many now see the festival as a secular thing, a day for everyone to unwind, the origin and religious significance having long departed from serious reckoning. But suppose a large multitude come to a nobleman’s house to celebrate his birthday. He does not think much of birthday anniversaries and so had not even let any of his aides reveal his birthday to any of his admirers. They simply go ahead and pick the birthday of one of his enemies for the exercise and give gifts to themselves except the man. He does not like people engaging in gluttony and drunkenness and loose living. But some of the people in the crowd do these things at his place and in his name. How would the man like all this?
Well, let me tell you a bit, Wendy, about Nigerian Christmas as celebrated in the cities. There are significant differences between Christmas in the village and Christmas in the city. At this time of the year, people always go on buying sprees. They buy things they don’t really need. I guess every festival in the world gets hijacked by capitalism, but Christmas sure takes the cup. A columnist here last year described it as “a bazaar of profanities”. There are all sorts of toys being sold to kids and adults. There was this fellow I saw in traffic hold-up at Maryland holding some egregious masks for children. I figure it is what was leftover from sales during the October 31 business in North America. There is no Halloween here – yet. I should give that one another three to five years without claiming the gift of prophecy. The fast foods outlets, this year, are as creative as ever in their ads and decorations.
There have been efforts here to rehabilitate Christmas in recent times. Several pastors are now heard to tell their congregations, “Christmas is for you to reflect on your relationship with the Lord Jesus. It is not for you to engage in drinking sprees and merrymaking.” Really? The Encyclopedia Americana says, “During the Saturnalia… feasting prevailed and gifts were exchanged.” Encarta encyclopaedia says the Saturnalia “was marked by seven days of riotous merrymaking and feasting”. The incorporation of these works of the flesh into the Christmas institution went spectacularly well. (The Nativity crib and Christmas carols came in during the Middle Ages.) This has been the Christmas tradition from the time of Julius. At what point, then, did it become a time to “reflect on relationship with the Lord Jesus”?
I believe I can write the script for the national network news this evening – “The President has asked Nigerians to use the Christmas day to rededicate themselves to the service of God and the nation. The Archbishop of Owerri Diocese in his Christmas message asked Nigerians to love their neighbours. The governor of Rivers State has asked Nigerians to live in peace with one another whatever their religious differences. The Archbishop of Abuja prayed for God to keep the nation united and prayed for an end to air disasters. The Reverend Father Okon of Okonta Parish has urged Nigerians to use the Christmas to engage in sober reflection as Christmas is not for merrymaking. The first lady of Abia State has asked Nigerians to show concern for the wellbeing of the less privileged. She made this statement while distributing gifts to children at an orphanage in… ” And apart from Christian politicians “reaching out”  there will be Moslem politicians, who want to be presidential candidate or running mate, and wanting to demonstrate their nationalist credentials, urging Christians to emulate the humility of Jesus Christ and live in peace. Christmas is, probably more than anything else, a time of clichés. Every year there are always smiling first ladies taking hampers to orphanages and other Suffering People’s Homes. The colonies of lepers scattered all over this country must rank as some of the worst examples of human suffering and official neglect. The people who are supposed to live there are virtually neglected by the government and just about everyone. So they don’t live there; they set up house along the nation’s highways, with their kids, under the elements, where passengers in speeding cars sometimes throw loaves of bread and naira notes at them. I won’t be surprised if during the Christmas they too get visits from first ladies, complete with crumbs dropped by bejewelled hands and smiles accentuated by red lipsticks – there is a lot of hypocrisy around. They can go and die during the remaining eleven months of the year.
It was when I started living in the city that I came to know about “Christmas hampers”. The baskets often contain wine, cornflake, sugar, tea can, groundnut, and many of the other things that are simply called “provision” in popular Nigerian English. I have always suspected that a lot of these things get thrown away because there are usually too many of them. If you are VIP – and the Nigerian concept of importance is another matter – you could get between ten and fifty of these baskets. It would appear that people have learnt a few things by this year because my boss did not receive a single hamper. Rather I saw live turkeys and bags of rice. The people who buy and send these hampers know those they are sent to can afford to buy these things themselves. It is said, therefore, that they are sent “in the spirit of the season” as acts of love. Truth is, people usually send them to their peers. People who, like them, are at the top and whose goodwill is necessary to ensure cogs in and weed out clogs from the wheel of material accumulation and political jobbing.
There have been reports in the media of traders complaining they are not making as much money as they used to make during the yuletide. Thing is: I hear this every year, so I no longer take it seriously. But even my boss mentioned that he did not get as much gifts this year as he used to. That he got gifts only from quarters he did not expect. That he did not know why. But different and interesting reasons have been advanced. One of them is the recent rash of stock trading. Really hope to talk about that some other time.
How was your week? I hope to get my books this week. Just can’t wait to see them. My publisher says he has problems raising the remaining amount and is trying to negotiate his way so we are allowed to collect these copies. How is your stay over with family? I know times such as Hanukkah must present you with opportunities to reunite with everyone. I hope you are enjoying all the sun that way? My regards to everyone, especially Eli. And how is your niece – I mean the little girl who wanted her older brothers to take wives just so she could be little bride during the weddings?
Your friend
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