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

Friday, December 29, 2006

The Way of Aklamaada

(Max, Nat and Zack are chatting in the Junction as usual, when someone dressed in colourful flowing robes walks up to their table and taps Max on the shoulder. Max turns round in astonishment, and the expression on his face changes from surprise to delight. Nat continues to look on at the stranger in surprise, but the expression on Zack's face is that of pure unconcealed contempt.)

Max (to the man):
Charlie! My main man! How're you doing? I've been begging you to come and see us in our haunt for months, and it's really good of you to finally honour my invitation!

Charlie (pulling up a chair and sitting down): Sorry, Maximilian. I've always intended to come and see you, but it's been extremely hectic since I stopped the pursuit of material things and started my quest to understand the spiritual things of this universe.

Nat: How's that going? I still never could understand why you chose to give up a promising career in petroleum engineering... it was quite obvious that you were the best graduate in the university. I still have a hard time getting used to seeing you involved in spiritual matters.

Charlie: I know, Nathaniel... I myself fought against my calling... but it was like swimming upstream in a raging current. Once I accepted that this was my destiny, everything fell into place... and while I have had my share of challenges and setbacks, I feel so rewarded that I have been able to act as an instrument of blessing for thousands of people.

Zack (annoyed): Oh, come off it! You can fool Max and Nat with your pompous platitudes, but you can't fool me. Of course you feel rewarded - that's because you've just recently bought an SUV and are in the process of building your second house!

Charlie (with a slight shrug): Can I help it if people reward me for the good that I have done for them? Should I throw what they give me away? Should I not refresh and empower myself so that I am of more use to more people? I tell you, Zachariah - these material things are more of a burden than a blessing to me. But that is the price you pay for the quest for spiritual excellence.

Max (waving Zack aside before he can say any more): Oh, Charlie - don't mind Zack. He's suffering from a chronic case of baddus bellicus. But tell me more about your... er... movement. What's it called again?

Charlie: The Way of Aklamaada.

Nat: Aklamaada?

Charlie: Yes, Aklamaada. That was the name that was revealed to me in the vision that led me out of the darkness and into the light. The word comes from an ancient form of the Sanskrit language, and it means 'purity'.

Max: And what product do you se... sorry, I mean, what message do you preach?

Charlie: In a word, I preach the message of success. To do this, I have attuned my spiritual consciousness so that I can now harness the knowledge that is freely available in the twenty-seven spiritual dimensions. For example, did you know that the secrets of successful business deals are transmitted via a special etheric frequency? Are you aware that there is a karmic wheel whose rotations send out rays of good health every seven minutes? It is such knowledge that I have put to use for the benefit of others, whether he is Christian or Muslim, job-hunter or child-seeker, Hausa, Igbo or Yoruba.

Zack: So. Your movement is known as 'the Way of Purity'. (nastily) Somehow, I think 'the Way of Prosperity' would sound better, since you seem to be so concerned about getting information on business deals.

Charlie (in a concerned voice): Zachariah, I'm sensing a truly negative aura around you. Using my inner astral eye, I can detect really strong psychic vibrations of anger, jealousy, bitterness and frustration. This is a dangerous state to be in - you are laying yourself open to attacks from the powerful evil entities who inhabit the Sixth Circle on the Sixth Plane in the Sixth Dimension. Fortunately I can help you here...

(Just then, Charlie's GSM phone goes off. He answers it, and listens for a few minutes, punctuating the silence with an occasional "go on", "yes..." or "I see". The call ends, and Charlie rises to his feet.)

Charlie: Guys, I'm afraid I have to leave. The person that rang me is planning to contest a position in next year's election, and he has requested spiritual guidance. This will require special fasting so that I can attain the higher state of superconsciousness that I will need to unlock the doors to the Seventeen Secrets of Politics. Zack, here's my card... please get in touch so that we can do something about your aura. I hope we can all meet again soon, and may your collective consciousnesses continue to expand. (He gets up and leaves. As soon as he is out of sight, Zack explodes.)

Zack: What a cheek! Coming here and spouting all that nonsense... and both of you were mooning over him like star-struck fans! Please don't tell me that you're that gullible.

Max: Just forget about all that spiritual mumbo-jumbo... the man is a business genius! First of all, as a good businessman, he has studied his market and is selling a product that everybody wants - happiness - by offering them riches, health, success, companionship or respect. Then he uses esoteric and mystical language to make his customers feel they are getting an effective product. After all, if it's hard to understand, it must be complex, and if it's complex, it must be powerful. And lastly, he widens his market to include people of all faiths by saying that his 'Way' is a complement rather than a substitute for the faith they already practice.

Zack (incensed): Genius? Excuse me - that man is defrauding the people who come to him for help - and you call that a business? Max, sometimes I think that you are that close (makes a thumb and forefinger gesture) from the line that separates criminals from honest businessmen.

Max: Come on, Zack - you're being unfair here. What's all this talk about fraud? Look - the many has a lot of happy, satisfied customers! If Charlie's 'Way' were bogus, surely he wouldn't have people going back to him or recommending him, would he?

Nat: Well Max, there are all sorts of reasons you might recommend someone, or go back to them - and not all of them are because you're a completely satisfied customer. Once you have spent a significant amount of money on a product or service, you have made an emotional investment in it - to acknowledge that product is bad is to admit that you're rubbish at choosing products to buy.

So to prevent yourself from coming to that unpalatable conclusion, you convince yourself that you actually like the product. To further bolster this conviction, you also get other people to purchase the product. So in a perverse way, someone who sells poor quality stuff can actually see their sales increase!

Max: Hmm... interesting. I must file that away for future use.

Zack: The other thing is that people like Charlie are very vague with their claims - and this is deliberate so that they can have an escape route in case of failure. I bet you, if he told his customers "You will be promoted to the post of supervisor on 25 July, 2007", then his quackery would be more quickly exposed. But I'm sure he says something like "I see a promotion for you sometime in the future...", where the future can be anything from tomorrow till when Hell freezes over.

(Max reflects on this. Then he leans back and chuckles.)

Zack: What's so funny?

Max: A thought just struck me. Here I am, the unbelieving infidel defending a Man of Faith, while both of you as believers are opposing him. Isn't that funny?

Nat: Not really. My problem isn't whether his solutions are effective or not - I personally doubt that they are - but he's pandering to that very disturbing tendency in Nigerians to seek easy magical solutions to all their problems instead of doing the hard work of figuring out the solutions.

Max: And what's wrong with that? Why should any sane person rack their brain trying to figure out a solution when there's a ready made solution waiting? That's just like asking you to walk to work when there's an air-conditioned limo waiting to pick you up.

Zack: Of course there's nothing wrong - but how do you know it really is a limo? Once people know you want a limo, they'll try very hard to sell you a well-disguised kabukabu instead.

Nat: That's right - in other words, you need to be able to make sure that the 'easy solution' really does work. The fact that it's labelled as 'easy' means that your mouth begins to water, you drop your guard and you're not as discriminating as you really should be. And what's even worse about this 'I want the easy solution' attitude is that you care more about arriving at the solution than trying to understand how to arrive at the solution.

Max: So? What's wrong with that? After all, when you use your GSM phone to call me, you don't care about what the chips inside the phone are doing. All you care about is that you press some buttons and my phone rings.

Nat: That's true - it's not practical for me to figure out how every product or service works. But to use your example, if I wanted to find out how GSM telephony worked, I could get books to find out.

And having this inquisitive critical mindset is a good thing. If I dig deep and find out how the product works, it means that I can re-engineer it, I can enhance it, I can clone it and I can derive lots of transferable knowledge from it. But if all I'm interested in doing is just consuming the product, then it leaves me at the mercy of the person who made the product. If he doesn't like me, he can yank his product - and I'm stuffed!

Max: I'm still amused, though. How do your protestations square with the fact that you're both churchgoers? I could say to you that when you pray, you don't understand the processes by which your prayers are answered, but you still pray anyway. Isn't that what you're accusing Charlie of?

Zack: Well, you're right - God answers my prayers, and I don't understand the power through which He does this. However, the facility of prayer isn't some closed secret that only a select few know about, like this 'Way' of Charlie's. Instead, it's open to anyone who wishes to use it.

And it's not quite true to say that I don't understand what's going on when my prayer is answered. There are different shades of belief in the church - some believers who want God to do all the work and answer their prayers magically without them having to lift a finger. And some - like myself - believe that God helps those who help themselves. In other words, we prefer to do at least part of the work - we pray to God for the necessary 'intangibles', like the right mental, emotional and physical state that we need in order to accomplish what we pray for.

So for example, instead of praying for an 'instant' promotion, I would pray that I be given the wisdom and intelligence to figure out the right things to say or do to earn promotion. Or rather than looking for an 'instant' cure, I'd pray for God to give me the wisdom in choosing the best doctor and the discipline to adhere to his prescribed treatment. So I don't understand how God gives me the wisdom and strength, but I do understand how I use them.

Nat: Exactly. I believe, but I still keep one foot in the world of Reason. For example, take an instruction like "Kill one white cock that has perched on a tin roof and put its remains at the main crossroads in town. Then go back home and rub yourself with fat from a ram that has been killed by a left-handed widow wearing a black headscarf. After doing this, make sure you do not eat anything for three days and three nights, except for the meat from a lizard that has perched upon an Indian almond tree". If a prophet gave me such an instruction, I wouldn't follow it. I'd find myself asking "What is the sense in this?" or "How does it relate to what I understand about the world?" too many times to feel comfortable doing it.

Max: The sense? He's a prophet - he knows all! What more is there to say?

Nat: But he's a human prophet. I shouldn't be placing power over my life in his hands - especially a if he's a Nigerian prophet who is prone to get power-drunk pretty quickly.

Max: Well, yeah - I wouldn't do so either. But I think that as long as you still have your other foot in the world of Faith, Max, in my book you're still open to the charge of unquestioningly accepting unexplainable solutions.

Nat: Sure, Max. Let's just say that for some circumstances, I don't feel the need to question whether the limo really is a limo. Hey - there's an idea for you, Max. The market for prophets, pastors and other assorted spiritualists is crowded out... but I'm sure you could set up a business screening fake prophets from real ones.

Zack (sarcastically): Yes Max, you could do that... you could set up a prophet registry and ask genuine prophets to demonstrate no fewer than three verifiably authentic miracles at registration. And while you're at it, you could ask them to show evidence of a loud voice, a bushy beard, a wardrobe of assorted flowing robes and miscellaneous bells, staves and bottles of various holy fluids...

Max: Hmm... I'm liking this idea already. I guess I'll need to drop by sometime at Charlie's to get a feel of all that spiritual lingo that he uses - if I'm going to set this up properly, I'll need to sound like an authentic prophet's prophet. Would you like to tag along, Zack? I think there's still the outstanding issue of your aura to settle. Wait - I think that my hidden prophetic skills are kicking in already. I'm picking up intense psychic vibrations that are screaming out "over my dead body"...

[AWW's note: Pangolo Junction will be taking a well earned nap for several weeks while I do some other stuff to keep the wolf from the door. Feel free to browse the archives while waiting, if you haven't done so already. See you then, and have a great start to 2007!]

Friday, December 22, 2006

"Come Chop"

(Nat and Max are in the Junction sitting at their usual table and engaging in idle banter. Then Zack strides in with a wide smile on his face and a bag in his hand. He walks up to Max and Nat and holds the bag aloft. Max scrambles to see what is in the bag, but Zack motions to him to keep off.

Then Zack looks around the bar at all the patrons present, and calls out in a voice loud enough for all present to hear above the general hubbub, but not so loud that they are startled:

"Come chop."

Immediately, the hubbub ceases, and everyone turns round to look at what Zack is holding. Most of the patrons smile and thank Zack for his offer, while a few wander over to have a bite of what is in the bag, bestowing on him effusive compliments as they do so.)

Max (after the last of the patrons have left): Man, that's some high-grade kilishi you've got there! Where did you get it from?

Zack: Well, despite my best efforts at dissuading them,
my relatives decided to come down after all. And to my pleasant surprise, it's not been such a terrifying experience. They brought along a lot of stuff from the village, including this kilishi.

(They all reach out to take some kilishi, and for a few moments there is the sound of contented chewing.)

Nat (between mouthfuls): Man, this is really tasty! It's really good of you to share delicious stuff like this with everyone else in the bar.

Zack: Well, it's that time of the year when we should spread joy and goodness all around, so I thought - why not?

Max: Y'know, those words 'come chop' took me back to our 'uni' days.

Zack: How?

Max: Well, you know how the tight situation in university drove even the most hardcore bukateria addicts to buy stoves and pots to prepare their own food, even if it was only beans that they learnt how to cook...

Nat: Abi o! There was this guy who lived in the same room as me, and I think that beans and gari was the only meal he ever seemed to prepare. The beans must have been of an unusual variety, because whenever he 'released gas', there was always this strange, almost musical sound coming from his behind... it sort of reminded me of a jazz musician improvising wildly on the sax.

Zack (incredulously): You mean you paid that much attention? It sounds like you really enjoyed his 'virtuoso performances'.

Nat (shaking his head vigorously): Hell, no! When we heard that sound, that was the signal to dive for cover. The stench that would follow was so bad that your eyes would water and the room would be rendered uninhabitable for the next ten minutes. Fortunately, this happened very rarely, as he had the decency to break wind outside the room most times. In fact, he once employed his 'talent' to his advantage when he was able to gain extra time in an exam by dropping one of his 'bombs' and causing an emergency evacuation of the venue.

Max: Anyway, as I was saying, all this 'in-house' cooking meant that there was a lot of food eaten in rooms, and it meant that most cooks faced a dilemma. On the one hand, food was at a premium - it was a struggle even to survive on the 0-1-1 meal formula, so to give away even the little food that they had been able to prepare would be especially difficult. On the other hand, hospitality is a cornerstone of many of our cultures, so your neighbours would regard it as selfish and anti-social to cook your food and eat it by yourself as though they did not exist.

So to reconcile these two issues, the 'come chop' ritual evolved. The cook would call out "Come Chop!", which roughly translated meant:

"All of you within listening range, I am hereby informing you that I have just finished preparing a sumptuous meal which I intend to eat shortly. Now it would be grave blasphemy against our culture if I did not invite those present - meaning your good selves - to partake of this repast, so I am using this opportunity to do so. However, you are all students like me, so you I am sure that you are fully aware that should you so choose to honour my invitation, you will be depriving me of much needed nutrients and therefore diminishing my capacity to understand lectures, study for exams and partake of the various extra-curricular activities that this university offers. It is with this last consideration in mind that I exhort you to decide on the correct response to my invitation."

And the audience would typically say "Thank you" or "It's OK", which could be roughly interpreted as:

"O Possessor of the Pot and Steward of the Stove, we have heard your invitation, and we are truly honoured that you consider us worthy to sup with you as you partake of your meal. However, we are not insensitive to the emphasis that you have placed on the latter part of your announcement. Indeed, as you correctly point out, we are students like you, so we appreciate that the diminution of the amount of food available to you will seriously impair your ability to function as a student. Besides, you might decide to make up for this loss of food by choosing to honour the invitations to eat that we issue in the name of our culture. So it is with these thoughts in mind that we must regretfully decline your kind offer."

And thus, peace and harmony were preserved.

Zack (smiling): Yes, a lot of that went on! Although you could still find people who had reciprocal arrangements, where it was understood that you ate from my plate as long as I ate from yours. But the sharing of meals in this way also did more than provide a variety of food... it bonded the sharers together.

For example, I remember once, when a few friends and I were so broke that we didn't know where our next meal was coming from. We pooled what was left of our resources together to prepare what we thought would be our final meal. (Wistfully) I still remember how we all felt as we sat down to eat what we then called 'the Last Supper'. Obviously, there was nothing special about the meal - but the fact that we were all in desperate circumstances made the occasion more profound... it made us open up and bare our souls about things that we would never have talked about in a million years if we were rich and comfortable.

Nat: Interesting... that's why I guess friendships that you form when you are both in dire straits are closer than those you form when you are both comfortable... when you are both suffering, you can't afford the luxury of pretence, so you are direct and honest with each other.

Max: Yeah, most students respected the unwritten rule of 'Come Chop'. But there was this guy I also remember... other students used to call him 'The Vulture'. Either he didn't understand the rule or he just chose to ignore it.

Nat: How do you mean?

Max: Well, you know how I said that most students who hear the invitation acknowledge it but don't accept it? Well, this guy was the original glutton - he lived to eat. He operated like his namesake - he would seek out stoves on corridors with food cooking and skulk around unobtrusively until the food was ready. Then even before the cook had finished saying 'Come...' he would present himself, ready, willing and able to do justice to the prepared food.

Zack: It shouldn't have been a problem dealing with such a person. Surely, all the cook had to do was to ensure that there were no spare plates or cutlery around so that he could have a genuine reason for not being able to feed him.

Nat: From the way Max describes this guy, I don't think that something as trivial as that would be a deterrent. He sounds like the kind of guy who would happily eat directly from the pot using his hands.

Max: Actually, to give him credit, he was more refined than that. He would rove from room to room with his own plate and cutlery. But it got to the point where everyone was fed up of the guy and his antics. Some people began to recognise him and chose not to issue invitations when he was around. But even with those, he would embarrass them out "Ah, which one now? Are you just going to eat everything by yourself? That's very selfish!" He was that shameless.

Anyway, there was this guy who decided that enough was enough, so he set to work devising a foolproof method of dealing with the Vulture. After a while, he announced that he had worked out something, and that the next time the Vulture showed up he would go away empty-bellied. His room mates asked him what he had thought of, but he said that they would have to wait till the next time the Vulture showed up.

Sure enough, one day as the guy was cooking, the Vulture appeared and waited patiently for the meal to be prepared. The guy noticed him, and smiled grimly to himself. When the meal was ready, the Vulture approached with his weapons of meal destruction ready for action, but the our cook held out a hand for him to wait:

"My friend, I observe a special ritual before eating. If you don't mind, I would like to do that now. After that, we can both eat."

So saying, our cook proceeded to clear his throat and spit as much as he could into the food he had just prepared. He did this for a full minute, then he mixed the spit into the meal as thoroughly as he could. Then he looked up at the Vulture, smiled and said:

"We may now eat."

Zack (exclaiming): Classic! No way would he want to eat that.

Nat (making a face): Disgusting, but effective.

Max: But before our guy could start, the Vulture said:

"I have a habit of respecting the culture of my hosts. This is why when I'm invited to eat and my hosts are using their hands, I use my hands. If they are using cutlery, I use cutlery. And if they usually spit into their food first..."

So saying, the Vulture proceeded to clear his throat and spit into the food, After he had finished, he mixed his spit in and proceeded to devour the food as the guy looked on in horror and disgust.

Zack, Nat, and a few patrons who have been eavesdropping: HABA!!!

Max: Well, that's how low he was prepared to stoop to get what he wanted. The last I heard of him, I think he had made a successful entry into politics.

Zack: I'm not really surprised to hear that. Man, that is quite revolting - almost enough to put me off this kilishi.

Max: Well, that's justice, then! While I've been busy talking, you guys have been having a field day devouring the kilishi. I think I should get the rest of what's left.

Nat: What are you talking about? As entertaining as your story is, nobody put a gun to your head to force you to tell it. Just accept it as your bad luck!

Max (truculently): I no go gree! I must have my fair share, or else... (a cunning gleam enters his eye, and he proceeds to clear his throat and gather spit...)

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Fight For Your Right Not To Party

(Max, Nat and Zack are doing what they do best where they do best what they do best. What's that? You want to know what the hell I'm talking about? [Sigh] - I mean that they are having another discussion in the Junction.)

Nat: So, you guys know that the presidential elections are just around the corner. Have you had a thought about which party you'll be voting for?

Zack: I haven't yet seen any party with an impressive enough candidates or policies to tempt me to vote. What about you?

Nat: Well, I'll be voting for the PDP.

Zack (outraged): What?? Are you crazy? How can you even think of voting for the People's Destruction Party that has done so much to damage democracy and increase the suffering of the ordinary man?

Nat: You're not being fair. Obasanjo has tried, given the state the country was in when he entered. He's started to deregulate and privatise the telecommunications and power sectors which were terribly inefficient, he's begun to introduce more sanity and transparency in the process of contract bidding and financial record keeping, he's paid off Nigeria's debts and built huge foreign reserves, he's introduced sanity into the banking industry, he's set about reforming the country's pension system, he's...

Zack (even more outraged): Stop! STOP!! What's the point of deregulating the telecommunications industry if it sends the prices beyond the reach of the common man? Where are the effects of the power deregulation - are we not still experiencing irregular and infrequent power supply? What is all the point of the other financial mago-mago if we still can't see effect on the lives of Nigerians? A year of the banking consolidation, do we see the banks lending money to productive ventures in the economy? And I haven't even begun talking about how he's acted like a dictator, terrorising his opponents, seeking to extend his rule...

Nat (protesting): You're still not being fair. A lot of the reforms that have been started will take time to bear fruit, so you can't say they are successful or not until a reasonable period has passed...

Max (raising his hands): Enough, please! Guys, spare me the debate. I really could do without hearing about Nigerian politics today.

Nat: That's odd, Max. You usually revel in arguments of this sort. Haven't you decided who you're voting for yet?

Max: Me? I'm voting - if you want to call it that - for the party I always vote for at party elections.

Nat: Oh? Which party is this?

Max: The biggest, most successful and most widespread party in Nigeria - the Apathy Party of Nigeria.

Zack: You're not voting, then? I can't really say I blame you.

Nat: Why not? Is it because there's no party that represents your interests?

Max: As a matter of fact, even if there was a party that represented my interests, I still wouldn't vote for it!

(Nat and Zack look at each other, confused.)

Zack: Max, I know you come up with some strange ideas from time to time, but this has to be the strangest. Can you explain this new idea of not voting for a party that supports your ideals?

Max: Simple. I wouldn't vote for it because it's a party.

Zack: You mean you don't vote for parties?

Max: No. I believe that party democracy is a terrible basis on which to form a group of people to make new laws.

Nat: Why?

Max: Well, think about it. Let's say you have a group of a hundred people who meet together to decide what laws a society should live by, and let's say that they decide to adopt a view if more people vote for it than against it.

You know that each person in the group will obviously have his own agenda, and he will argue for it to be included in the group of laws. But the extent to which he succeeds will depend on how good he is at convincing everyone else - which is how it should be. He knows he has to work damn hard, because the other members of the group are free agents - they aren't bound by anything other than the force of a good argument to go along with his agenda.

Now picture the same situation, but this time, the group is split into political parties, and one of those parties is a dominant one with seventy members. The difference now is that if our man with an agenda happens to lead this dominant party, then what he says goes - even if it’s a terrible idea. In other words, political parties just stifle debate.

Nat: Err... Max - hold on o! You're forgetting that before the party leader with his own agenda can push it onto the rest of the group, he must have convinced his party that this is the agenda that they should go with. So he still has to do some persuading - it's not just a case of imposing his will on his people.

Max: Well, Brother Nathaniel, of course he would need to persuade them if he didn't have any other way of getting them to do what he wanted. But remember - he is the party leader, and if he is a leader, he has a very powerful instrument to wield - expulsion from the party.

I mean, think about it. On the one hand, a party member could continue to be a member of this dominant party, although he would have to agree with the leader. On the other hand, he could leave the party and shout his views to the high heavens, even though there's no chance of the rest of the group adopting them, because basically his former party's sixty-nine members will always vote with the leader.

Zack: Come on, Max. You're really exaggerating here. Sometimes, there is a rebellion, and there are so many people in the dominant party who disagree with the leader that he dare not risk expelling them because it means that his seventy-strong party will be reduced to thirty or forty. So he has to accept their opposition. This has happened the United Kingdom, where
party members have voted several times against the Labour Party line in many matters.

Max: Well, the politically devious leader can easily prevent those kinds of rebellion by divide-and-rule tactics. He might make an example of one or two randomly-picked rebels - including a ringleader or two - and kick them out of the party, then turn round and say "OK - who wants to rebel next?"

But even in the UK, the rebels only rebel over things they feel strongly about. There are other matters where they vote with the government because even though they may not agree with the government, their disagreement is not so strong that they want to risk their position.

And that's my point - as long as you are a member of a party, there's always this implied coercion! It's the same reason why we follow traditions and customs - not because they are necessarily right or wrong to follow, but because we want to follow the crowd! And I think that this internal coercion stops open-minded and genuine debate from taking place, which is a bad thing - because we need this kind of debate to produce the best laws for the society.

Zack: Well, I still think that you're exaggerating the extent to which parties stifle debate. But let us even assume that all parties were banished. What would you have in their place?

Max: Well, every candidate would have to present himself for election based on his own merits. Incidentally, that's another thing I hate about party politics. You get all manner of mediocre people being elected to a position when they don't have a clue about what to do in that position - and they can get away with this, because the Almighty Party pushes them forward. Even if the powerful party pushes a goat forward, people vote for it because it is the Goat of the Almighty Party.

Well, in my New Dispensation, there'll be no more hiding behind Mama Almighty Party's skirts! You'll now live or die based on your ideas, your charisma, your experience and your ability!

Nat: Hold on - so all parties will be banned under this new dispensation? That's extremely illiberal! Whatever happened to Freedom of Association? What's your business with what several consenting adults and party goats get up to in their spare time?

Max: Wait! I didn't say that parties would be banned. What will happen is that parties will no longer put forward candidates. Simple. Also, parties will no longer be recognised in the Senate and the House of Representatives. All you will have is just a group of people who have put themselves forward at constituency level on an individual basis to be elected to these houses. There will be nothing like Majority or Minority Leaders.

Zack: OK, so no party names during elections. But there's nothing stopping a group of people from deciding to support a group of candidates at all levels by funding their election campaigns, for example?

Nat: And there's nothing stopping the leaders of this group with funds from dictating what laws should be passed and executed by those people it has sponsored to power, with the threat that disobedient candidates will have their support withdrawn, and may even be subject to negative campaigning?

Zack: In other words, this group will look like a party, sound like a party, feel like a party - but it will not be a party.

Max (laughing): Of course you can't stop these pseudo-parties from forming. But I believe that by denying them official status, their clout will be much weaker and you will have many more independent-minded candidates, including many who would never have been able to contest under a party election system.

In fact, I blame the current situation on the ridiculous laws set by
INEC - like having a presence in two-thirds of all the states. This just forced many 'funding organisations' that would have been happy to be on their own to merge to form the Frankenstein monster that is today known as the PDP!

Nat: I'm still not convinced at this idea of yours. One nice thing about parties is that they represent a political brand. If you have a group of candidates who come to your door canvassing for your vote and you don't know them from Adamu, it's difficult to decide who to vote for. On the other hand, if you know that one is the PDP candidate, one is the AC candidate and one is the ANPP candidate...

Zack (interrupting): Then you bring out your koboko, chase all three of them away and ask them never to darken your door again!

Nat (laughing): Actually, I was going to say that it makes it easier for you decide what to do since you have an idea of what each party stands for.

Max: Come on, Nat! Do you seriously think that there is a difference in any of these parties? You know that they all swear by the same creed - "Rig, Loot and Chop"!

Nat: I don't agree. By the leadership of the party, you can guess which ones are likely to perform better than others.

Max: Aha! So you admit that the people that lead the party matter! So why not do away with the party altogether and let the people's characteristics come to the fore?

Zack: It will be too confusing. Imagine the number of people there will be! Too much choice means that you end up confused, and you just pick the loudest candidate rather than the most suitable one.

Max: Well, there can be a deposit that each candidate is required to make so that if he gets under a certain percentage of the vote, he loses his deposit. This will discourage unserious candidates. But so what if there are many people? I believe that it's something people will get used to.

Zack: Anyway, I don't see your idea ever coming to fruition, unless there's some sort of popular revolution. I can't see parties willingly agreeing to their dissolution and releasing the power that they hold - that would be like chickens voting for Christmas.

Nat: In some ways, that's not too bad - at least, it means that the PDP will still be around for a while yet.

Zack: Nat, I still cannot understand your support for this demonic party. Is it that
Jennifer's father is a party chieftain and you are using this strategy to pursue his daughter?

Nat: Ay! Don't bring Jen into this. And I've already told you about why I support it. Can you not see how Nigeria's international image has been improved from the days of Abacha, how...

Zack (scornfully): What international image?? When the Western media isn't calling us "the most corrupt country in the world", it is referring to us as "the capital of advance-fee fraud scams"...

Max: Guys!... Guys!! (He gets no response, as Nat and Zack continue to bicker. Thinks to himself.) Oh well. It's a nice dream... no parties to blight Nigeria's political landscape and cause quarrels like this one... (looks at Nat and Zack) But there'll be situations where all the independent candidates will be unacceptable - so it'll still be a good idea to keep just one party around - the biggest, most successful and most widespread party in Nigeria...

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Pyo Wota

(Max, Nat and Zack are giving varying degrees of attention to Joe who has come to explain the details of his latest get-rich-quick scheme.)

Joe: I assure you, this is a 100% risk-free guaranteed money spinner! It will definitely make you rich overnight.

Nat: Joe... you know, when I hear you use words like "risk-free" and "money-spinner", I feel this urge to hold on tight to my wallet.

Zack: Yes - especially after last time when
you wanted us to contribute funds to a non-existent party. I thought you had agreed to give up these get-rich-quick schemes?

Joe (with a pained expression): Ah-ah Zack - how can you say that? That is very hurtful. Remember, I am not the person who will be getting rich quick - you will be.

Max: OK, we have heard you. Just tell us what you're peddling today and be done with it.

Joe: Yes, Max. Imagine that you're on the road, when suddenly you are struck by serious thirst. You look out of your car, and you see someone hawking pure water sachets. You think "Ah! Thank heavens - some water to drink", and you reach for your wallet to fish out the five naira needed to buy a sachet. But wait! How do you know whether it's safe to drink?

This is where this new product - called Sho-Tox - will help you. What it does is that it can instantly tell you whether the water is fit for drinking or not. It comes in the form of a powder which you sprinkle it into the water that you're about to drink. If it turns red, then that shows that it is unsafe. And of course, you can use it not just on the road but at home to check whether your local water supply is safe as well. It's definitely something you will want to buy if you care about your health!

Nat: Hmm... interesting... but Joe, are you sure that your product isn't just a solution looking for a problem? After all, nobody is complaining about the quality of 'pure water' that is sold on the streets.

Max (vehemently): Speak for yourself! As far as I am concerned, what they sell in those sachets is a deadly cocktail of toxic chemicals and germs. And they have the effrontery to call it 'pure water'! I call it 'poor water' or even 'pyo wota' which is the name its hawkers use, anyway!

Nat: My goodness! You sound like you must have had a bad experience sometime in the past. Perhaps you weren't discriminating enough - you can't just buy any pure water sachet, you know.

Zack (mockingly): Or perhaps Max's stomach is too delicate to deal with the germs that we ordinary Nigerians have no problem with. Perhaps you should reduce the amount of jam and pie you eat and increase your intake of ogbono and fufu!

Max (shrugging): Well Zack, I would have thought that most people would prefer to drink clean safe water... but if you have developed a taste for filthy gutter water, what can I say? I wouldn't have guessed it, looking at you, but then it's a strange world we live in...

Joe (anxious to restore harmony): Actually, all of you are correct. There are some types of pure water that are safe for drinking, and some that are not so safe. Sho-Tox will help you distinguish between the two.

Nat: What's wrong with just looking at the brand name on the sachet? If it has a
NAFDAC registration number, then that means it is safe.

(Max bursts into laughter.)

Max: You are not serious! Do you think that forging a label is beyond the ability of people who have graduated from the University of Oluwole? Anyway, I won't try and convince you... I guess you must go through your own near-death experience to see the dangers of 'pyo wota'.

Zack: The problem is that you're simply not used to buying pure water. If you were, you would already have developed an 'eye' for spotting fake from real pure water. It's not just the label you look at - you look at the plastic that's used to package the water, you look at how secure the packaging is... and you can even tell from the appearance of the water itself.

Max (irritated): I don't want to spend my time doing visual analysis on water sachets... I just want to drink water! Left to me, I'd just ban the sale of pure water sachets from the entire city!

Zack: Then you would throw thousands of families into poverty. Next to the okada business, the sale of pure water must be the biggest money earner for people in this city. And aren't you always preaching about how people should be enterprising instead of depending on other people for their livelihood?

Nat: And it's not only the sellers of pure water that would be up in arms. What of those of us who no longer have pure water to drink? What do we do then?

Max: OK, maybe I wouldn't ban the sale outright... but I would get agents to carry out random checks on pure water that is sold on the street, and if it turned out to be unfit for public consumption, I would punish the seller and the manufacturer of the water heavily!

Nat: Hmm... Sounds like a good idea. I think it would also be great if you combined your 'stick' with a 'carrot'... like providing the manufacturers of pure water access to up-to-date information on how to cheaply produce safe drinking water.

Zack: And you can throw in an extra 'stick' that also punishes people who are caught forging the labels of other manufacturers.

Joe (obviously unhappy that the others are ignoring his attempts to interest them in his product): In fact Max, Sho-Tox will help your agents tell whether the water is fit or not. The man on the street can even help! If he uses Sho-Tox to find that his pure water is unsafe, he can report the seller to your agents!

Max: So maybe you should be trying to sell your product to NAFDAC then?

Joe: Well, we're pursuing that angle, but while we wait for that to materialise, why not make it available to people like you so that you don't have to worry about drinking contaminated water?

Max: Well, I've already told you that I don't drink 'pyo wota'. In fact, I dislike the fact that the whole pure water industry adopts cynical measures to perpetuate its existence.

Zack: What are you talking about now?

Max: Think of it. People who drink the water typically throw away the plastic wrapping on the road. The wrappings end up being swept away into the gutter. The blocked gutter leads to flooding when next it rains. The flood causes terrible traffic jams. The jams prevent people in their cars from getting anywhere, so they sit in the sun being baked to death. This leads to thirst, which can only be cured by - guess what? 'Pyo Wota'!

Zack: And you're saying that all this is by the design of the industry? That is one of the most ludicrous conspiracy theories I have heard!

Max: Well, it's true! Added to that is the fact that the floods give the 'pyo wota' manufacturers the water with which to fill their sachets and sell to the unsuspecting public.

Nat: Max - I'm surprised! You're not usually as paranoid as this. But think about it. If the city council got people to pick pure water sachets from the road, the plan would fail. If it fixed road drainage, the plan would fail. In the dry season, the plan would fail. If people took okada motorbikes to get from A to B, the plan would fail. Don't you think that the industry would think of a more watertight plan?

Max: Well, maybe the industry knows that city council won't clean the roads or fix the drainage, and that there are some people who won't take okada motorbikes.

Joe (pleadingly): What is the matter with you guys, now? I've been trying to explain the value of my product, but you keep on getting side-tracked with this your discussion of pure water!

Nat: Well, you're the one that brought the issue of pure water up!

Max: OK, we're listening to you now. So you have this product that turns impure water red. Good. Now let's say I'm in a traffic jam and I decide in an extreme moment of madness to buy this sachet of pure water. Let's say that your product turns it red. So I don't drink the water - but I'm still thirsty! What do I do then?

Joe: Er... well, you buy another sachet, because you know that the first one is unsafe.

Max: But what if that turns red as well? Do I keep on buying sachets until I'm either bankrupt or dead of thirst?

Joe: Ah... well, we don't yet have a product to purify water... maybe the best thing would be to buy another brand of pure water from a different hawker.

Zack: What if I am able to catch the hawker of the pure water and I point out to him that his product is unsafe, because your product turned it red? Won't he just laugh at me and call me mad?

Joe: Well, as soon as we finalise the research on the product, we will launch a massive campaign to make people aware of...

Zack: Whoa! Hold it! Did I just hear you say "finalise the research"? Are you telling me that this product is still being worked on?

Joe: Well, yes... but as I hinted, it's in its final stages, and...

(The expressions of Max, Nat and Zack change instantly from interest to annoyance and disapproval.)

Zack: Then why are you trying to sell us something that you haven't even finished making?

Joe: No... I wasn't looking to sell the product to you guys. I know already that there will be a huge market out there for it. What I was looking for was some funds to complete the research so that we can market the product. The idea is that when we make a huge profit, your contribution will triple or even quadruple in value.

Max: Ohhhh... I see now. I understand. So if we ask you to give us details of the research that has been carried out up till now, details of the company carrying out the research, the names and qualifications of the researchers and what plans you have to market the product, that shouldn't be a problem?

Joe (obviously disappointed): Max - I'm surprised at you. I present you with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity like this, and you start acting like a frightened old woman. I thought that you were the enterprising type.

Zack: But you can provide the information we're asking for anyway?

Joe: I can't believe that you guys are looking at this obvious ticket to riches with such hesitation.

Nat: Don't mind us. You can provide the information we're asking for, right?

Joe (wearily): Yes... I will go and get the information... but I don't know if I will be back. Who knows, on the way I might meet someone who is more receptive to the idea - and you know that I operate a first-come-first-serve policy. (He gets up and leaves the bar.)

Zack (contemptuously): More like a first-come-first-dupe policy. Honestly - I don't even know why we agree to listen to him when he comes with these get-rich-quick schemes!

Max: Well, I don't know - sometimes, the ideas that are popular today start out as sounding crazy. I can imagine what the reaction must have been when someone said "I'm going to take this water I'm getting for next to nothing, package it in plastic bags and sell it to people! And they'll buy it, even though they have no idea whether it'll quench their thirst or kill them stone dead!" Really, you never can tell with ideas...

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Getting from A to B

(Max, Nat and Zack are seated at their usual corner in the Junction, engaged in a heated discussion.)

Zack: that's it! No travelling anywhere this Christmas. With planes dropping from the sky like flies, it is best for Lizzy, Junior, Mary and myself to sit tight at home where no accident can touch us. The people in the village will just have to do without our presence this year.

Nat: I think you're being unduly worried here. There's only been one plane crash this year. Think about that - one plane crash from the thousands of flights that operate in Nigeria every year.

Zack: What about the many near misses that there must have been from amongst all those thousands of flights? I was reading a story somewhere in which a passenger was talking about this flight he went on. He said that as they were nearing their destination, the plane suddenly plunged towards the ground! The passengers immediately started screaming and calling on God to save them. Luckily for them, He must have heard, because the pilot managed to level the plane out so that they touched down safely.

Max: You see, Nat? This is why I sometimes think that we should clamp down heavily on the media. Before this accident happened, everyone was experiencing these near misses, but nobody thought they were a big deal. Now that the accident has been widely reported, fear has gripped everybody and their goat. What was previously remembered as just 'turbulence' has now become 'an experience in which I came face to face with God, but He said it was not yet my time'.

Zack: Well, whether you regard my reluctance to travel as being unreasonable or not, I'm still not going on any aeroplane. Even if the risk of a crash really was small, the potential calamity resulting from such a crash would be so great that I cannot risk it.

Nat: OK, why don't you go by road, then?

Zack: That's even worse. If your car doesn't fall into a ravine or crash into a pothole that you didn't know was there, then it will be hit by some careless driver. And if none of those accidents befalls you, then there are always the armed robbers, or worse still, the police.

Max: I'm not convinced. You're talking as if you have an airport in your village that the plane flies direct to. Didn't you still need to travel by road from the airport to your village? And if you could travel by road then, what has changed - why can't you travel now?

Nat: I can see Zack's point of view here - maybe the distance from the airport to his village is not so great, so he can risk being on the road for that short period of time. But to travel the whole journey by road? That means you'll be on the road for how many hours, Zack?

Zack: Nine hours - up from just two hours previously.

Nat: Exactly. Nine hours of stress, tension and high blood pressure every time your car has to swerve, slow down or stop. That is not exactly the best state of mind to arrive at your village in.

Max: Hm. No wonder we're seeing the growth of airport and motor-park churches. Where best to fortify yourself with divine protection before embarking on your perilous journey, or to give thanks for a safe arrival?

Nat: It's a real shame that the transport system of this country is such a shambles. Don't the politicians use the expressways? Even if they don't care about the common man, can't they at least repair the roads to their villages? There's bound to be some collateral benefit along the way.

Zack: Repair which roads? Don't you know that the greedy so-and-sos now use helicopters to get from A to B? That way, they don't have to bother with the roads. And even where they need to use the roads, they have these rugged all terrain amphibious vehicles that can handle the worst that the Nigerian landscape can throw at them.

Max: Well, you know the solution to Nigeria's transport network problem. I keep on telling you, but you guys are still living in denial.

Nat: Watch out, Zack - I think Max is about to preach one of his famous 'money-will-solve-everything' sermons.

Max: Well, in this case it will! We know why the expressways are in such a bad state - nobody spends any money maintaining them. What is the incentive to maintain them? Nothing! The government doesn't care, until some foreign president is visiting or its near enough election time.

So the solution is to introduce an incentive to maintain them - and that's by allowing private companies to operate them as concessions. The concessionaire company has the responsibility to maintain the road for a number of years. In return, it charges tolls for road usage and advertising space. After the concession period is up, the road is let out again as a concession for another period.

It's not like the idea is new, anyway. In fact, the government has been making noises about BOT - that's build, operate and transfer - for a few years now as a way of developing the country's infrastructure. The idea is that the company develops the infrastructure - which may be roads, rail lines or power stations. Then it operates the infrastructure, makes a tidy profit and hands it over to the government who may choose to award a contract to another company to operate it.

Zack: And during the concession period, what can we do if the private companies fail to maintain their roads while ripping us off? You've seen the way private companies in Nigeria operate - look at MTN when they first came here. They were charging extortionate rates for their calls, and it was only when other companies started to compete that their price was forced down. But in this case, it's even worse! There's no competition, so the concessionaire can ask us to sacrifice our first born sons, and there's nothing we can do about it!

Max: Not true. Just have you have the Nigerian Communication Commission that regulates the affairs of the telecom industry, you can also a Nigerian Roads Commission that will arbitrate between the public and the concessionaire to ensure that he doesn't try to extort money from the public without fulfilling his responsibility to maintain the road.

Zack (with scornful laughter): Come on! You can see that the NCC is clearly on the side of the greedy telecom companies here, otherwise they would have acted to force down prices long ago. And you expect them to take the side of the motorists whenever there are disputes between the motorists and the concessionaires? Excuse me while I shake my head at your childlike faith in this government defending its citizens!

Max (smiling): Hmm... this is very strange o. You don't trust government to do something simple like acting as a referee in the fight between the road company and the public. But you obviously trust it to do something more complicated like building the roads and maintaining them - something that up till now it has failed terribly in doing. Brother Zachariah - me too, I'm shaking my head at your very strange logic.

Nat (musing): Perhaps there is a third way. If we can't trust the government and we can't trust companies, perhaps we can trust ourselves.

Zack: Huh? What do you mean?

Nat: I mean that every community should be responsible for maintaining the roads in its locality. It can levy the people in the area so that they contribute a towards a road development fund. In addition, the community can charge people passing through the area a small fee for the use of the roads that will also go towards the fund. The proceeds of that fund will be used to maintain the roads.

Zack: That's an unworkable idea. How will you define what a 'community' is?

Nat: Well, the government can divide each local government into Road Development Areas, and the people in each area can choose their representatives.

Max: And it seems in the end that your 'third way' is really just a version of Zack's 'Government Must Save Us Even Though It Is Totally Incompetent' idea. But let us even assume that the government can do what you are asking... before long, you'll have people asking for 'Health Development Areas' and 'Law and Order Development Areas' and even 'Foreign Affairs Development Areas'... and before you know it, you'll have hundreds of independent countries on your hands! This government is too jealous of its power to think about doing something like that.

Zack: Yes, I remember that there was this man who wanted to fix some of the potholes in his neighbourhood... He had started to do this when some officials from his local government intervened, saying that he did not have the authority to do such a thing. The man protested, saying that he was only trying to improve the lot of the people in his area, but it seems that improving people's lives isn't as important as preserving power to local government officials. So that was the end of that.

Nat: Well, if the people in the area were too timid to protest at the local government officials' action, they deserve to have bad roads.

Max: But the man was naïve too. If I were going to do such a thing, I would do it by stealth - maybe at night. And after I had finished, I would put up a sign saying something like "People of Idoko Street, rejoice! Your days of damaged suspensions and dented bodywork are over. Your road has been fully repaired, so you may now drive on it at speed and in comfort.

"However, please note that the lazy, incompetent and thieving officials in local government were in no way, shape or form involved in this reparation work. So the next time they come round claiming that this repaired road is evidence of 'local government in action', feel free to insult them and their ancestors."

Zack: Well, if you're going to do that, don't be surprised if a contingent of hoodlums from the local government office descend on Idoko Street with pickaxes and shovels and completely undo your good work in the name of 'necessary maintenance'.

Nat: But maybe we should move our focus away from roads and aeroplanes. What about rail? I'm sure that if we rehabilitated the railways, we could have a form of transport that was cheap - trains carry a lot of people at once - and reliable - since there's no traffic congestion to deal with.

Zack: Well, there are still many other things that could end up making rail travel as unreliable as road travel even without there being any congestion. Like badly maintained rolling stock, track and signalling infrastructure.

Max: I don't even like the idea of rail travel. I think it's too inflexible - only very expensive trains are allowed on the track and the signalling is very complicated. Instead of wasting money building rail infrastructure that we don't have the expertise to maintain, I'd prefer it if we just built roads dedicated to high speed, high capacity buses. There wouldn't be any congestion either, because the buses wouldn't share the road with any other vehicle.

Zack: A road just for buses, with all that free space in between them? No-o - they'd have to share it with the convoys of prominent politicians.

Nat: And the police and the military.

Zack: And the relatives and friends of prominent politicians.

Nat: And the relatives and friends of military men and policemen attached to the relatives and friends of prominent politicians.

Max (waving away the responses): Did I forget to mention that such roads would be privately managed, and that any 'friend' or 'relative' who wanted to use them would have to pay a really hefty fee?

Zack: Huh - you can't let this private road idea drop, can you? You have to bring it up every time.

Max: OK, I know that you don't agree with me - but you know the funny thing? I'm sure that if they introduced private roads, the same people who are screaming about exploitation would be the same people to use the roads. I mean, wouldn't you want to use the road if it gave you peace of mind and you could cut down your nine-hour journey to just four hours?

Zack: Well, that's moot - because as I said before, I'm not making the trip this year. In fact, I've already told Lizzy to let them know. I guess it's just too bad, huh?

Nat: You don't sound particularly unhappy about it. In fact, you sound as pleased as someone who has been spared the hassle of buying gifts for his relatives in his village can sound.

Zack (smiling): Well, if that is the way the situation is, I can't really complain, can I?

(Just then, Zack's GSM phone rings.)

Zack (putting the phone to his ear): Hello? Oh, hello Lizzy... You've told them already? What did they say?... What?... What???... WHAT?!?!?... Oh my God!!... OK, I need to go away and think about this. I'll call you back later... Bye.

Nat (concerned): That didn't sound too good. I hope everything is well.

Zack (holding his head in his hands): Well, she told them that we weren't coming...

Nat: And...?

Zack: Well, they've decided that Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without us... so a contingent of them have decided that they will be visiting us instead. Or should I say... they'll be descending on us like locusts and stripping us bare!

Max: Well, it's not too late. You can always ring them and tell them that you're eagerly expecting them. But ask them to carry one thousand naira each for the policemen at the many check points that they will meet on the way. Then ask them to carry an additional two thousand naira as 'in case' money so that if they meet armed robbers along the way, they won't get killed for not offering anything. Also, advise them to board a well-maintained bus - tell them that you heard the story of this bus that just disintegrated while being driven at high speed. Then ask them if they have heard of that dangerous stretch of road that has claimed forty lives in the last year...