Pangolo Junction
Life, arguments, and kunu... with Max, Nat and Zack

Saturday, November 25, 2006

People Watching People

(It's early evening. Nat and Max are lounging on the veranda outside Pangolo Junction intently observing the people passing by. Every now and then, they make a comment or an exclamation.)

Max: What about that one? What do you think?

Nat: Well, look at the way he's walking. It's fairly obvious that he's not from around here – look at how slowly he's moving and how he's looking from side to side, as if he's looking for a particular building.

Max: Nonsense. That doesn't mean anything – everybody has to proceed with caution around here, otherwise an okada can appear from nowhere and splash some of
Old Major's water on you. No – I think that he has an important meeting to attend, and he's going to the bus stop to get a bus to take him to the town centre.

Nat: How can you tell?

Max: Well, I caught him looking at his watch twice, so that gave me the clue about the meeting. I'm guessing that it must be an important meeting, because he seems quite well dressed for just a casual meeting.

Nat: Sorry, but I don't buy your theory. If he was looking out for motorcyclists, he would be looking at the road, but look – he's looking at the houses. And just because he's looking at his watch, it doesn't mean he's going to a meeting in town. He might have agreed to meet someone locally at a particular time. Ah, look – see, I'm right! He's stopping to ask someone something.

(Just then, Zack arrives. He is surprised to see them outside the Junction.)

Zack: What's up? Why are you guys sitting here?

Max: Oh, it's nothing. We just wanted to engage in a spot of people-watching while waiting for you to show up.

Zack: People-watching? What's that?

Nat: What else? Watching people, of course.

(Zack is puzzled at this.)

Zack: I don't get it. Why would you want to watch people? What's the point? Is it some sort of game?

Max: Ah, Zack, your incomprehension arises from the fact that you have not yet been introduced to the delights of people-watching.

Nat: The thing is, you probably do it in an unconscious way, but the true people-watcher takes the art to a whole new level. I'd better let Max explain... me, I'm just a novice.

Max: Yes, as Brother Nathaniel has said, when you see people go by in your day-to-day activities, you probably give them no more than a cursory glance. But do you ever wonder about the multitude of stories that lie beneath that frown, that amused look, that excited face? Do you ever stop to think what could have happened to make that man put on his babanriga, or why that woman is tying her gele in that way today?

Zack: No – why should I?

Max: Ah... then you are depriving yourself of the wondrous experience of people-watching. That elderly gentleman you see in a well-worn suit with a pensive look on his face... he now becomes a man who wakes up today, his last day at the company he has worked at for thirty-five years. He slowly, methodically goes through his morning routine of prayer, personal hygiene, dressing up and breakfast. Then he brings out the old suit that he wears only on special occasions, a suit which has been dry-cleaned especially for this day.

He looks at the suit for a long time, full of conflicting emotions... sadness that a long and fulfilling part of his life is coming to an end, but happiness that he can now devote more time to playing with his grandchildren. Then he carefully puts it on, bids his wife farewell, picks up his walking stick and leaves his house for his place of work for the last time ever.

Zack (incredulously): You mean you can tell all that just by looking at someone? I don't believe you.

Nat: Well, part of it is down to the imagination, but really, the skilled people watcher can deduce all sorts of things just by paying attention to small details of the person's appearance or behaviour.

Max: For example, even if someone is wearing a fine suit, you can still tell whether he just using the suit to 'pose' or whether he really is an all-round good dresser by looking at the smaller details of his dress. What about his shoes? Or his watch? Or his glasses - if he's wearing any?

Zack: So... what you are saying is that People-Watching 101 is one of the courses you need to take if you are studying Confidence Deception at the University of 419. Or why else would you want to know details of someone other than to use that knowledge to gain their confidence?

Max: Zack, why do you have to be so negative all the time? Of course the skilled people watcher becomes adept at detecting and interpreting every nuance of action of his fellow human being. How can he not be, when he spends hour after hour observing them at work and play, like a naturalist observing animals in the wild? But the true people-watcher will not debase this skill by using it for something so tasteless as fraud. No, he gets his joy simply from the challenge of teasing out someone's background story from the physical evidence before his eyes.

Nat: And there's also the joy of creatively filling in the gaps that cannot be explained by the evidence available. What work does the elderly gentleman do that he enjoys so much and is sad to leave? Perhaps it involves people coming to him for advice, making him feel valued as he dispenses it. Or perhaps it the work of a craftsman, creating something out of nothing and being able to revel in his status as a god amongst men.

Zack: The more I hear you guys talk, the more it strikes me that this people-watching is something that jobless people engage in. What material benefit does it bring anyone?

Nat (rolling his eyes): This is the problem with you, Zack. You're a solid dependable man, all right – but you're seriously lacking in imagination. Must everything bring about a material benefit? Please don't tell me that when you want to buy Lizzy a birthday present, you choose something like a pot or a blender.

Zack: As a matter of fact, I bought her a very solid saucepan for her last birthday present. One hundred percent non-stick and rust-proof. So far, I have heard no complaints.

Nat (exclaiming): A saucepan! Zack! (throwing up his hands in despair) How unromantic can you get! I'm sure she didn't say anything because she believes that you are beyond redemption.

Zack: Well, you can say what you like about my unromantic gifts... the last time I checked you were still chasing that girl... what's her name, now – Jennifer – and all your romantic wan-tin-tin techniques don't seem to have paid off.

Max (interceding): Guys, that's enough o! Zack, all right, all right – people-watching will not cure AIDS or bring about world peace. I never claimed that it could. It's just a fun way to relax and unwind that brings out the best of your creative and deductive skills. Obviously it doesn't appear to be your cup of tea – that's fair enough. But the great thing about people-watching is that there are so many different kinds of people-watching activity out there, so you might still find something to tickle your fancy.

Zack: Like what?

Max: Well, there's clothes-watching, where you pay special attention to the kinds of clothes that the people are wearing. What the material and design of the clothes are, where they might have been obtained from, what kind of combination of clothes are being worn, and what all this tells you about the person wearing them.

Zack (snorting in disgust): That looks like the kind of thing that only empty-headed shallow people would engage in.

Max: You're making a biiiiig mistake, my friend. The judicious observation of the clothing of a people that tells you a whole lot about the culture of the place more than a thousand sociology books could ever do. For a businessman like me, this information is absolute gold – it tells me which way the wind is blowing in terms of fashion and culture, and what would be a good deal to chase.

Nat: But if you don't like clothes-watching, there's always posture-watching - that's watching how people carry themselves. Are they marching with a straight back with arms swinging in time to an imaginary beat? Or are they strolling along with a smooth rhythmic motion, with their body rolling from side to side like they're the coolest guy in town? Or are they slouched up against a wall like they don't care about anything?

Zack: That's even more pointless than clothes-watching. Why should I care how people walk?

Nat: Well, being an expert in posture-watching means that you can read someone's body language and tell whether they are approaching you with friendly, indifferent or hostile intentions. If you decide that they're approaching you with harmful intent, that can give you enough time to prepare yourself

Max: Or if that is still not to your liking, then you can try body-watching. That is all about the appreciation of the human form in all its varieties – whether tall or short, thin or fat, male or female.

Zack: Ah. I see now – your motivation for people-watching now becomes clear. I presume that in your case, the varieties of the human form you're interested in are female or female, female or female, female or female.

Max (grinning): Absolutely! Preferably of the well-endowed variety.

Zack: But don't you guys run into trouble with this your people-watching? Are people happy for you to just stare at them like that?

Max: Ah, well this is the thing. The novice people-watcher will make the mistake of looking at someone as though he wants to hypnotise them. Nat, wasn't there that incident where you were threatened by one man who thought you were trying to put 'medi' on him?

Nat (embarrassed): I don't know what his problem was. I mean, he was wearing an agbada underneath a business suit – so he should have expected people to stare at him.

Max: Well, maybe your stare was the straw that broke the camel's back. But it wouldn't have happened to me – I have perfected the art of the unobtrusive stare, so that I can enjoy people-watching in peace.

Zack (scornfully): Well, I can't see you having that kind of problem, since your people-watching has less to do with watching people's faces and more to do with watching other parts of their anatomy.

Nat (hurriedly): Anyway, that incident taught me that it wasn't a good idea to look at people directly. So I've perfected yet another category of people-watching that I call meta-people-watching.

Max: Meta-what?

Nat: Meta-people-watching, or if you like, people watching people watching people. It's obvious that if a people-watcher is engaged in watching people, the last thing he's going to be thinking about is another people-watcher watching him.

Max: But does it count as meta-people-watching if the person who is watching a person watch another person is actually the person who is watched by the person he is watching? Does it not mean that there's an infinite loop of people watching because person A is watching person B who is watching person A who is watching person B who is watching person A...

Nat: Hmm... I hadn't thought of that. It also makes me wonder what happens in a reflexive three-way people-watching scenario where I'm watching you, you're watching Zack and Zack is watching me.

Zack (holding his head in his hands): Stop! I can't understand this nonsense that you're both saying. And please leave me out of your people-watching equations!

Nat: Oh, don't be so dismissive. I think you'll find that meta-people watching is a very entertaining activity. The other day, I was watching this person who was fully engaged in people-watching of the female body variety. The thing is, he himself was walking in the opposite direction to the subject of his observation, but even after he had passed her, his eyes were still so firmly locked into their target that he missed his footing and fell into an open gutter.

Zack (with a knowing look at Max): Well there's a cautionary tale for all people- watchers. Instead of drooling over what you cannot have and disgracing yourself in public, it would be better to engage in productive and meaningful activity.

(Just then, the man who Max and Nat were looking at earlier on approaches the three of them.)

Man: Hello... could you please tell me where Oni Street is around here? I'm supposed to be meeting a friend here, and I don't know this area that well.

(Nat turns to Max triumphantly and says "See? I was right and you were wrong!")

Man: Huh? What's that about?

Max: Oh, don't mind my friend. We saw you passing this way earlier on, and he made a wild lucky guess that you were on your way to meet someone here.

Man: Well he's right, but I'm not staying long at my friend's place. I need to get some information from him, because I need that information in an appointment that I have in the town centre in a few hours.

Max (turning to Nat and smirking): Ehen, Nat, what were you saying just now about me being wrong?

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Pushing up the Population

(It's that time of the day when office workers head home on overcrowded buses... when area boys count the takings after a hard day's work extorting money off motorists... and when our three friends congregate in Pangolo Junction to chew the fat.)

Max: So what are you guys up to this weekend?

Nat: Well, my cousin's wife has just given birth, and he's invited me to attend the naming ceremony.

Zack: Ah, that's good news o!

Nat: Well... not really. You see, my cousin already has six children, and...

Max: Six children! Wow, he must be very wealthy to be able to look after them.

Nat: Actually... no. His job as a clerk barely brings in enough income to cover the cost of their accommodation alone. His wife has her own business as a seamstress, but still they struggle to find enough food to put on the table for their children. So you can imagine why he's not exactly shouting hallelujahs now that his wife has given birth to triplets.

Max and Zack: Triplets!!

Nat: Oh yes. In fact, I suspect that this 'naming ceremony' is really a fund-raising ceremony in disguise. I met my cousin just before coming here, and he was dropping some very broad hints like "I hear that they are paying you well well at that your bank" and "You know, times are hard here, my brother" and "You are lucky that you have no responsibility".

Zack: I really feel sorry for the man. How is he going to look after nine children?

Max: Sorry? What do you mean? Hasn't he heard of contraception? I mean, why bring children into this world if you can't afford to look after them?

Nat: I don't really know... I 've not thought to ask him exactly why he's had child after child, despite the increasing difficulty in looking after them. I suspect that it's a combination of the cost of contraception and the inconvenience in using it. Or maybe he really isn't aware of what's available out there.

Max: I find that hard to believe. This is why if I had my way, I would introduce a policy of issuing parenting licences, just like the government currently issues drivers licences! Only parents who could prove that they had enough money to look after a child would be allowed to have one.

Zack: Ha! This is really surprising, coming from Mister Freedom himself.

Max: Well, this is different. Remember that I spoke of using that freedom responsibly? (getting angry) How responsible is to bring a child into this world if that child is just going to know hunger, poor health and poor education all his childhood, because the parents don't have the money to look after him? I've seen too many children suffer because their parents weren't thinking when they decided to do the horizontal dance without protection!

Nat: Max, sorry - but your idea is a complete non-starter. Who decides how much exactly someone needs to look after a child? What happens if things change down the line and the parents are not so comfortable? Or what if someone disobeys the law and has children anyway without one of these licences – do you kill the child?

Max: Why are you talking like this? Don't we have laws that govern the adoption of a baby to decide whether a couple are suitable to act as parents for the baby? Why can't we use the same laws to decide whether a couple are suitable to have a baby the natural way? And as to your question about what happens to babies of offending couples... they can always be given up for adoption.

Zack (alarmed): Kai, Max! That is absolutely draconian! Anyway, your idea will be so unpopular that there is no way on earth that it will ever be implemented. I pity the policeman who they send to a community to come and seize a baby from its mother when the whole community confronts him with their machetes and broken bottles.

Max (wearily): I know... so let people continue to have as many children as they want, as long as they don't invite me to any fund-raising... sorry, child-naming activities.

Nat: But Max, as usual you're looking at the matter purely from a naira and kobo perspective. There are other things more important than money when it comes to looking after children... like love, for example?

Max (scornfully): Love? What's love got to do with it?

Nat: Quite a lot. You see the children of many rich parents who end up with their lives messed up because they didn't have any one who showed them enough love when they were growing up... they didn't have someone who paid enough attention to them to care about whether they grew up right or wrong, because that someone was busy jetting off to this conference or chairing that meeting.

So I have a problem with your 'money equals good parent' attitude, because you end up excluding many good parents who aren't fantastically rich but who would show the care and love that the child needs while growing up.

Zack: And you include many parents who have more money than sense, who just regard children as toys they can buy even though they lack the maturity to raise them properly.

Nat: But I do share your concern about people having children anyhow and causing uncontrolled population growth, although for another reason.

Max: What reason?

Nat: Well, just look around you. Twenty years ago, this town was a pleasant place to live in. There were open spaces, the traffic flowed freely, and the public infrastructure was enough to support us all.

Now look how things have changed. All the open spaces are gone – and in their place we have all kinds of ugly, illegal structures which even encroach on public footpaths. The traffic is now absolutely horrendous – it used to take an hour to get from one end of this town to the other, but now it takes nearly five times that time. And infrastructure? That's now just an absolute shambles. Leaking sewage pipes, non-functional water supply, cratered roads, libraries that are just reading rooms, hospitals that are just consulting clinics. Why? Because there are too many people in this town!

Max: Well, I don't agree with you at all. If the government was doing its job properly, it would be collecting taxes from each household depending on the extent to which it was using public services. So people who had more children would be taxed more. Then it could use the money to expand and maintain the infrastructure. It's just bad planning, that's all.

Zack: You make it look like it's an easy thing to expand infrastructure. If a school was serving a community of ten thousand people before, and the population goes up to fifty thousand, and there is no more land in that community to build new schools because it's all been taken over by illegal structures, then what? Does the government tear down the old school and build a multi-storey school? Does it build additional schools on land that is so far away from the community that the children will find it difficult to get there?

Max (sighing): Are you listening? I just said that the problem is bad planning. Every town should have a master plan which sets out which spaces should be used for which purpose. But we just build anything anywhere, so it's no surprise when there's no space left to build further schools.

Zack: Your solution is good where the town hasn't been designed at all – we can then say "this area should be used for this purpose" before even a single block has been laid. But what happens where we already have a town that came into being without a master plan? Do we level everything and start all over again?

Nat: But even leaving that aside, there's an even bigger reason why I see uncontrolled population growth as a problem. And that's the environmental impact.

Max: Oh lord! You've been watching too many wildlife documentaries. Those western naturalists may preach about saving the lesser-spotted hunchbacked silver gorilla, but over here in Nigeria, that is the least of our problems!

Nat: Well, you can laugh – but the eradication of species is a serious matter. I remember talking to an elderly relative a few years ago about how life was in the olden days. He was telling me of a particular plant that used to grow near his village when he was still a young boy, and how the villagers used to use it as a medicine to help them with their rheumatism. I was quite excited about this, and when I asked him more about it, he replied sadly that the forest that the villagers used to get the plant from had long since been cut down for farmland, and he didn't know where else it grew.

Zack: That's a shame! I suppose the only consolation is that at least, the land that the forest used to stand on is now producing food for the villagers.

Nat: Yes, but at what price? My relative was lamenting about the methods that farmers now use in farming – he says that they are now more dependent on heavy fertiliser usage, because to use other methods would simply not yield enough crop for them, given the smaller areas of land that they have to farm. I worry about the effect that excessive fertiliser use will have on the quality of the soil and the rivers that the farmland drain into.

Max: Now that's interesting – Mister New Technology is expressing misgivings about the use of technology! But I see what you mean now.

Nat: But I do wonder that people can't see that uncontrolled population growth has these negative effects.

Zack: Well in the past, in most Nigerian cultures, infant mortality was high, So it was a good idea to have many children, because it assured the parents that after Death had had his share, there would at least be some children around to help with the farm work, or fishing, or whatever. And the idea of many children being a blessing has entered many of our traditions.

But in the urban areas at least, things have changed, and infant mortality has improved. Unfortunately, our traditions haven't quite kept pace - people have kept on having children even though there's less of a likelihood of dying earlier, so we've had this explosion of large families. I think as people realise that there is no cause for alarm, tradition will change again and the number of children per family will reduce to manageable levels. It won't need any dictatorial laws from you, Max.

(Just then, a haggard-looking man enters the Junction looking here and there until he spots Nat. Then he comes over with a smile on his face, arms outstretched. Nat looks at him in shock, while the others look on in wonder.)

The Man: Ah... Nat, my cousin! How are you? I just thought I should drop in and see what this Pangolo Junction that you are always talking about looks like.

Nat (embarassed): Er... yes. Guys, this is my cousin, Peter.

Peter: Ah, this must be Max, right? Nat said that you are a big businessman, that you do deals worth billions of naira! And you must be Zack. He said that you were a deputy commissioner in the state ministry. It's good to meet both of you at last o!

(Max and Zack gape in astonishment.)

Peter: I just wanted to invite both of you to the naming ceremony I will be having this Saturday for the triplets that God has blessed me with.

Max: Er... I think I may already have an engagement on that day.

Peter: Hm... that's a pity. Still, if you can't attend... (brings out a white envelope with 'MAX' written on it) you can put whatever God moves you to contribute in here.

(Max reluctantly brings out his wallet, carefully counts out some notes and puts them in the envelope. Peter then inspects the envelope, decides that the harvest has been good, expresses his hope to see Zack and Nat on the day and bids all three men a cheery farewell.)

Max (spluttering with rage after Peter has left): What the hell did you think you were doing telling him that he could meet us here?

Nat (cringing apologetically): That guy is a sneaky devil! He knew many months ago that I usually come here after work to meet you guys. After we spoke, he must have followed me by bus here to the Junction and waited for an opportune moment to introduce himself. He must have really planned ahead to have prepared an envelope with you name on it.

Zack (grinning): Serves you right. You should have just kept your mouth shut like me – you would have got away without having to make any contribution. Yes, that's right Nat – I have no plans to attend your cousin's ceremony.

Max: Well, I am now officially broke as of this evening, thanks to Nat's cousin. So I am excused from kunu-buying duties. Oya Zack... forward march to the bar.

Zack: Me? I'm just a poor civil servant – you are the billion naira business man.

Max (with an evil grin): Oh, you don't want to go, deputy commissioner? I'm sure that Peter hasn't got very far, so I could still rush out and let him know that you have other plans for that Saturday... I'm sure that he has another envelope on him with your name on it...

Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Ideal Ideals

(Welcome again to Pangolo Junction, where our three friends are standing round looking at the bar's rather faded picture of the Nigerian coat of arms.)

Zack (shaking his head): Honestly! You would think that
Philo would show more respect for our national symbols and replace this picture. Why have it here at all if he can't be bothered to maintain it?

Max: Perhaps he put it up here when he opened the bar many years ago, when all Nigerians were much more patriotic than they are now... but he simply forgot to take it down.

Nat: Apart from the fact that it is faded, how do you know it was so long ago?

Max: Well, look at the motto.

Nat (reading aloud): "Unity and Faith". So?

Zack (contemptuously): Don't you know anything? The motto was changed in the early eighties to "Unity and Faith, Peace and Progress"!

Nat (shrugging and walking over to a nearby table): Was it? Do I really care?

Zack (following him and expostulating): How can you not care? This is the national motto – the mission statement of Nigeria! This is what is supposed to inspire you from when you wake up in the morning to when you go to sleep at night!

Nat (settling himself into a nearby chair): Well then, as far as I'm concerned, it's a dismal failure. The fact that I don't even remember the motto tells you a lot about its ability to inspire.

Max (seating himself down as well): And it's not only Nat that's uninspired by the motto – just look at the state of things today! Unity? When we're constantly hearing about riots and ethnic clashes? Faith? In Nigeria? When everyone either wants to check out or form their own separate state?

Zack: You're missing the point, Max. The motto is supposed to set out the ideals that we should aspire to live by. An ideal doesn't have to be met – it is just something to point us in the right direction. The important thing is that we should be progressing toward meeting those ideals, not that we should actually meet them.

Max (cupping his hands round his mouth as if to amplify his voice): Hello? Zack? Are you there? Did you hear what I just said? When you hear stories of ethnic clashes, militia activity and massive corruption, does that make you think we are progressing towards meeting those ideals in the motto?

Zack (lamely): Well... uh... it's a good idea to have the ideals in place just in case we eventually have a decent leader to take us in that direction... (looks at the sceptical faces of Max and Nat) All right, all right! What new motto would you propose?

Nat: What about "No Condition Is Permanent"?

Max: Or "In Chop-Chop We Trust"?

Nat: Or "Monkey Dey Work, Baboon Dey Chop"?

Max: Or "My Tribe Is Better Than Your Tribe"

Nat: Or "Up Super Eagles!"?

Max: Or "I Am A Patriot – I Buy Goods Imported By Nigerians Only"?

Nat: Or "Only God Can Save Nigeria"?

(While all this is going on, Zack looks on with amusement. When Max and Zack have finished. Zack keeps on looking on for a few seconds.)

Zack: All right, now that you both have finished with your foolishness, I have a proposition. Let's create a new motto ourselves by each of us contributing an ideal that we think would be suitable for Nigeria to strive towards.

Nat: That's sounds like a interesting idea.

Max: Yes, I'm bored enough to be excited by the prospect.

Zack: I'll go first. If I had to suggest one ideal, it would be Reason.

Nat: Why?

Zack: It's obvious. Reason is the cornerstone upon which leaders make good decisions. It's the process whereby you can sift through a mass of raw data, make logical deductions and come up with a plan of action designed to help you achieve a particular goal. If as a leader you can't make the right plans and right decisions, then it's impossible to lead your nation and its citizens to greater prosperity.

And it's not only an ideal that leaders should live by – Reason should also be something that all citizens should adopt in making their decisions too. So instead of voting for someone on the basis of ethnicity even though we know that he is a corrupt rogue and will steal our money once he gets into power, we will apply Reason and instead choose the honest person who will more likely deliver the material prosperity that we want.

Max: I don't agree with your last example... I might apply Reason in coming to a decision to vote for the corrupt rogue from my ethnic group if I know that he will give me a cut of his 'earnings'.

Nat: Come on, Max. You know that you will definitely be in the minority, since such a rogue cannot possibly steal enough to satisfy the majority of people.

Max: It's also a very tough ideal for Nigerians to live up to. Imagine a passenger and bus conductor being asked to apply Reason in peaceably resolving a dispute. Where's the fun in that? They could be instead be engaging in a much more satisfying fight in which they tear each other's clothes to shreds and inflict bodily harm on each other.

Zack: OK, Max, when you have finished displaying your embarrassing area-boy tendencies, let's hear what you would add to this motto.

Max: It's obvious, really – I propose Freedom as an ideal that not only Nigerians but all human beings should strive for.

Zack: Freedom? To do anything? Including lying, stealing and killing?

Max: Come on, Brother Zachariah, why do you want me to spell these things out like this? Of course I mean responsible freedom in which you do whatever you want as long as you do not curtail someone else's freedom. It's a great idea to strive for this, because there is nothing in life that is as good as being free to make your own decisions. There's nothing as sweet as being financially independent of people who would otherwise use their power to force you to do things that would make you unhappy.

I think that Nigeria's leaders should also strive to ensure that people exercise their freedom responsibly. In addition, the leaders should strive to exercise their freedom responsibly – they shouldn't use their powers to start poking their noses into each Nigerian's personal business.

Zack: I know your motivation behind this. You don't want the government to discourage young girls from dressing indecently. Well if they go round encouraging fornication, adultery and other forms of immorality, it's no longer their personal business!

Max (rolling his eyes): Kai Zack - you're a real attack dog when it comes to this matter! Well, at least let's agree that the government should protect its citizens from having their freedoms infringed by thieves, fraudsters and murderers even though you feel it should still be free to go sniffing round the wardrobes of young girls.

Nat: I see another problem with your Freedom ideal. Look at how Nigeria is – most people have grown up in a culture where they are told to do this or that. Such people aren't used to independence – they would be lost if you told them that they had the freedom to do what they wanted... like battery chickens set free in the wild after a lifetime of being cooped up.

Max: Well, that's why this is an ideal! Of course people will have problems initially... but surely a society where people are able to act relatively independently is more sustainable than one where people depend on heavily on centralised sources? Imagine the strain on the centralised source... what happens if it is not available or it runs out of resources? This is why we have to move people away from the dependency mentality and towards the idea of Freedom.

But what about you – what is your contribution to our motto?

Nat: For me, it could only be one thing – Innovation.

Zack: Now why am I not surprised to hear that? Could it be because you've once proposed the crazy idea of using
large plastic sheets to capture rain?

Nat: Well, you can say what you like – but without Innovation, we would probably still be in caves eating raw meat and dying of disease before we were thirty. Innovation is the engine of progress – it is what causes us to find solutions to the problems that are thrown up by our changing environment. And since we cannot escape change, if we cannot deal with it successfully then we are doomed.

In fact, we seem as a nation to be terribly afraid of change. Instead of embracing it and welcoming the opportunity to apply yet more Innovation, we shrink away and seek refuge in traditions that become creakier with the passage of time. We should try to be more open-minded and adventurous instead so that we don't miss out on discoveries that could enrich the culture we are so desperate to preserve!

Max: You can talk as much as you want about the need to innovate, but it's harder for people whose are surviving from day to day to adopt the kind of risk-taking behaviour that you're prescribing. Why should they, when making a big mistake will be absolutely catastrophic for them?

Nat: Well Max, as you yourself have said, this is just an ideal. It's not realistic to expect risk-taking behaviour from people who just managing to survive. But the beauty of the Innovation ideal is that it only needs a critical set of people to embrace it. I'm talking about people in charge of organisations, people who are influential in society – once they are able to get people to adopt the innovative ideas and programs they come up with, the benefits to all will follow.

Zack: So we should throw away our old ideas, huh? What happens if the new ideas are worse than the old?

Nat: Well of course, there's Innovation, and there's change for change's sake. The difference is that with Innovation, you will still apply Reason (gestures to Zack) in deciding whether or not to go ahead with the change so that the chances of making such a mistake are reduced. And of course, being able to adopt Innovation relies on you having the Freedom (gestures to Max) to do so. So it seems that there is some degree of interrelationship between our ideals.

Zack (reclining in his chair): Hmm... "Reason, Freedom, Innovation"... I like it.

Max: Excuse me? You mean "Freedom, Reason, Innovation"!

Nat: What are you talking about? It should be "Innovation, Reason, Freedom"!

(As Max, Nat and Zack squabble over their new 'motto', our view of the scene fades to black.)

Monday, November 06, 2006

The Will to Will

(It is again another evening in the Junction. Max, Nat and Zack are just settling down in their favourite spot, after having got glasses of their favourite drink.)

Nat: Hi, guys! It looks like you've both had a good day... You seem to be in quite good spirits.

Max: I've had an excellent day, brother Nathaniel. Myself and Jean-Baptiste finally managed to get a meeting with the MD of that bank that we've been chasing for a while now. We pitched our idea to speed up the time it takes to speed up processing each customer, and he was very interested!

Zack: Yes, it's been one of my better days. I was able to finish writing a report on the new health programme that the ministry want to launch next month.

Nat: And I've finally been able to do something I've been putting off for a while. I met with a lawyer today to finalise my last will and testament.

(Zack and Max stare at Nat with shock and horror for several speechless seconds.)

Nat (surprised): Ah-ah! What's the matter with you guys? Anyone seeing you would just think that I had announced that I had terminal cancer.

Zack: But... but why else would you be writing your will?

Nat (irritated): Do I have to be ready to die before I write my will? Anything can happen at anytime. What if I have a car accident?

Zack (alarmed): HABA!

Max (stretching out his hands as though to ward off evil): Steady on!

Nat (thoroughly annoyed): What is the matter with you guys? You're behaving like a couple of superstitious old women! Death is a fact of life – sticking your head in the sand and pretending it doesn't exist won't make it go away.

Max: Eh, we know it's a fact of life. But there is a time and place for the discussion of facts of life. How would you feel if I started talking about the huge mound of maggot-infested faeces I saw the other day while you were eating and drinking?

Zack (disgusted): HABA!! Some people are eating and drinking here, in case you hadn't noticed!

Max: Ah, sorry o, Zack. I see that I've put you off your kunu. No worries – I can remedy that. (Takes the remainder of Zack's drink and downs it in one gulp.) The point is, you haven't even begun living, and you're already thinking about dying! I mean, how much money and property do you have to leave in your will anyway?

Zack: And even if you had that much wealth, it isn't as if you have dependants to leave it to yet!

Nat: Well Max, it may surprise you, but I do have some possessions that I will leave behind when I die. And I don't have to leave my possessions to dependants – I can leave them to my brother, my parents or (gesturing to Max and Zack) my friends, even if they aren't very supportive of my making a will. But all right, let's assume that I'm not rich enough to write a will, or I don't have any dependants. What of you, Mr. Millionaire Max? Have you made your own will? Or you, Mr. Baba-of-the-House Zack, with your wife and children?

(Max and Zack stare at each other. Then Max launches into defensive bluster.)

Max: I've already told you – I don't want to start thinking about death-related matters when I'm still young and enjoying myself.

Nat: But you don't know when exactly you will die, do you? Aren't you worried at the prospect of your hard-earned wealth ending up in the hands of lawyers who your relatives and friends will hire to fight over the money?

Max (getting irritated): I didn't say that I won't make a will – I said not just now!

Nat: So you agree with me that making a will is a good idea, but you just don't want to do it now. (shaking his head in confusion) I don't get it. It's not like it's a difficult thing to do. Or I don't know – maybe the problem that as you are dividing up your wealth, you are being forcibly reminded that one day you will die, and this is a very unpleasant thing to contemplate?

Max (exasperatedly): If that answer will shut you up, then yes!

Zack: What has got into you, anyway? You're sounding like some sort of evangelist for a new Make-Your-Will religion who wants to convert us by force using scare tactics. (Suspiciously) Or are you touting for business on behalf of a lawyer friend?

Nat (musing): No offence, guys. It's just that everyone else who I've told has reacted the same way as you. Either they don't want to think of it, because talking about death somehow brings bad luck, or like Max, they don't want to think about it now. But the funny thing is, you see even seventy- or eighty- year olds saying the same thing – "I haven't enjoyed life enough" or "I don't want to think about death now".

But I'll answer your question, anyway. I used to think like you before – I didn't really care about making wills. But then about ten years ago, a very rich uncle of mine died. He left three wives and ten children behind. Now before the man's death, I used to visit the family, and while there were the usual tensions that you'd see in any polygamous home, the atmosphere was reasonably cordial because two of the wives lived in other houses, dropping by to visit every now and then.

But after the man's death, it turned out that he hadn't made a will. It was then I saw the power of money to wreck relationships. All the wives and their children started arguing bitterly over who should inherit the man's possessions. It got extremely ugly, with the police regularly being called to settle the violent fights that kept on breaking out. The funny thing was that in most of the fights, the family ended up damaging property that they should have been inheriting. In the end, they somehow settled the matter but till this day each group of wife and children don't speak to any of the other groups. After witnessing this, I swore that as soon as I was able, I would draw up my own will.

Max: Ah – so are you planning to marry three wives, then? I should warn you – you are headed for trouble o!

Nat (laughing): You know what I mean. I don't want anyone to have to quarrel over my possessions. Once everyone close to me knows that I have made a will, they know there's no need to fight.

Zack: Well, that assumes that they will respect your wishes.

Nat: What do you mean?

Zack: At least in your story it was still people who were directly related to the man who ended up having his possessions. There was a story I heard that was quite sad. This man had made a will in which his wife and his children were to inherit all his possessions. The lawyer who had been appointed the executor read the will which informed the wife of the man's intentions. Up till that point, everything looked all right.

Then one day, the wife returned from picking up the children from school to find their personal belongings lying around the compound. It turned out that a battalion of the man's relatives had entered the house through a combination of force and trickery. When the wife sought to meet them to protest, they declared that the man's will was fake, that he had previously signed an agreement handing over all his property to them, and she should leave before they called the police.

Nat (indignantly): Call the police? When they were the intruders?

Zack (wearily): Isn't that how politics is played in Nigeria today? Once you hold an incumbent position, it doesn't matter how deviously you got to that position – you are now in a position to call the shots. But I digress. Anyway, the poor woman and her children had to spend the night in a friend's house. Afterwards, she took the matter to court – but you know how our Nigerian judicial system is – slower than a constipated tortoise. So as far as I know, the case is still in court today.

Nat: That's a terrible thing to happen! I'm sure they took advantage of the fact that she was recently bereaved and couldn't really fight them with the force that was needed.

Max: But it doesn't mean that you shouldn't make a will. I think if I was the man, I would have taken 'preventive' action by letting it be widely known that these were my intentions for my loved ones if I should die. I'd tell my neighbours, my friends, my business partners, my relatives – and I'd let them know that everyone else knew as well.

Nat: How would that work?

Max: Well you know that our law enforcement is weak, so that wouldn't put them off. But I think public shame is still a powerful deterrent to anti-social or criminal behaviour. If my greedy relatives knew that everyone knew what who really should possess my property before I died, they would be careful about trying to grab it and risk being seen as openly wicked people amongst the neighbourhood.

Nat: That's interesting! But aren't you supposed to keep the details of your will to yourself before it's revealed?

Max: I don't know – but I wouldn't reveal all the details. I would just let it be known that I have made substantial provision for my immediate family, and I would mention that they would definitely inherit the house they live in now so that no idiot can evict them.

Nat (admiringly): Interesting! You've obviously given this some thought... in fact, I'd say for someone who is against writing wills, you've given it a lot of thought!

Max (wryly): I didn't say I was against writing wills. What I said was that I don't want to be reminded of death by doing it right now. I know I should write my will – and I probably will in the not too distant future.

Nat: What of you, Zack? I would have thought after hearing that story, you would be scrambling to write your own will.

Zack: I have given it some thought... but it's difficult deciding who gets what. No sooner have I decided that I'm going to leave someone one of my possessions than he annoys me and I cut him out of my will. Then I have to start all over again.

Max: OK, I think I can solve your problem. Just will everything to me, and I will ensure that your property is equitably distributed when you die.

Zack and Nat (jokingly): HABAAAAA!!!

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The Diasporan Arriviste

(Welcome once more to activities in the Junction. Already, two of our regulars are here, and it looks like the third is just entering... with a guest in tow.)

Nat: Max, Zack, I'd like you to meet a very good friend of mine, Julius.

(Julius stops and looks round the shabbiness of the Junction with evident distaste.)

Nat: We were very good friends in secondary school, but he left and went abroad shortly after finishing. He studied accountancy...

Julius (interrupting) And now I'm employed by PriceWaterhouseCoopers in London as an external auditor. I travel to big companies and do high profile consulting work... and needless to say, I earn big bucks for doing so!

(Zack and Max glance at themselves as if to say "which planet did this guy come from?" But Julius continues, oblivious of this.)

Julius: Yeah, I've been able to buy myself a classy apartment in an upmarket area of town, and I've got myself a Porsche and a Lexus SUV. I've done very well for myself... much better than if I had stayed back in this hellhole.

Nat (looking nervous): Er, yes, Julius. Can we get you something to drink?

Julius: What do you guys normally drink?

Nat: Oh, we usually have a few glasses of kunu, although...

Julius: Kunu? What's that?

Nat: Oh, I don't think they were selling it in this part of the country before you left. It's a local...

Julius: 'Local'? Don't they sell any imported drink in here? I can't be drinking local stuff!

(There is an embarrassed silence as Max and Zack stare at Nat with expressions of outrage and disbelief at hearing this disparagement of their favourite drink.)

Nat: It's all right, I'm sure there will be something for you at the bar. Can I get you a Guinness? Please take a seat while I go and get the drinks.

(As Nat goes off, Max and Zack stare at Julius for a few moments in cold silence.)

Zack (with barely concealed contempt): So. You have just - 'arrived' - from London. Welcome, sir.

Max: How long are you here for?

Julius: Oh, I'm just here for about a week. I just want to see my family and catch up with old friends like Nat. Of course, I have no intention of staying a minute longer than that.

Max: Why not?

Julius (surprised): Why not?? Where do you want me to begin? Look at the place! The roads are untarred and badly maintained, there's rubbish everywhere, there's hardly ever any electricity, you can't find a decent Starbucks down here, drinking the water is an invitation to death... I tell you, Nigeria is an absolute disaster!

Zack (irritated): Your problem is that you look at things on a superficial level, in terms of material things only. As far as I am concerned, Nigeria is the only country I could ever consider living in... it is the only place where I believe I can be free to be who I really am, rather than putting on a fake accent or restricting myself to wearing my traditional clothes on the two or three days a year there is any real sunshine. And most importantly for me, it is a place where there are massive opportunities, once we start getting used to the democratic way of doing things.

(Julius throws his head back and laughs.)

Julius: D'you know, every time I meet a Nigerian who is stuck in Nigeria, these are the very words that he utters to console himself that he can't escape. My friend, you're not fooling me at all! Underneath your braggadocio, I know there's an emigrant hoping and praying for a ticket out of this hell on earth!

Zack (visibly angry now): You know what your problem is? You have this bitter and twisted idea of Nigeria being a place where everybody must uniformly conform to your vision of wanting to escape! And you know why? Because to admit otherwise is to admit that you were too weak to cope with the challenges of life in Nigeria – and you took the coward's way out!

Julius (getting angry himself): If wanting to leave a place where I can see no future is cowardice, then I plead guilty to being the greatest coward on earth. At least, I have the sense not to waste my energy in a place where it will not be appreciated!

Zack (still angry): And how do you expect the place to have a future when you are too cowardly to stay around and make that future, even with all your 'big bucks' and your 'consulting skills'? At least we agree on one thing – you're a coward!

(Just then, Nat is returning to the table, and is horrified to see the 'war' that has broken out.)

Nat: Guys, please, please! There's no need for this anger! Let's try and enjoy ourselves here instead of quarrelling. (Turns to Max, who is reclining in his chair and obviously enjoying the exchange.) Shouldn't you be trying to make peace between these two?

Max: Nonsense, Nat. You should know that quarrelling is the way we amuse ourselves here. (Turns to Julius.) Erm, please remind me... why did you say you are in Nigeria again?

Julius (surprised): Eh? Er – visiting old friends, as I said.

Max: Really? You took a whole week of your time just to visit friends? Couldn't you just have phoned or e-mailed? We do have e-mail in Nigeria y'know, despite all the bad roads and power outages that you mention.

Julius (defensively): Sending e-mails and phoning is not the same as face-to-face communication.

Max (with a mocking smile): So what words were so special that you had to say them face-to-face to these friends? Or did you want to whisper sweet nothings into their ears?

Zack: It's quite obvious why he had to come back – he wanted to show us that he had 'arrived' so that we could bow down and worship him.

Max (in mock horror): No, brother Zachariah! Surely not! This... this... high profile consultant (gestures to Julius) is surely above such petty displays of ostentation.

Julius (becoming irritated): My friend, I don't know what your problem is, but if you can't accept that someone can voluntarily travel down to Nigeria to see his friends, then that's your problem.

Max (in mock apology): Ah, sorry o! Abeg, no vex. You know say I jus' be local man. I no sabi as dem dey talk to someone wey don come from yonder.

Nat (cringing in embarrassement): Please Julius, don't mind Max. He can be like this sometimes. Here, have your stout and tell us what you've been up to since you left.

Julius: I was just telling your friends about my work as an external auditor...

Max: Auditor? What's that? Do you manage auditoriums?

(Julius looks at Nat as if to ask him "has your friend just smoked some controlled substances?". Then he carries on.)

Julius: I'm going to assume that you truly are ignorant of what an auditor does. He examines all aspects of a company, including its operations, its accounts...

Max: Accounts! Ah, then he would be useless in Nigeria. Here, we don't bother with accounts – they would get in the way of our rampant stealing!

Julius: Huh?

Zack (noticing a surreptitious wink from Max and getting in on the act): Didn't you hear? You've obviously been out of the country for so long. Last year, the government figured out that it couldn't fix the problem of corruption – so it declared open season on all forms of stealing and decided to sign the Stealing and Embezzlement Act into law.

Julius (confused): Hold on – are you guys joking or what?

Max: Joking? Why do you think Nigeria is in such a state? We've been having a ball, looting our respective federal, state and local government treasuries!

Zack: Then of course, there's the Road Damage and Pothole Act that was signed into law just after that.

Max: Yeah, that's the one that decrees that each Nigeria must dig at least one decent sized pothole every week on the road of his choice. I think the reasoning behind that was "what's worth doing is worth doing well" – if we're going to have poorly maintained roads, we might as well maintain them poorly in style!

Zack: And then there's the related Power Infrastructure Sabotage Act which sets out the provisions for an orderly vandalisation of power lines, transformers and electric poles.

Julius: You guys are lying. This is just ridiculous!

Max: Hold on – you don't sound happy about this. Why not? Shouldn't you be glad that we're going to end up in an even bigger mess after these laws kick in? Then you'll be able to even more easily compare your fantastic lifestyle abroad with the abject poverty that millions of Nigerians will be in. Of course, so will many of the other people you work with abroad – they might not come up to you directly, but they'll talk behind your back about "that basket case of a country where nothing works".

(Julius gapes in mute embarrassment.)

Nat (gently): I don't think anyone has a problem with you saying how much you've achieved. I think it actually inspires a lot of Nigerians when they hear how their compatriots are fairing abroad. But it's a shame when you return and use your experiences to make people feel dejected when you could be giving them hope. Do you really have to throw it in people's faces how hard things are here? Don't you think they know already?

Julius (apologetically): I guess you're right. I think it's been hard for me to be aware how I've being coming across to other people.

Zack: No problems. No hard feelings at all.

Max: Abi o! Especially because as our honorary rich man, you are paying for the drinks!