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

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Do or Die

(Max and Zack are once again deeply engrossed in a game of oware. Nat is nowhere in sight.)

Max (grinning): I'm sure you're going to play at some point in time. You can frown until the wrinkles on your forehead become permanent - but I can't see any way out for you this time!

Zack (irritably): Why must you always
chatter like a monkey when you think you are in a position of advantage in this game? Always yapi-yapi-yapi-yapi-yapi-yap! I don't blame you... it's not often you find yourself in this situation.

Max (grinning even wider): Do I detect the sound of bitterness and frustration? Eh? OK, I agree - I am a baboon! I am even an orang-utang if you like! Just plaaaaaay, my friend!

(Just then, Nat stumbles into the Junction with his clothes torn and a cut in his forehead. Max and Zack turn to face him in shock.)

Max: Holy Kokorioko! Nat, what happened?

Zack: Come and sit down - are you all right? You look terrible!

(Nat settles down in a chair, gesturing for a drink of water. Max gets a drink, which he gulps down with impressive alacrity.)

Nat: Ah! That's better. My friends, sometimes I really despair over the behaviour of some Nigerians.

Max: Don't we all, Brother Nathaniel?

Zack (impatiently): So what happened?

Nat: Well, I left work about an hour ago to get to the Junction this evening to meet you guys. I boarded a bus coming this way as I usually do, and everything was OK until we got to one police checkpoint where the policemen motioned the driver to pull over.

Max: So far, so usual.

Nat: That's right. Except that in a change to the script, the bus driver declared that he had already paid enough to these thieves today - and there was no way he was going to pay yet another fifty naira. So instead of pulling over, he went into 'actor' mode - he hit the accelerator pedal and drove through the checkpoint, scattered the pole and drums the policemen used to set up the barrier and sent them scurrying for their lives!

Zack (laughing): Excellent! I would have loved to be there to see their panic.

Nat: Except it wasn't a laughing matter for those of us in the bus - we were panicking even more than the policemen. Attempting to run over a policeman - that is tantamount to signing your own death warrant. What if the policemen started chasing us and one of us got hit with an 'accidental discharge' from a gun?

So all the passengers began to plead with the driver to let them get off before the policemen commandeered a vehicle and caught up with them. Unfortunately, I think the driver had realised the enormity of his action and decided that it was best for him to make his escape by driving as madly and furiously as he could. And I tell you, I have never experienced such driving in my life, nor do I ever want to experience it again. Bumps o - potholes o - narrow gaps o - he treated all of them like they didn't exist. And we poor passengers were shaken around like stones in a rattle - thrown against every hard surface and sharp point in the bus!

Max: So that's how you got your clothes ripped.

Nat: No-o - let me finish! Anyway, it seems the driver was right to flee - after a while, we began to hear the sounds of shots being fired. One of the passengers looked out of the window and saw a bus some distance back filled with mobile policemen - some even hanging out of the bus - and some were firing their guns into the air, while others were beating a path to our bus through the traffic by using whips to clear the way. Man, I was so terrified I almost did my business there and then!

Max: That would have been too bad, especially because I know for a fact they don't have mobile
shalangas in buses.

(Zack glares fiercely at Max.) You think this is a joking matter?

Max (contritely): OK, I'm sorry. Please continue.

Nat: As you can imagine, the other passengers were also terrified - they didn't know whether to choose between stopping and meeting the devil of the policemen, or carrying on with the driver and meeting the deep blue sea of a possible accident. But I wasn't ready to leave my fate to chance. I was sitting near the door, so when I noticed the bus was slowing down to negotiate a particularly sharp corner, I flung myself out of the bus.

Zack: What? Were you mad? Did you want to kill yourself?? What if a car had been coming in your path?

Nat: Well, fortunately for me, the bus was close to the edge of the road, so I landed in a bush, but unfortunately for me it was a very thorny bush (smiles wryly).

Max: Well thank goodness that you escaped relatively unhurt! What happened to the driver?

Zack (rounding on Max): Are you mad? How do you expect him to be worrying about the policemen and driver when he has just managed to escape with his life intact?

Max (defensively): OK, OK... I don't know what your problem is. I just wanted to know how the 'tori' finished, that's all.

Nat: Actually, I don't know what happened to them, and quite frankly I hope I never see either of them ever again. I was too concerned about hiding in the bush so that the policemen didn't pick me up and vent their anger on me.

Max: Actually, that was a wise move. Man, that was some scary adventure - I'm even surprised you still made it into the Junction. If it were me, I would have just gone home to recover!

Nat: No, it wasn't that bad. And besides, the point I jumped out at was nearer the Junction than my flat. But the whole episode really does depress me in other ways.

Zack: How?

Nat: Well, look at it. All this happened just because a bus driver decided that it wasn't worth it stopping for policemen and paying a trifling amount of money. Imagine the lives that could have been lost just because of fifty naira!

Zack: Well, it was good that the driver was standing up for his principles...

Max: You're talking rubbish! What principles? Didn't you hear Nat say that the guy had already settled various policemen along the way? Principles my left buttock!

Zack: So what are you saying? People should never protest? We should all just roll over and let whoever wants give us a good kicking?

Nat (sighing): I'm not saying that. But look at us - look at the things we protest over. A conductor and a passenger will start with a quarrel over ten naira change and finish with a battle royal in which they beat each other senseless. People from two ethnic groups will start with a quarrel over whose right it is to use a shared facility and finish with all the houses of both ethnic groups in the neighbourhood being burnt down. Why do we bring this senseless attitude of 'do or die' to these petty, petty things?

Max: Abi o! Life is too short!

Nat (still sighing): And it's not just when we're resolving disputes that we adopt his attitude. Look at how people say "I must pass this exam or else I'm finished" or "I must get married before I'm thirty or else I'm done for" or "I must make my first million before I'm forty". Why do we put these unnatural pressures on ourselves? Will the world really end if we don't meet these goals?

Max: Ah - that's different o.

Nat: How?

Max: Well, you need to put some pressure on yourself to achieve these goals, otherwise you'll just let things drift by without doing anything about them.

Nat: There's nothing wrong with setting the goals and trying to achieve them. But surely something is wrong when the person who wants to pass the exam now resorts to cheating? When the person who is looking to get married now settles for the first person who comes along out of desperation? When the person who wants to make a million engages in some fraudulent activity so that he doesn't miss his target and consider himself a failure?

Zack: Now that's the kind of senseless do-or-die-ism that I disapprove of! But you know the really funny thing? When it comes to the big things - the things that really matter - we run and hide under our beds. We are very happy to squabble and stress over relatively minor things like bus fare change or exam results - but when it comes to defending democracy against tyrants, we are nowhere to be found. When it comes to protesting against violations of the rule of law, we pretend like nothing has happened. I tell you, this country has problems!

Max: I think you're being unfair, Zack. You know that people can see the relevance of ten naira much more clearly than they can see the relevance of big words like 'democracy' or 'constitution'. Perhaps what we should do is to personalise democracy in a way that people can relate to it...

Zack: How?

Max: How about we have a voting lottery? Say every time you go to vote, you pay fifty naira. Then at the end of voting, random voters are picked as winners of the lottery and they get half of the sum contributed - that would be about one billion naira. The rest will go to pay for the cost of organising the election. I tell you, not only would you get people participating in every election - even the local ones that people don't care about - you would also find people demonstrating violently if anyone was mad enough to truncate their chance of becoming a multi-millionaire by truncating democracy.

Zack (with contempt): Max, I've always regarded your ideas as ethically suspect, but with this you have sunk to a new low. Treating voting like a lottery! Sacrilege! Abomination! Democracy is supposed to be something you defend because you are passionate about it, not because it will make you rich!

Max: I don't see your problem. We already know that Nigerians are passionate about money, so the best way to make them passionate about democracy is to hook democracy up with money.

Nat (holding his hands up): All right guys, enough already. Let's save the debates for another day. (Sees the oware tray in one corner of the table.) Actually, I wouldn't mind playing a game with one of you guys.

(Max notices only too late as Nat starts rearranging the piles of seeds.)

Oh NO!!! NOOOOO!!!!!

Nat (startled): What?

Max: The game wasn't finished! In fact, I was on the verge of defeating Zack when you came in. (mournfully) Why, Nat? Why do you always have to
disrupt my game when I'm about to win?

Nat (apologetically): Max, I'm really sorry - honestly, I didn't know.

Zack (grinning): Eeeyah! What a pity. Well, don't take it to heart, Max - I'm sure you'll get another opportunity at almost defeating me in the next five years or so. After all, it's not a do-or-die matter...

Friday, March 02, 2007

Shalanga International

Dear Reader,

Before you get down to the business of the day, a couple of announcements.

I really do enjoy writing these posts - doing so provides an outlet for a creativity that I don't get to use while doing my day job. But unfortunately it takes of a fair chunk of my time as well, and it's over the last few weeks, it's become obvious that I can't sustain this. I'm also thinking of starting a new blog to comment on economics, science and technology stories pertaining to Nigeria/Africa, and I know that my work here will definitely take a hit.

So this will be the last weekly post for now - from next week, I'll be publishing roughly every two to three weeks from now on, but never longer than three weeks at a go. Hopefully, things may change and I may be able to get back to a weekly schedule, but we'll see.

Now I should warn you - if you are about to eat, are eating or have just eaten, you may want to stay away from this post for a while. You have been warned once! You have been warned twice!!

Still here? All right - let's get down to business...

(Nat and Zack are in the Junction, waiting for Max to turn up.)

Nat: Very odd... I rang him on my way here, and he said he'd be here tonight.

Zack: You're sure? Has he fully recovered from the incident of
Chief X and his henchmen?

Nat: Yes... I got fed up of him staying in my flat so I called
Jonah and got him to speak to him to clear up that issue. Apparently, the mysterious chief has his sights trained on some other hapless fellow. (Grinning) Jonah wanted to give him the full story, but I think he has learnt his lesson - he rang off before Jonah could say any more.

Zack: So what could be holding him up, I wonder?

(Just then, Max enters.)

Zack: Ah-ah, what took you so long? Were you listening to some smoking hot gist? (Max pretends not to hear, but Zack just grins wickedly and carries on.) Perhaps the story you were listening to was one about this guy who was so terrified of being beaten up by men of the underworld that he hid in his friend's wardrobe for three days and three nights? (Laughs out loud.)

Max (shrugging): No... I hadn't heard that. But then again, I guess that peddlers of such baseless rumours know that I don't believe everything I hear, so (fixes Zack with a knowing look) they look for some other gullible person to pass them on to. And they couldn't even have found me if they tried, because I was having a change of scene and spending some time with my good friend Nat. (Turns to Nat) Abi not so?

Nat (thinking to himself): It's not me that's going to be the grass that suffers when these two elephants fight. (Aloud) So, Max, what happened? I'm sure you said you were already on your way when I set out from work.

Max: Well, I was... but midway, I got caught short, and I needed to ease myself. So I looked for a hidden corner to do the business.

Zack (in an indignant tone): I can't believe you actually did your business in public! And tomorrow, you'll be the one complaining about how stinking the environment is.

Max: Relaaaax! I was just urinating, that's all. And I did say it was a hidden corner - it's not like people pass by the place I was urinating regularly.

Zack: That still doesn't make it right. You sound like a thief who, when caught stealing says "Well, the person who I stole from is rich enough not to miss his money."

Max (irritated): All right, what should I have done? You know that we don't have public toilets in this town.

Nat: Well, you could have used... (he stops suddenly)

Max (mockingly): Go on - finish what you were going to say - "...the toilets in the Junction", right?

Nat (sheepishly): Actually, yes.

Max (in the same caustic tone): And you know why you stopped before you finished, don't you?

Zack: All right, no need to make a song and dance about it. We all know that the toilets here are known by names such as 'Sewer Central' and 'The Zone of A Thousand And One Stenches'. We all know that the flies in this town hold their annual conventions there. But you know what I blame for this?

Max and Nat (together): The government!

Zack: All right, apart from the government, you know who else I blame for this?

Max and Nat (together again): The President!

(Zack glares at them.) Are you guys going to be serious about this? All right, I'd better tell you. I blame the fact that we have blindly and foolishly thrown away our traditional systems of sanitation in favour of what the West has to offer. Look at us - we can barely maintain our roads and our infrastructure. And yet we are stupid enough to install in our houses plumbing fixtures as fragile as water closets - fixtures which break under even the mildest of usage.

Max: I don't see the problem. In the West, they seem to use these fixtures without any fuss.

Nat: Haven't you been listening to Zack? In the West, they have the money to maintain and replace these fixtures - we don't.

Zack: True. And besides, in the West, they eat light food like cornflakes, salad and rice, whereas we eat heavyweight food like eba, fufu, amala and pounded yam.

Nat: Not forgetting pupuru and lafun.

Zack: True. So you can imagine that when we sit down on the toilet seat to 'do battle', we have to exert a considerably larger force on the bowl rim to expel the denser matter.

Max: So what are you suggesting? That we return to shitting in the bush?

Zack: Come on, no need to go that far back. Don't you know anything? In the days of our forefathers, we had the shalanga - the pit latrine. It was a simple affair - you went, you squatted, you dropped, you washed, you left. No need to worry about leaking pipes, no water for flushing or blocked waste pipes. Zero maintenance!

(Max leans forward and squints at Zack as though trying to make out something from his expression. After a while, he leans back.)

You really are serious about this, aren't you? (Zack nods his head emphatically.) So you're suggesting that people who live in on the fourth floor of a block of flats should dig their own pit latrines, eh? I can imagine that being very popular with people on the third, second, first and...

Nat: What is the matter with you, Max? Come on - Zack isn't suggesting using the pit latrine in its pure form. The idea is to customise the design so that it's like a squat toilet. In other words, you do away with all that expensive bowl-and-cistern nonsense. Instead, you just squat and do the business in a shallow pan on the floor - like you do with a shalanga. Then when you're done, you clean up and use a small bucket of water to flush away the waste. The waste will travel down a hole in the pan which is connected to the same waste pipes as you have with conventional WC fixtures, so people who live in multi-storey buildings will still be able to use them.

(While Nat has been talking, Max's face has been screwing up into a tighter and tighter grimace, and when Nat is done, he bursts forth.)

Max: That is absolutely disgusting! You are actually telling me that my shit will be in this pan while I'm squatting - within actual touching distance of my behind? And there will be no water to mask the smell? That's even worse than a traditional shalanga!

Nat: It's not that bad. It is a pan, so there will be a slight depression which means that your 'job' will still be some distance from your behind. And as for the smell... come on, Max - tell me the person that doesn't mind the smell of his own waste.

Zack: And if you think that is disgusting, I could tell you a story or two about what happens when you use the WC system in our dear country!

Max (doubtfully): Do I really want to hear this?

Nat: Oh, go on, Zack.

Zack: Well, this is about the toilets in our hostels back my university days. Usually, when we had water supplied to our toilets in the hostels, things weren't so bad - but on the many frequent occasions the water supply dried up, man - I tell you, the state of the toilets would definitely give the Junction toilets a run for their money.

Anyway, when the toilets got into this state, most sane people would avoid the place altogether. But of course, there were some hardy souls who still insisted on doing their business there. Obviously, there was no question of sitting on the seat, since the whole of the WC was overflowing with... well, I'm sure you can imagine. So they would do something called a 'Spiderman'.

Max: Huh?

Zack: No, I don't know why they called it that, either. Anyway, you know that the WC is located in stalls whose walls are near each other? Well, what the guys would do would be to stretch their arms and legs, push against the walls and carefully manoeuvre their way up the stall up until their backsides were directly over the 'target'. So in effect, they were suspended directly over the WC without touching it at all.

Nat: Interesting... and I can see why they called it 'doing a Spiderman' now.

Zack: Anyway, one day, this fellow was in the toilet doing his business after having done a 'Spiderman' to get into position high over the WC. I should mention that this particular toilet bowl was in a particularly disgusting state, even by the low standards of the university toilets. There were even maggots... all right, I'm sure you get the picture. I don't know exactly what happened, but I'm guessing that this fellow must have been trying to expel the remains of a particularly heavy meal, so he must have had to use some extra push. Whatever the case, unfortunately while dropping the bombs, he slipped and...

Nat and Max (in horror): NOOO!!!!!

Zack: Absolutely. It was said that for days afterwards, he took no less than five baths a day with strong disinfectant to scour himself completely of the faeces and the experience - and remember, this was during a water shortage too. I don't think he was ever the same person afterwards.

Nat: This is why we should reintroduce shalanga-style toilets in public buildings at least. If your university had had these kinds of toilets where the flushing requirements are minimal, this wouldn't have happened.

Zack: Not only that. Shalanga-style toilets promote squatting as opposed to sitting - and this is a much more optimal position for expelling waste with minimal effort.

Max: That is just nonsense. How do you expect people to feel comfortable if they have to squat for long periods of time in the toilet?

Nat: But that's just the point - squatting will reduce the period of time you spend in the toilet. I mean, what are you doing there, anyway? Remember we're talking about public toilets here - other people are waiting, so it's even good if the toilet makes you feel so uncomfortable that you can't wait to get out.

Max: I still say it's nonsense. Let's fix the water supply and drainage system instead of going back in time and reintroducing technology that the whole world has left behind.

Zack: Well, you're wrong about that. There are many other places in the world where they use these toilets. Apparently, they are quite popular in Japan.

Nat: Don't mind Max. Leave him to his broken-down WCs and walls in hidden corners. Instead, let us celebrate the reliability, utility and versatility of the shalanga.

Zack: You know? Perhaps we should even form a society to celebrate the virtues of the shalanga.

Nat: Yes... we could call it - 'Shalanga International' - just like the human rights organisation call themselves 'Amnesty International' - to celebrate the universal nature of the shalanga.

Max (dismissively): If you want to know what I think of your idea, just take the first two letters of the first word and the first and third letter of the second. In fact, I think that would make an excellent acronym for your proposed society...