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

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Chopping Belleful

(Max and Nat listen as Zack expostulates over some matter that is obviously agitating him.)

Zack: ...and when she put the food in front of me, the eba was only three quarters of its usual size!

Nat: Come on, Zack. Your wife is a financially prudent woman. I'm sure that if she served you a smaller amount of eba, then there must have been a good reason.

Zack: Well, the gari seller told her that farmers have had a special order for their cassava elsewhere, so they are selling it there and this has created something of a scarcity so that prices have jumped by fifty percent. They say that once the order has been fulfilled, prices will return to normal - but we know how temporary price rises have a habit of becoming permanent.

Nat: Fifty percent? That's nothing. At the local buka that I eat at during lunch time, the madam imposed a unilateral one hundred percent increase across the board for all meals. Of course, all her patrons - including me - protested, but she said that for the last few months, she has been suffering the rising cost of raw food alone while sparing us the pain. But she went on to say the pain has become too much to bear alone - and it must now be shared by us all.

Max: A hundred percent? You should count yourself lucky. At my regular eatery, Delico, prices have jumped by two hundred and fifty percent! And to add insult to injury, they have not just increased the prices, they have also simultaneously reduced the portions as well! Honestly, if things continue like this, I'm seriously considering looking elsewhere...

Zack (contemptuously): You're just making noise. I've been telling you for years that that place is just for people with more money than sense. What they charge for a small glass of water is enough to buy a meal to fill you for the entire day at Nat's buka.

Nat (grinning): But as Max will tell you, the place has (mimes Max's voice) claaaaass. I don't think Max would be able to impress the kinds of ladies and clients he chases if he took them to Mama Risikat's joint. (To Max) So don't come looking to us for sympathy if you want to waste your money on things like the decor of the place or the neat uniforms of the waiters instead of the actual food.

Max (airily waving aside the teasing): There are enough classy eateries in this town - I don't have to be chained to just this one. But we were talking about your domestic crisis, Zack. I'm sure you put your foot down and told Lizzy that this travesty would not stand, eh?

Zack (shrugging): I did, but honestly my heart was not in it. I just did it to fulfil the 'Man of the House' script - but even she could see that I was going through the motions, and she just kept on staring at me with this 'when-you-have-finished-making-noise-let-me-know because-I-have-other-things-to-do-elsewhere' look. In the end, I just tailed off. What would the point have been, anyway? I know that she wasn't lying.

Nat (shaking his head): It's really scary. I was reading an article about this the other day, and apparently unlike before, high food prices are no longer just a Naija problem - it's happening everywhere now. Even people abroad are beginning to feel the effect.

Zack (scornfully): About time, too! Now they'll have an idea how we suffer here - perhaps it'll make them less arrogant and condescending towards us.

Nat: Come on, Zack. The magnitude of suffering can never be the same. To people in the West, high food prices are an irritation, an inconvenience. To people here, they are the difference between eating or not eating in a day. So I think they're still far away from having an idea of what high food prices are like here. But back to the article - it said that the price rises were being caused by increased demand from people in emerging economies like China and India. The richer people in these countries have become, the more food they've been able to buy, and the higher this has pushed prices.

Zack: This is why we should grow our own food. That we don't have to depend on what happens in the rest of the world.

Max: Well, by saying that growing our food will solve the problems of high food prices, you're making a lot of assumptions. Who exactly is going to grow this food? Is it peasant farmers who own most of the agricultural land but who don't have the technology to help them boost crop yields? Is it big business who would rather go into less risky ventures with high return like importing and exporting? And even if everyone rushed into farming, why should they sell their food here cheaply when they can make more money by exporting it?

Zack: There's no reason why the government can't sponsor research into high yield food varieties and make available the result of its research to farmers to use. The government can also make banks set aside some money to be lent to agricultural ventures. And government can place a ban on exporting food to prevent food scarcity.

Nat: Hmm... these solutions of yours worry me, especially because of this word 'government' which seems to recur with alarming regularity.

Max (mockingly): Exactly! Why don't you just call upon a host of angels to descend from Heaven and take charge of your programme? after all, they are more likely to respond to your prayer than this government is to implement any of your ideas. (Holds up a hand) And no, don't give me your usual answer that your policies would work if we had 'a serious and committed government' - for once, could you come up with some ideas that would work with the corrupt and irresponsible government that we actually do have?

Zack (irritated): All right, what would you propose?

Max (amused): Me? Propose a solution? There's no need. The matter will resolve itself in the end. Sooner or later, some smart people will recognise that there's money to be made from going into agriculture, and before you know it you'll find lots of money being poured into agricultural ventures.

Nat: I think you're being over-optimistic. First of all, it's not as if you can just walk off the street and grab as much land as you want. Remember that discussion we had about the crazy way the government manages land? That's a major disincentive for anyone going into the farming - you never know who is going to show up waving documents, or worse still, machetes, and saying that you should get off the land!

And that's not all. Even if you are able to get ahold of land, you have to deal with the pervasive lack of infrastructure. It's all well and good growing your own crops, but you'll have a difficult time getting them to market over poorly maintained roads.

Zack: And that's not all. Farming is still seen by many people as 'bush' - who wants to be consigned into the back of beyond when you can be wining and dining with the rich and powerful in the big cities? It's not even as if you can just start making money straightaway - you not only have to pray that the weather doesn't disappoint, you also have to hope that locusts, weaver birds and other pests don't regard your farm as one vast open-air bukateria.

Nat: But the kicker is that farming is getting to be quite a technology intensive business - and that's expensive technology! Fertiliser, herbicides, pesticides, machinery, storage facilities - these don't come cheap, you know. And the price of all these are usually beyond the reach of the average peasant farmer.

Max (waving dismissively): You guys are barking up the wrong tree. The kind of farming I'm talking about is not the hoe and cutlass kind of venture. I'm talking about big agribusinesses that will farm square kilometres of land. They'll be so big that they'll use political clout to get whatever land they want. If they can't influence the government to build infrastructure, they can build it themselves - and likewise, they can also afford the technology that is needed to get high yields on farms. And as to attracting people away from the cities, there's nothing like the smell of money to attract the right kind of person. After all, not everyone likes the city with its crime and congestion.

Nat (wagging a finger at Max): I think you are underestimating how difficult it is to get land in Nigeria. Those hoe and cutlass farmers that you mock have a deep emotional attachment to their land... they would need to be starving before they sold it to anyone. And there's only so much so-called free land that the government can allocate before the big business will need to deal with these farmers. I think a better idea would be to encourage peasant farmers to form co-operatives so that they could negotiate for better deals for getting farm equipment and technology.

Zack: But is it a good idea to rely so heavily on imported technology, anyway? What is the point of replacing dependence on the West for food with dependence on the West for technology if we want to be self-sufficient?

Nat: Well Zack, there's no way we can feed Nigeria based on the old slash-and-burn methods alone any more - we're going to have to use some technology. But it doesn't mean we can't be developing our own technology for higher yields at the same time.

Zack: But what about other things? I thought you were the one complaining a while ago about the use of fertiliser - that it had a negative impact on the soil?

Nat (smiling): I'm sure I said excessive fertiliser usage was the problem. There's nothing wrong with fertiliser usage - but you know how our people are like. If you tell them that one bag of fertiliser will increase yields by fifty percent, they compute that ten bags will increase yields by five hundred percent.

Max: Anyway, fertiliser usage may be a thing of the past soon. I hear that some mad scientists abroad are hard at work making all kinds of seeds that can grow anywhere. Even if you put them into hard concrete, they have some special qualities that allow them to extract the nutrients.

Zack (incredulously): Really?

Max (keeping a straight face): Oh yes! Not only that, the crops yielded by such plants will be in unbelievably large quantities! Yams as big as a sack of gari! Tomatoes as big as melons! Bananas as big as a man's forearm! It'll revolutionise farming for ever!

Zack (suspiciously): Are you serious? How long will it take for these seeds to be available?

Max: They are currently putting finishing touches to the seeds. They want to add a certain amount of intelligence to the plants that will grow from them so that when the farmer cries out 'Harvest time!', the plants will drop their fruits neatly into bowls that are held underneath them.

(Max looks at Zack's outraged face as he realises that Max has been teasing him, and he dissolves into laughter, with Nat joining in.)

Nat (choking down his laughter): Don't mind Max. He is kind of right, though - there really are companies that are working on genetically modifying crops so that they have special qualities, like being resistant to insects or having higher yields. But I'm not entirely convinced that they are a good idea.

Zack: Why not?

Nat: Well, as I recall, the process involves directly modifying the genes which are responsible for giving the plants its characteristics instead of allowing these genes to evolve by cross breeding, as has been done for centuries. I don't know whether there may be some side-effects to doing this - should we be messing around with God's work anyhow?

Max (indignantly): Nonsense! You see something that could help to end hunger, and you're worried about messing around with Nature? Isn't that what we've been doing for a long time now? Don't you think it's unnatural for us to take artificial medicine to cure illnesses instead of allowing Nature to take its course and finish us off with germs? Besides, it is essentially the same process that occurs in cross-breeding, except that the scientists will know exactly what qualities they want instead of using trial-and-error as happens with cross-breeding.

Nat: This is different. With medicine, if something goes wrong with a drug, it can easily be recalled. But once modified genes are out there in the wild, if we find out that there's a problem, what happens then? I'm not against the technology... I just think that we should tread with caution, that's all.

Zack (in a gloomy tone): I'm still not sure that this will be the answer. After all, the technology is still imported. Won't it still translate to a higher cost of farming and of food as a whole?

Max: Not necessarily. You can import manufacturing equipment to make shoes that are cheaper than any shoe in the market, even if the equipment costs millions to import from abroad. And it's possible that one day, the technology will become as widely understood as plant crossbreeding, so it won't need to be imported.

Nat: I admit that if the technology can be proven to be safe, then the possibilities are endless. (Dreamily) We could develop special varieties of yam that are soft and easy to pound... or varieties of tomato which practically taste like cooked stew so that you don't have to spend time cooking them... or blue beans shaped like little cubes...

Zack: Stop o! You're beginning to frighten me. Why would you want blue beans?

Nat: Why not? After all, you have white beans and red beans. Why not blue beans?

Zack: We're talking about food here, not some kind of fashion parade. If I saw blue beans on my plate, I would think that something terrible had happened in the kitchen. I don't want people performing all kinds of frivolity on the food I eat.

Max: Anyway, the day when this technology makes food so cheap is still some way off. So it looks like we'll have to do without chopping belleful in the meantime. Have you figured out what you're going to do about your reduced meals, then?

Zack: I don't know yet - but I have a friend who has a few plots of land outside town which he currently hasn't developed yet. I'll talk to him about leasing some of the plots so that we can grow food on them. Then I'll tell Lizzy about this and strategically place a cutlass and hoe next to her cooking utensils.

Nat (incredulously): You mean that on top of the all the work she does, you want her to do some farming too? You might want to think about blunting the cutlass that you give her, in case she is tempted to use it on you!

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

A Load Of Rubbish

(Zack walks into the Junction to observe Moses berating the owner, Philo, and the rest of the Junction patrons, including Max and Nat, looking on.)

Moses: ...and you seriously say you aren't going to do anything about it? That is an abdication of responsibility! You are behaving like a typical power-drunk Nigerian!

Philo (shrugging): If it bothers you so much, I can give you a bucket and shovel and you can deal with it yourself.

Max (grinning): Yeah, Moses! Put your muscles where your mouth is!

Moses (raising his voice louder): It is not my responsibility to deal with the state of your environs, and you know that. Left to me, you should be sued for negligence of duty. Anyway, I will not stay a moment longer in your shameful establishment - I am going elsewhere where the owner cares more about the state of his premises. Good day! (And with a bitter expression on his face, Moses shuffles out of the Junction, leaving Zack staring after him in bewilderment.)

Zack (making his way to the table that Max and Nat are sitting at): What was all that about? I know that Philo can upset most people with his don't-care attitude, and I know that Moses is a perennial complainer, but this evening seemed to bring out the worst in both of them.

(In response, Nat motions Zack to stand up, leads him all the way to the back of the bar, and points out of the window to a huge pile of rubbish.)

Zack (scratching his head): How did that happen?

Nat: Well, from what I can gather, there was a party or some sort of celebration held at the Junction yesterday, and this is the result. Apparently, the party organisers said they'd be happy to clear the rubbish, but as you know, Philo is a man who never lets an opportunity to make money pass him by. So he has asked for the party organisers to wait until those people who scavenge for rubbish have first come round and picked whatever can be recycled.

Zack (outraged): Really? How come nobody else is complaining?

Max (shrugging): What's the big deal? It's his backyard, and the rubbish is only there for a short while - it will be cleared eventually.

Zack (disgusted): And while its there, his patrons - the people who his business depends on - must endure the sight of this dump. He should have put the rubbish in containers away from the public view.

Max (innocently): If you are so heated up about this, why don't you complain about the heaps of rubbish that the government allows to lie around in public?

Zack: Who told you that I haven't complained about the heaps of rubbish on the road? I think it is a terrible thing that the government allows garbage to pile up in public without doing anything about it.

Max (raising his eyes to the ceiling and scratching his head as though pondering a great mystery): Hmm... what a pity that the government ministry responsible for ensuring hygiene and public health isn't doing anything about it. (Turns to Nat) Brother Nathaniel, isn't it terrible that government civil servants employed in the State Ministry of Health seem only to be able to complain about the problem instead of taking action? What a pity that complaints alone are not enough to shift rubbish.

Nat (grinning): As you say, Max, it is a great pity!

Zack (embarrassed on realising he has walked into a trap): OK, that's enough of the indirect attacks! My ministry has launched no less than three campaigns in the last year directed at sensitising the public to the need to maintain a neat environment. Is it our fault that nobody pays any attention?

Max: Perhaps the fault is less in the people and more in the campaigns. Did we not talk about this the last time when I suggested ways of getting people to pay attention to the threat of malaria?

Nat: Anyway, it doesn't matter. Even if people cleaned up their environs, there would still be a problem. Look at the programme that the state government launched recently - 'Operation War On Rubbish' - where residents have to clean their neighbourhood every second Saturday of the month.

Max (annoyed): Don't talk to me about that programme. A complete waste of time in our area. Nobody does anything, and it just messes up my weekend schedule because I can't go out until it's finished. I hope that's not your brainchild, Zack.

Nat (nodding): Me too. Anyway, In our neighbourhood, we dutifully clean everywhere and collect the piles of rubbish in one place for the government refuse disposal lorries to collect them. Of course, the lorries never come, and the rubbish is usually dispersed to the four winds.

Zack (defensively): You can't expect the government to do everything, now. Why not help the government by arranging for a private refuse disposal lorry to carry the rubbish away?

Nat (hotly): What! Are you serious? It's bad enough that the government is messing up our weekends and burdening us with the task of cleaning our environment. But you seriously expect us to start paying to have our rubbish removed as well?

Max (enjoying himself): This is a truly momentous moment. Not only am I witnessing Zack - the arch government critic - defending the government, but he is also proposing a solution that involves the private sector making money. So you don't mind if these private refuse disposal lorries exploit the citizens, as you're always accusing we businessmen of doing, eh?

Zack (irritated): All right, I agree that it's not an ideal solution. If you don't like that, you could always burn the refuse.

Nat (shaking his head vehemently): Burn it? No way! You need to see some of the dubious-looking containers that we sometimes collect as rubbish. Only God knows what the contents of those containers are. And only God knows what would happen if we burnt them - if we were lucky to avoid an explosion, we would probably be tear-gassed out of our houses!

Zack (throwing his hands up in surrender): All right o! I admit it - I am the person who has been going round dumping and scattering rubbish all over town. Oya, do your worst - crucify me, if you like. Are you happy now? Is that what your ears have been itching to hear?

Max (grinning): That's better, Zack. The sight of you desperately digging yourself deeper into a hole in a futile attempt to avoid losing an argument is a most unbecoming spectacle.

Zack: Government action or no government action, I still can't understand how you can sit back and relax while that pile of rubbish remains out there. (Points to the heap in the backyard.)

Max (shrugging): I'm not saying it's ideal - but I'm so used to seeing rubbish in public spaces that I just regard it as a natural part of the landscape and it doesn't bother me that much.

Zack: Really? So you don't worry about the germs that are breeding in rubbish heaps finding their way to you?

Max: Not really - I don't go looking for trouble with germs. I'm careful about what I eat and drink and I usually stay as far as possible from garbage dumps, so I should be OK. Anyway, what's this paranoia about rubbish all of a sudden? If rubbish was as toxic as you're making out, then from the amount of rubbish that's left lying around, we would all have been dead a long time ago!

Nat: See, you're behaving like most people who take a short-sighted attitude to the problem. Because rubbish doesn't directly threaten their livelihood or safety, they assume there's nothing to worry about. Then when the problem is out of control and there's a health epidemic, it will be too late to do anything. Being careful about what you eat and drink and where you go won't be any use then, because the disease will be so widely spread that someone near you will be likely to have it and pass it on to you.

Zack: Exactly! And because people are so used to seeing rubbish around the place, they don't feel any guilt about throwing away their rubbish in public instead of taking it with them as they should.

Max: Come on, Zack! How can you expect people to carry their rubbish with them? What if I've just eaten a juicy mango - you expect me to carry around the messy seed and skin with me? That's just too inconvenient!

Nat (pensively): You have a point. Perhaps the solution would be to have waste bins, like they do in developed countries.

Max (shaking his head): Bad idea. Vandals would end up stripping so much material from the bins that what would be left would only be fit for - guess what - rubbish. And even if the government managed to make the bins out of some indestructible material or fitted them with devices that gave a would-be vandal an electric shock, it still wouldn't matter. Faced with a choice between going all the way to the end of the road to drop a scrap of paper and dropping it where they are, most people would definitely choose the latter.

Zack: You guys are making too many excuses for anti-social behaviour. Those people who you are saying don't want to carry their rubbish with them - I tell you, they would suddenly discover how rubbish and their personal effects can co-exist peacefully in one bag if they knew a hefty fine was awaiting them for littering. Look at what happens in Singapore - they impose very heavy fines for littering, and it works!

Max (with a wry smile): Zaaaaaack... you know what will happen if they introduce a similar litter law here now, don't you? Rather than turning the town into a spotless paradise, it'll breed a host of law-enforcement agents who are never around when the likes of Chief Onitiri are dumping truckloads of rubbish in the main road but who emerge from the shadows just as you are flicking an atom of dust from your shirt to impose punitive fines on you. And needless to say, such fines are not destined to end up anywhere near a government treasury.

Nat: Perhaps we're looking at this from the wrong angle. Rather than trying to fix the problem of accumulation of waste, it would be better to even prevent waste from being created. For example, instead of throwing things away, we should find a way of reusing them.

Zack (scornfully): You're preaching to the wrong congregation - that's a message that you should direct to the West and our brethren in diaspora. Over there, they throw appliances away just because they've been given an almost invisible scratch or because a new model has come out. Over herenew we use, reuse and re-reuse until even the electrician is sick of seeing us and we have squeezed the last atom of use out of the appliance.

Nat: Hmm... you have a point.

Zack: I haven't even talked about how they waste wrapping material. The other day, someone sent me some software from abroad. When I receive the package, it was in a big box. I opened the box, and buried underneath so many layers of wrapping paper and foam was one ordinary CD. I was bitterly disappointed - I was thinking that this must be one powerful software package to come in such a big box! If I had bought the package at the local computer market, all they would have given me would have just been the CD in the case.

Max: It's all about marketing, Zack. Whether you like it or not, if you had seen the CD in its nakedness side by side with the shiny pretty box, you know that you would have picked the box. Even you admit that you thought it would be powerful software.

(Just then, a truck pulls up, and a man jumps out followed by several boys. The man enters the Junction, spies Philo and after greetings are exchanged, they engage in conversation.)

Max: Ah - those must be the garbage collectors who've come to pick up Philo's rubbish. Which gives me an idea - one way out of this problem of litter could simply be to get people to see that not throwing rubbish away was good for their wallet. They could do something like what Philo is doing and collect all their rubbish so that they could sell it back to people who want to reuse it. I'm sure that all that plastic that goes into making pyo-wota wrappers could be put to good use instead of blocking gutters and causing floods.

Nat: The problem is that the reward of keeping all that material does not justify the amount of energy and hassle it takes. If you collected a thousand wrappers, I'm doubtful if you would get more than N100 for your labour - and that's not enough to encourage even people who are desperate for money. I think it's great if people want to recycle their rubbish - but I'm afraid that money is not as good a motivator as the desire to prevent unnecessary wastage.

(There is a sudden shout of anger and the man who entered the Junction a few minutes ago can be heard cursing and shouting abuse at Philo, who just stares impassively back. The man then storms out of the bar, hastily followed by his retinue of boys.)

Max (ruefully): Well, looks like you were right, Nat - it seems it is hard to get a good price for rubbish in this part of the world. I sense Philo was hoping for way too much for his pile of precious garbage - so it looks like we'll be stuck with this view for a while.

Zack (in a determined voice): No way am I going to endure this site for an indefinite period. I think I need to make one or two phone calls to my people in the Ministry and drop them a hint of a certain bar proprietor who is violating state hygiene laws. (Picks up his phone and starts dialling.)

Nat (smiling): I guess being in the Ministry of Health can have its drawbacks when your friends joke about its poor performance... but it does have its occasional perks!